Official website for the This is Autism Flashblog on Monday, Nov. 18, 2013. Tell us what "This is Autism" means to you. You can write a paragraph or a blog post, contribute a poem or a video, make a comic or a graphic. Use your imagination. Let's tell the world what autism is in the words and works of autistic people and those who love and support them.
** This is my contribution to the “This is Autism” Flash Blog series of posts. The Flash Blog is a response to a call for submissions from people with autism to write about what autism means to them.
The call is, in turn, a response to an op-ed piece that was published last week by Suzanne Wright, founder of the controversial organization Autism Speaks, about what she called the “problem” of autism.
It is always a bit of a jolt to my system to think of myself as having “autism.” This is probably because, like Temple Grandin, I grew up with a diagnosis (albeit, not discussed…) of “emotionally disturbed” (which, in my case, meant “fits most of the criteria for autism but boy, does she ever talk”) and was finally diagnosed, in 2009, with Asperger’s Syndrome rather than autism.
The publication of the new DSM-V, which “decommissioned” Asperger’s Syndrome, if you will, and lumped it into the more general “autism” category, is a loaded and complicated topic on any number of levels, and I am not going to even attempt to touch that here. I’m aiming to start writing a book in early 2014 (during the usual lull in my work) and I will likely address it there.
So, for the sake of the Flash Blog, let’s take it as read that I have autism, the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) Formerly Known as Asperger’s Syndrome. There we go.
Like many other contributors to today’s event, I’ve written about some of the down-sides of having Asperger’s. And they can be legion, trust me. (Seriously. As I write this I’ve been jumping up and down from my chair, gnashing my teeth about a piece of cat hair tickling my eye and stomping over to angrily turn off CBC Radio, which seems to be broadcasting not classical music but the sound of a herd of wildebeests on crystal meth rampaging through a high-school music room. Seriously.)
But today is not the day for that. Asperger’s and autism confer both disabilities and gifts on the people they touch, as John Elder Robison has said, and today I’ll tell you about the gifts that having autism has given me.
1. Autism has given me a high IQ and good language skills. I was the archetypical “little professor” as a child. My astonished mother recorded in my baby book that I sang “Happy Birthday to Me!” on my first birthday. When I was two-and-a-half and getting used to having a new baby brother, I asked her where to find “penis” in the dictionary (I had been thinking it was spelled “peanus,” like “peanut”), at which point she realized I could read.
For me as an adult, having a facility with language and a sharp intellect means I am really good at my job as a book editor and writer, and have excelled at past jobs that have included news researcher, sports writer (really…) and web writer. It also means I have a lot of fun at Pub Trivia Quiz nights, and that I love trivia/knowledge-based games and puns and anything involving an intellectual learning curve. I love documentaries, I read like a fiend, and I basically drive my “big brain” like a Porsche on the Autobahn.
1. a) Big brain = big brain plasticity. Having smarts means that I can also learn to do things that don’t come easily to me. In other words, some of the deficits of Asperger’s/autism can, paradoxically, be overcome by the smarts conferred by having Asperger’s/autism. People who meet me now are often astonished to know that I was a very shy, awkward, socially inept young person with no real sense of humour. But I began to learn how to do things differently to make myself a better employee and more socially adept in general, mostly by watching and imitating people who did these things well, and sometimes by reading or consulting a therapist or specialist. I am on-side with Temple Grandin, John Elder Robison, Tony Attwood and legions of other autistic and austistic-friendly people in my unequivocal belief in brain plasticity and the power of human brains (and their owners) to reshape themselves to requirements.
2. Autism has given me a 3D appreciation of music. I am not a musical prodigy (I don’t think my poor mum could have handled that!) but I was able to play the piano pretty well from an early age. I not only hear the music, I “see” and feel it really intensely. I have a condition called synesthesia, which many people with autism have, and it basically means that the input systems for hearing and sight are cross-wired (just as researchers have theorized that the entire autistic brain, in and of itself, is cross wired). Sounds can irritate the living bejeebers out of me (see introduction re. wildebeests) but they can also send me almost into orbit with pleasure at times. I would not give this up for the world.
3. Autism might be why I get along so well with children and animals. For me, having Asperger’s is like being 11. Forever. I can and do moderate my behaviour in public and in the workplace, of course, but outside office hours, I am a kid and animal magnet. I’m the one at any house party or social gathering with all the available rug-rats stuck to me like lint. I like their natural curiosity and enthusiasm, and have lost none of my own, so it’s a good match. I babysat a lot as a teenager, and had to negotiate homework time over the cries of clusters of small ones on the back porch pleading “Can you pleeeeeeeease come out to play??”
Temple Grandin postulates that people with autism often get along well with animals because animals don’t lie or use words to obscure their meanings. Animals are unequivocal in their like or dislike of a given life form or situation, and they like us on our own terms. I find the presence of animals very calming, which in turn makes most animals calm around me. On my visits to Reptilia, a reptile zoo/centre north of Toronto, I’m often buttonholed by the staff to help hold a critter or two while its cage is cleaned. I once taught a skittish horse to calmly nibble the end of a carrot I held between my lips.
4. Autism has given me good organizational skills. Adherence to routine is one of the hallmarks of Asperger’s and autism, for sure, but I’ve learned to use this to my benefit. When I was a kid, it meant my study skills were good. As an adult, it means that I run my business as a pretty tight ship. I don’t miss deadlines, and my files are in order. My house is clean (but not OCD clean) and so is my car. I am rarely late for appointments and my shots are up to date.
Well, speaking of deadlines, it’s time for me to wrap this up and get back to work. I hope this has answered some questions, and maybe raised some other important ones. As always, feel free to contact me if you have more.
As I’ve said before in other posts, autism/Asperger’s can be a very hard slog and some days it does feel more like a disability or a curse than a gift — to us, and to those around us. But it is both. To characterize it as a “problem,” as Suzanne Wright has done, does a huge disservice to the dignity and the humanity of those of us, and our friends and our families, who are touched in so many respects by this different way of being on this Earth.