I struggle with eye contact, have a flat, slightly stilted way of speaking, and walk with a gait.
I love learning about relatively minor things in great detail, love telling people about those things, and can get bored quickly on subjects that don’t interest me.
Routines or having items in a specific order give me calm. Introducing new things into my life, or being thrust in a large crowd where I don’t know anybody, gives me anxiety.
I have strengths and weaknesses like everyone else, but my strengths are very strong and my weaknesses create real challenges.
Putting together a detailed report with charts and graphs showing whether a government has completed every single promise in their election platform is straightforward for me. Cooking dinner is not.
All of those things have been true in my life as long as I can remember. For much of it, I mostly considered them a constellation of little quirks that made me unique, in a sometimes frustrating but mostly fun way.
Of course — as you probably figured by this point — there’s a little more to it than that.
World Autism Awareness Day, even in a moment as strange as the one we’re all living through, is an opportunity for everyone to learn more of a condition that millions have, but is hard to fully understand because of how multifaceted and complex it can be.
Part of the reason for that is it affects everyone differently. Some autistic people will always have difficulty without significant support systems in their lives. But there are people with milder forms of autism who can live independently and go about life — for the most part — in ways similar to neurotypical people.
Like, um, me.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurological condition diagnosed in around 1 of every 66 children in Canada today.
Most have a general knowledge of what “autism” means for most people — the awkwardness in communication or social interactions, the same actions repeated over and over again, the lack of interest in doing certain tasks.
But the word “spectrum” is almost as important: it indicates the diversity of how it affects people, because there are dozens of symptoms that can range from non-existent to aggressive.
And as our understanding has grown, so have the types of resources available for people and families.
(Also, it’s important to note that the language used to talk about autism has changed. “Autism” was more or less the blanket classification until the 1990s, when Asperger’s Syndrome became a clinical diagnosis for milder forms. Now, ASD is the commonly used term for anyone on the spectrum.)
Because of that diversity of experience, I can only speak for myself and tell my particular story.
When I was quite young, my parents talked with doctors — and had me speak with child psychologists — to try and figure out why I was intellectually advanced but socially, um, less so.
I learned how to read and talk incredibly fast, but some strangers couldn’t understand what I was saying and might ask what country I was from. I would trace literally every single bus route for Greater Victoria in road maps and memorize their timetables, but struggled to read facial expressions, like whether someone was happy or upset, the way most kids did.
Asperger Syndrome wasn’t a clinical diagnosis quite yet, but I fit pretty much all the symptoms.
And so, my parents looked for the patchwork of services that existed at the time — intense speech therapy lessons for years at one clinic, occupational therapy at another. Classes to learn how to hold a pencil, some after-school activities meant for “normal” kids, others geared explicitly for those with special needs.
Doing well in school wasn’t a problem: repetitive behaviour to learn basic information was very much in my wheelhouse.
I also found backdoor ways to be verrrrrry involved in extracurriculars at school — not great at sports, I became the statistician for the basketball and soccer teams. Not great at acting, I learned every single word to Les Miserables in a fevered attempt to be the best assistant director possible for a high school musical.
And I was extremely lucky to have large families that showered me with love and support, giving me presents to help explore whatever obsession I was into at the time.
Through all of this, I was oblivious to my unofficial diagnosis, but created justifications in my head for things: like why it took years for me to warm up to someone and call them my friend, or why there were still words I had trouble pronouncing, or why I *had* to order Coca-Cola from the same vending machine at the same time every day.
When I was most of the way through university, my mom filled me in on the backstory, probably the biggest lightbulb moment in my life.
It helped me better appreciate my strengths and weaknesses, allowed me to improve workarounds for certain tasks and situations I struggled with (and still do!), and helped me worry less and be self-deprecating when it came to things I had less control over.
I’ll always see the world in a slightly different way than most people, but I’ve figured out a system that works for me, and it gives me great strength.
It’s my unique story in some respects, but it’s similar to many who realize they have ASD in the middle of life.
So why share?
Part of it is, as the hokey phrase goes, to “raise awareness”.
Hundreds of thousands of Canadians have autism, but few are publicly shared cases from adults with milder forms. It means understanding the full range of the autism spectrum can be limited, and by giving my story I’m hopeful it gives others a broader picture.
Part of it is honesty: I try to be a fairly open book as a journalist, and often say that if someone feels they know a reporter, they’re more likely to trust the information being provided.
This is a small way of doing that — but also an opportunity to add context to the half-truths I give when co-workers or people online joke about my love of ranking things, or how I get obsessed about Municipal Issue X, or can appear more comfortable with stories that involve numbers and concepts instead of people and feelings.
And part of it is, in a small way, to try and be a positive example for people on the spectrum or parents of autistic children.
Every day, I get to do my dream job, in a city I love, surrounded by an amazing group of friends. And the more I’ve pursued my passions, the more I’ve shared my eccentricities and interests, the more folks have reacted in an incredibly positive way.
I’m grateful and privileged, but my story isn’t singular.
If there’s a university student on the spectrum thinking about journalism as a career, a teenager worried about what “adult life” will be like, a mom anxious about how her kid will fit in at the new school, I hope they can take a little bit of optimism reading this. Your challenges are surely unique from mine, but I promise that your opportunities are endless.
As for everyone else?
If I don’t keep eye contact the next time we talk, hopefully you understand.