Awareness of autism is rising and not a moment too soon.
So many adults with autism are walking around with no diagnosis and little understanding of the condition, due simply to the fact that little was known about Asperger’s/autism when we were young. Only the most severe cases of autism were sought and diagnosed until perhaps the last 15 to 20 years, depending on your location in the world. In other places, autism is still not recognized or diagnosed at all.
We will recognize ourselves ( autistic people) as feeling confused, frustrated, angry, and socially outcast almost in perpetuity, with little rest between any of these. There seems to be little peace to be found in our lives and our struggle to understand most things in our world is real.
Our earliest memories may be of emotionally and physically traumatic experiences due to our inability to process emotional or physical input or stimuli. ( overload of senses and the poor ability to process socially related things is frequent, even before we have words to describe these things)
We do not understand what the world wants from us and why we seem to be unable to do things most of us know intuitively (even before society tells us in many ways) we ‘should’ be able to do. We are frequently castigated, punished and shamed for this disability and struggle to find ways to avoid the negative feedback and to perform as is obviously expected, but so difficult to achieve. Punishment and emotional pain seem unavoidable and this can lead to despair as well as anxiety.
Many of us will have found the world overwhelming and have developed self protective habits as a way to cope. We will avoid social situations, preferring self isolating activities and the quiet and relative safety of a place to hide.
When participating in family routines as youngsters, even when older, we will often be at the center of family disagreements and upsets. Misunderstandings will be frequent and emotional displays will be unpredictable. Many times we simply don’t “get it”.
We usually prefer not to be interrupted in our activities, routines, or in speaking to others.
We seem to lack humor and understanding of nuance. There is usually nothing subtle about autism, it is ‘full on’ full time. We have no sense of timing and frequently no sense of what behavior is appropriate. We have to be told our behavior is inappropriate (and usually we are mortified!).
We are often unaware of how “different” we are in behavior or beliefs, or in the way we dress and act. Some of us become good at copying these nuances. This is sometimes called “masking”. It is changing oneself to fit in without perhaps understanding fully why it helps one to “fit in”.
We are frequently oblivious to other’s feelings and desires, and we usually can not tell when what we are doing or saying is making others uncomfortable.
When told we have caused dismay, distress, discomfort, we are usually upset, because it was not our intention to do so. To an extent, we can learn to be more aware of others, but we often miss social cues that would be obvious to others in spite of our good intentions.
The idea of cold-hearted uncaring autistic people is generally a mis-perception. If we know we cause hurt, discomfort, frustration, or sadness in others, and are informed as such, we are surprised and remorseful. I am convinced that most of us have every bit as much compassion and caring as NT folk, but we are less likely to pick up cues that tell us another person’s thoughts and feelings (we have to have it explained to us). We might not show it, but the feelings are there, and as intense as any other person’s.
We are often poor at sorting feelings out, and worse at finding ways to express them. This is part of autistic differences in mental/emotional processing, and not deliberate callousness on our part.
We are usually known to be odd, quirky, or eccentric, sometimes highly intelligent, sometimes simply “out of it”.
Like anybody else, our skills or interests will vary in intensity and content, but frequently we will have just a few very intense interests in things that seem to be of narrow and restricted topics. Our knowledge of these interests and involvement in them may exceed all other things in depth and enthusiasm.
We may not be “well rounded” in this way, knowing or caring little for much outside that which we are involved in, and often have impatience with others’ interests which are different from our own.
We will have been accused of overreacting to injuries, temperature, sounds, motion, shadows, lighting, things we see or feel through touch or in our emotion. Because of differences in neurological processes, we in truth can be hyper-sensitive, or in some cases have no sensitivity at all to the senses of taste, sight, sound, smell, and touch. It is not ‘all in our heads’ but is as real as any feeling NT people feel, but simply outside the ranges of intensity of what is “normal”.
We may have meltdowns with frustration and feeling overwhelmed with emotions or sensory input, which we find we can not regulate or process at given times. Sometimes our attempts to control this input or to process ideas or emotions will seem rude, violent, extreme, unusual, or odd.
We will tend to self- comfort in many ways: pacing, walking, twitching or spinning, jumping, repeated picking at body parts, twirling hair, chewing nails, tapping fingers or toes, working something with our hands, rubbing hands or other noticeable “different” behaviors.
Some of us may self- harm, or abuse drugs and or alcohol, in attempt to escape the overwhelming anxiety and depression which often presents itself as a result of our inability to cope with our world.
We may lack impulse control, saying or blurting out our thoughts or doing something as soon as it enters our mind, thus being accused of inappropriate behavior frequently.
We may over eat or eat something obsessively in exclusion of much else.
We may prefer one set of clothing to all others, or read or listen to music or watch the same book or movie over and over.
Anybody can have some of these traits, any autistic person may not have them all, or even have more than a few of them. There are many other ways to spot autism, or to suspect it in an older adult you interact with. If you find yourself recognizing Grandma or Aunt Lucy, or Uncle Mike, your elderly sister or the old guy who sits on his porch rocking in his rocker every day from exactly 2 to 5…. undiagnosed autism might just explain some of those odd mannerisms, quirky behaviors, lack of social competence, and their outlook on the world around them.