So, this is a slightly scary one to write.
And, it’s a tricky one to introduce.
This is partly due to the fact that this is something most people who know me don’t know about me. Also, it’s due to the stigma and cruel jokes that comes with the scary A word… autism. Today is International Autism Awareness Day and it has been a background thought of mine for a while to bring up the topic more publicly.
If you haven’t guessed by the intro, I’m autistic. (I have autism? I still don’t know the PC term).
My aim with this article is to shed some light on what autism is, who it affects, how it affects me and hopefully make it a slightly more comfortable subject for people to talk about. If this can educate just one new person or one person can identify with me and feel a sense of normality from my words, then it’s mission accomplished.
There is so much misinformation around autism.
This is largely down to the fact that it’s just not that talked about, at least publicly. If everyone had a basic understanding of autism, we could make the day-to-day life of autistic people less scary and overwhelming.
One of the most common misconceptions about autism is that everyone is affected in the same way.
While there are certainly many typical and shared traits of autistic people, we’re still as unique as anyone else.
That said, here are some of the most common symptoms and ways that autism can affect adults:
I could easily carry on with this list. But, I feel like it gives you enough of a glimpse into what can be difficult for people with autism.
It’s by no means a conclusive list and it lacks context, so in the next section, I’m going to apply my own personal context to some of the areas I have mentioned above.
In order for some of the things on the list above to make sense, I want to apply context to them.
The easiest way for me to do that is to talk about how autism affects me from day to day. Some of these examples will be the exact scenarios I have faced, or some will be typical scenarios.
Although outwardly, nobody really suspected anything, from school age to now, I have always felt ‘different’ in some way. I was never really able to pinpoint exactly why until I learned about my autism in the past couple of years.
At school, I didn’t have a particularly difficult time – I wasn’t bullied, I don’t look any different to others, and I got on with everyone well.
However, I often felt like I was on the outside, looking in. It’s hard to explain.
Not isolated, but I often carried a lack of understanding to many things like jokes, teachers explaining new concepts, social interactions, making friends, structuring my thoughts.
One of the things people with autism struggle with a lot in understanding facial expressions and tone of voice. As a result, autistic people can often lack the expected facial expressions and sound fairly monotone.
I specifically remember, in my 2nd year of primary school, one of the girls in my class asking my teacher why I never smile. I never felt less happy than others – I guess my face just didn’t show that I was content.
I only got diagnosed with autism in 2017, so it was a bit of a lightbulb moment when I journeyed through my brain for memories like this.
Difficulty in Group Settings
Understanding social cues and ‘rules’ has always been a struggle for me. Not to the point where people will think I’m rude or weird, but enough for me to feel totally overwhelmed and lost at times.
In a group setting, whether it’s my friends or strangers, I often struggle to know when to pitch in during a conversation unless someone directly asks me a question or I can really specifically relate to the subject. Saying that, sometimes, if my brain decided it wants to work well with me, I can be totally fine.
Because of this, I might withdraw from the conversation. I may be itching to speak and join in but struggle to figure out when it’s ‘my turn’.
My coping mechanism is usually to try to spark up a conversation with the person closest to me. But, even then, I often fear my conversations are a bit intense because small talk and surface-level topics don’t come naturally to me.
The other hard aspect in group settings can be the volume of conversation and multiple people talking at once. When this happens, it can feel as if my brain has turned to mush and I can’t even form thoughts properly.
This isn’t something people should feel they have to avoid, but sometimes trying to engage with people more directly, if you notice they’re quiet, can make a big difference.
There is a wide range of studies suggesting that anxiety can affect up to 84% of adults with autism. For comparison, it’s around 18% in the general population.
Well, it is likely due to many combinations of the typical symptoms of autism (listed above).
For example, when I go to a shopping centre, I can get very tense and uneasy. Shopping for more than 10 minutes when I was younger was typically avoided at all costs. No meltdowns or anything like that – but high anxiety levels and a complete inability to think straight until I was out of the shop.
For me, it has a lot to do with the very bright lights, a clash of smells, people asking if you need help, the uncertainty of what to buy, and lots of movements and noises i.e. people walking and talking.
This is a pretty clear recipe for over-stimulation of the senses for anyone with autism.
Somebody with more severe autism than me could quite possibly have a total breakdown in situations like this. In young children, it might manifest itself by way of what looks like a tantrum, crying, covering ears etc.
Routine (or change in routine) is another huge cause of anxiety for me which can lead to me shutting down completely. Even just on Sunday, I started crumbling mentally.
For example, I used to work Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday as a marketing consultant in Glasgow.
The other days, I would work on my own personal projects or other freelance work. If one week my routine is slightly different because I have a photo shoot for a client, I would need to swap my days around.
One Sunday evening, I was beginning to shut down because of a change in routine and my brain felt like it was turning to mush. I couldn’t think properly and in times like that, I can even struggle to form sentences.
Luckily, I have an incredibly supportive girlfriend who got out my whiteboard and wrote down (almost minute by minute) exactly what I needed to do the next morning.
If we didn’t do that, it is likely I wouldn’t have made it into the office on Monday like I was supposed to.
Forcing me to focus on my morning routine and forget about the rest of the week was crucial to bringing a sense of clarity and peace back to my mind.
No wonder why autistic people can find it incredibly hard to hold down jobs, huh?
Of course, these aren’t the only ways autism affects me. They just serve as an example.
And, it’s not something I ever feel sorry for myself about. There are many aspects of autism that I’m sure benefit my life, such as attention to detail, laser focus on certain tasks, and making my girlfriend and parents laugh when I can’t tell if they’re joking…
Well, I hadn’t intended for this to be as long as it is.
Hopefully, everything I have written is useful to at least some people and help shed light on what is often a misunderstood topic. I also hope that this can serve as a reminder for people to be less judgemental of non-typical behaviours, whether it’s due to autism or not.
And, if you are also autistic, I hope that hearing how it affects me can bring you a level of comfort.
If you have any questions, I’ll always be happy to hear them.