I’ve posted in the past (here and here) about my struggles with mental health. During my adult life, I’ve been diagnosed with anxiety disorder, attention deficit disorder, obsessive compulsive personality disorder, major depressive disorder, bipolar, and psychotic episodes. All of these conditions “required” medication, which in every case made the problem worse. (Not to mention ten years of self-medication with alcohol, cocaine, and opiates, which nearly killed me.)
A year ago, our toddler (then 18 months old) was diagnosed with autism. It was too early then to assign a severity; he’s now been diagnosed Level 2 & 3– pretty severe. At the time, neither my wife nor I knew anything about autism.
My wife is quite the researcher, so she went to work. She would come back with these “revelations.”
Her: “Did you know that people with autism often can’t see faces?”
Me: “Wait, I can’t see faces.”
Her: “No, I mean they can’t read nonverbal cues, like even body language.”
Me: “Yeah, I can’t read body language.”
Her: “Did you know that people with autism often see the world in patterns or pictures?”
Me: “Um, that’s not normal?”
The more she learned the more I realized that there was something going on with me that I had never realized. In fact, I have most of the symptoms of autism (though some of them I’ve learned to manage fairly well).
For example, I’m face-blind. I recognize people by their voices, shapes, contexts, and hairstyles. I don’t read nonverbal cues. I have trouble identifying and expressing my emotions. I don’t read emotions well in others. I’m extremely sensitive to audio and visual chaos. (My wife says that what I call “chaos,” most people call normal sensory input.) I struggle with being aware of social appropriateness– I have a tendency to say the wrong thing at the wrong time and have no idea why it’s inappropriate. I tend to understand verbal expressions literally. (“Look at my face!” “OK, I did.”) I have no idea how to navigate a conversation with more than one person at a time.
It’s better now than it was when I was a child. I’ve learned to compensate in basic social situations. Still, when I read the DSM-V description of communications difficulties, I felt like they were writing about me:
A. Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts, as manifested by the following, currently or by history (examples are illustrative, not exhaustive, see text):
1. Deficits in social-emotional reciprocity, ranging, for example, from abnormal social approach and failure of normal back-and-forth conversation; to reduced sharing of interests, emotions, or affect; to failure to initiate or respond to social interactions.
2. Deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviors used for social interaction, ranging, for example, from poorly integrated verbal and nonverbal communication; to abnormalities in eye contact and body language or deficits in understanding and use of gestures; to a total lack of facial expressions and nonverbal communication.
3. Deficits in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships, ranging, for example, from difficulties adjusting behavior to suit various social contexts; to difficulties in sharing imaginative play or in making friends; to absence of interest in peers.
I remember, when I was in elementary school, planning out conversations before I approached someone. I would think, “I’ll say this, and they’ll say that, and I’ll respond like this…” and so forth. I could never understand why conversations went off the rails or what to do about it. And I couldn’t understand why, in the middle of a softball game, the other kids didn’t want to hear about dinosaurs or math.
And yes, I do have repetitive behaviors, but they’re subtle. I didn’t even realize I was doing them until I learned what “stimming” was. I fidget with my fingers, play computer solitaire, and pace.
My mind sees the world in processes, so I strive to understand why something is true. That makes it difficult for me to learn disconnected facts, like vocabulary or names, but easy to learn grammar and dates. If I can fit it into a “system,” I can learn it. Abstract ideas tend to make my head hurt.
I often look at a situation and see patterns that are not obvious to other people. The most obvious example of this was my response to the civil war in Sri Lanka. It was the most written-abut war since World War II, and yet no one ever seemed to ask what made it tick. To me, that was the obvious question. I spent a year studying, interviewing, and analyzing, and came up with a paradigm that explained the political relationships that drove the war. This became the basis for the Peace Initiative that started in 1999, and eventually led to a Cease Fire Agreement in 2002 that lasted for six years.
I think this helps me be a good writer. I “see” the story that I’m writing before I begin. I may not have all the pieces yet, but I know where it needs to go. And I can see how the plot elements contribute to the whole (and what’s missing).
As I’m learning, autism offers challenges that have greatly affected my life. My adolescence was an extremely painful experience of isolation and feeling different from everyone else.
But it also offers some unusual benefits. I see the world differently than most other people, and that means I have something unique to offer.