Before I knew about autism

It never occurred to me that I was having struggles that other people just did not have. This is a paraphrase of a well known quote by Alis Rowe.

It was always obvious that I was different, awkward, socially unacceptable, uncoordinated, “clueless”.

I blamed myself, and others did too, for my multiple failures to succeed at so many things that seemed simple to others.

I felt enormous guilt and shame because I was unable to “get it” about so many facets of every day life. I was scorned and punished, bullied and belittled because I simply could not (and people thought ‘would not’) behave in ways they expected me to. I simply had no idea how to do what they thought i should do. I can remembering being told over and over to shape up, to wake up, snap out of it, get with it, to stop feeling sorry for myself… to pull myself together, and I can remember wailing “but i don’t know how”.

Since I learned about my autism I have learned that it is my neurological ‘wiring’ regarding sensory processing which is what makes me different and accounts for many of my past struggles. Every autistic person is different, and struggles with sensory input to varying degrees.

What I describe as true for me might not be true for others. I believe this is one of the reasons it has been so hard to pin down exactly what autism is/does and describe it (autism and its ‘symptoms’) so that it can be recognized and diagnosed, helped where needed.

Sensory input is the way we relate to the world, the way we interact with each other… if one or more senses are skewed or how the processing of the input offered differs, it can throw off our understanding of the world. Things that are obvious to most can be a complete struggle for understanding in an autistic person. Our processing is often different.

If you are autistic, or know or love an autistic person, do you understand how you and or they process information and what their specific struggles are? I am going to list what I have learned about my own processing struggles. Each autistic person will have strengths and places where they struggle the most. I was completely unaware of how I struggled, in what ways, until I began to learn about autism.

Some of the things I describe here are not directly related to autism through scientific studies, but have been casually observed to be common in autistic populations. I list them here because they are still ways I struggle with sensory input. Each autistic person’s list will vary.

I am first of all unable to visualize in my head. I see no pictures there at all whenever people are talking, I can not visualize what they describe. I have an imagination, but it does not show me pictures, and it relies on things i have experienced or otherwise stored in my memory to help me understand. This condition is called aphantasia and is present in about 2 percent of today’s population, both autistic and non autistic. It appears to be random or possibly genetic but no link has been made to autism at this time. However, if you ponder a few moments you will see how this might change the way I process information I receive through eyesight.

I have prosopagnosia, the inability to recognize faces.. I may know you from every day interactions for years and still not ‘see’ you on the street. change hair style, glasses, wear a beard or mustache since i have seen you last and i will never find you!

I had a neuro-psychological test not long ago which confirmed that I have difficulty processing visual things. Videos, TV, Movies, Lectures, Presentations, and so many more things which you see every day are difficult for me to comprehend . I have difficulty learning from visual demonstrations (at work or in the classroom etc) I can look at still photos, illustrations, maps, and the printed word and process them easily. It seems to be things in motion that confuse me and happen too fast for me to understand readily. No fast action sports or games for me! I was the kid they threw the ball to so they could watch me fail to react soon enough and get hit in the face. Very funny! I have difficulty judging the speed of oncoming traffic, for example. Anything done at speed worries me to say the least. I just can’t process it fast enough.

I also have problems following spoken word. No radio, no vocal songs, no narrations or reading out loud… difficulties in the classroom, difficulties with instructions in work situations, difficulties in any conversation… can you imagine what it is like to struggle to comprehend most things around you as they happen? My range of hearing is normal to sensitive, being able to hear higher vibrations and lower ones slightly wider range than average. I always wondered why I liked instrumental music so much better than music with vocal parts, especially women’s …. now I understand that it is because I have such difficulty understanding and processing the words involved.

Long before I knew I was autistic, I figured out that in many situations I needed somebody else to explain to me what was happening or to explain when the event was over: “what do they mean by that”?
I have frequently told people that I need to have things explained to me where others seem to know by intuition or some other means that escapes me. Learning about my autism explained that too!

I talk a lot about what an autistic person does not do well, but very little here has been said about what strengths we have. My tests showed (and I knew before- from experience and learning on my search for information about autism) that my greatest strength lies in the written word. I have good spelling and comprehension, vocabulary tests are well above average. I have a gift for words!
Reading has been the key to my personal understanding my world, and I learn best through printed matter. I have spent most of my life trying to obtain information through the format of print.
The internet has been the most powerful influence in my life since books.
For those of us whose world is opened through reading, to understanding, it is a great gift of a magnitude which I am at a loss to explain.

I don’t have to look at somebody and be distracted by their movement, clothing or appearance while trying to understand what they are talking about, struggling to interpret their body language, their tone of voice, and interpreting their motivations, demeanor, inflections while simultaneously trying to sort the information they are presenting from the other conversations, background noise, activities, etc. I can read what they say and understand perhaps with a few questions exactly what they mean. It is a miracle!

My feelings of touch can be hypersensitive, especially to others suddenly touching me in any way ( perhaps a conditioned response). I hate little stickery labels, pebbles in my shoes are intolerable, as are clothes that cause discomfort. I dress for comfort and not style. I seem to experience most other sensory input in an ordinary or average way, appreciating comfort or discomfort on ‘normal’ levels, except that I seem to have a very high tolerance for pain. Sense of smell and taste seem to be “normal” in range .

So that is the struggle I have to live in everyday life. Not “poor me”, simply an explanation and no excuses… but understanding ‘why’ life has been so hard for me in so many ways has been explained by understanding how presence of my autism has affected my life. My understanding comes with new awareness of how my autism also affected my behavior to others and their perceptions of me. Each autistic person’s inventory of strengths and weaknesses will be very different. Many experience the world through mostly visual means, but please understand the fact that we struggle many times to know and understand things that seem obvious to others. Knowing about my autism will now allow me to better adjust my behavior, deepen my understanding, and give me insights into so many windows that were closed to me. I would love it if I could somehow present the self knowledge of autism to those who have yet not discovered the key to understanding their world lies in that one word. Autism.

One thought on “Before I knew about autism

  1. Debra, it’s good to hear from another older autistic woman. I am in my fifties now. I was in my mid forties when I finally realized I am autistic. It is great to understand the past through the knowledge of autism. It explains why there were so many strange and unpredictable people in the world-haha- I mean, people who are neurotypical and beyond my ability to comprehend. I look forward to reading what you have to share.

    Liked by 2 people

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