I won’t call myself an autist. Not yet. I don’t have a formal diagnosis. Nonetheless, I display many of the classic signs of autism: deficits in speech and communication, repetitive behaviours and rigid rituals, hyper-focus on areas of interest. And the Big Three: poor verbal and non-verbal communication skills, impaired social skills, hyper-reactive senses.
I have experienced the same challenges many autistic people have faced. Many of these challenges persist. Even so, I have met many people along the way who have illuminated the path and provided sage advice, people who have helped me make life a little brighter, a little more bearable, a little more worth living.
For National Autism Awareness Month, here are five lessons I have learned along the way.
You ready to go the distance?
The measure of a human is how he endures the unendurable and continues to function.
The world is a noisy, swirling, chaotic kinetic maelstrom of sound and motion and odour and tastes and textures. My synaesthesia marries them in unions of audible colour, tactile light and visible smells. Couple them with hyper-reactive senses and the weight of the world is too much to bear.
The slightest human caress was fire against my skin, a pat on the head needles in my mind. Singlish, the true lingua franca of my country, is an ugly irritating spiky blob on the best of days and physically painful at the worst. The screech of train brakes emits painful yellow sparks and a lingering metallic aftertaste. Every clack of a mechanical keyboard is a sharpened sledgehammer to the brain. When I took up kali training, every clash of stick on stick was an explosion of brilliant white spikes.
And the people. People yammer on and on and on, creating floods of inconsequential noise, suddenly touching others and assuming it is benign, holding people to unspoken and unarticulated standards of conduct.
There is only so much the brain can process. So much energy a person has. There will come a breaking point, when the bulwarks fail and the world comes crashing in. When every sound is a stiletto to the ear, every sight sandpaper scraping against the eye, every texture the scratching of a thousand ragged fingernails in the imperceptible space between flesh and bone. It is a sensation that is there and not there, firing nerves in places without them, an infiltration and corruption of the interstitial places between skull and cerebrospinal fluid and brain. It is the corrosion of sense and reason and the descent of chaos and pain.
Humans call it a meltdown.
Running is easy. Secluding yourself in your room and hiding under the covers is pleasant. All too often it is the only sane option left in an insane world.
But there will be times when that option is not available. If you’re in a boardroom meeting, suddenly leaving will jeopardise your career. If you’re standing in a military formation, breaking discipline will lead to collective punishment. If you’re in a crowded elevator frozen between floors, you have nowhere to go.
There’s only one option.
Even if you feel that the world is closing in on your mind, you must endure. If that is the least of bad options, endure. Success goes not to the man who quits at the first sign of discomfort, but the one who endures and pushes through pain to the other side.
Autists can—and should—armour themselves against overwhelming sensory experiences however they can. I wrap my sticks in heavy tape to blunt the noise of impact. I carry Flare Audio Isolate titanium earplugs all the time. I choose clothes and accessories and equipment with an eye towards minimal sensory impact. I work in quiet rooms and stay away from noise.
But there is only so much you can do. If you wish to interact with the world, much less leave your mark on it, you must engage it fully. You must open yourself to the unceasing pandemonium that is life in the modern age. If you will not blind or deafen yourself, life will seep through in all its wonder and chaos.
You must endure.
And in enduring, you learn that it is not a fixed capacity.
As you expose yourself to greater and more frequent sounds, you desensitise yourself to them. You learn how to mitigate them, how to cope with them, how to keep functioning. You learn to recognise the signs of an autistic meltdown and either head off the symptoms or leave the area. The truest test is to function at the ragged edge of your abilities, to keep thinking and talking and responding on the threshold of a meltdown—or in the middle of one.
It is not easy, but it is necessary if you live in a bustling city like I do.
To achieve great rewards one must endure great hardships. If you would do more than merely exist, you must push through pain and suffering to achieve your goals. You must develop the ability to endure.
2. You Are Not Special
Snowflakes melt. Don’t be one.
If you’re autistic, chances are you have an all-consuming interest. It could be anything: prime numbers, train schedules, memorising pi, baking pies, the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the complete genealogy and medical history of a flock of sheep, the search for a Grand Unified Theory.
It doesn’t matter.
Your special interests do not make you special. If you can’t find a way to contribute to people’s lives through your special interest, you are not special.
Writing remains my singular focus in life, but I also pursued knowledge in other fields, moving from one to another in days or weeks or months. In primary school I could discuss atomic power, King Arthur and the human immune system. As a teenager I could hold court on terminal ballistics, the discography of the Bee Gees and epistemology.
None of it mattered.
Nobody was interested in such arcana. Nobody benefited from my discourses and lectures and writings. Ergo, no value was delivered through these obsessions.
It’s fine to pursue these interests as a hobby. But if you can’t find and manifest the intersection between your interests and what people desire, nobody will care about them.
Autistics will feel distressed when they cannot pursue their interests. It is tempting to drop everything to focus solely on them. But that is attachment, and attachment is the root of suffering. If you deliver no value to others, people are not going to support you or pay you or otherwise help you continue existing so you can continue to pursue your interests.
The ideal, of course, is to make a living through your passions. To get there, you must act. You cannot limit yourself to stuffing your head with information or delivering lectures to unreceptive audiences. You must act. You must be the best in your field, identify missing needs and fill them. You must be give people a reason to give you money. In my case, there is a resurging demand for excellent fiction, specially science fiction and fantasy, and I intend to fill that gap. Likewise, there is high demand for articles about self-improvement, travel, life hacks, martial arts, the craft of writing and more—and my record on Steemit speaks for itself.
It is nice to imagine that one can make a living from one’s interests, but it isn’t always so. I would love to be a professional fiction writer, but that’s not on the horizon anytime soon. There was a time when I could simply write all day and not worry about anything else, but those days are over. I have bills to pay and responsibilities to uphold. I had to scale back my writing, again and again, to accommodate reality. There will come a day when I will be a professional writer, when I can support myself through my interests…but for now, life demands its due.
Your special interests do not make you special. What you do with them does.
3. Scripts Rule Society
How much of this scene is on autopilot?
If you will not take holy orders and seclude yourself in a hermitage, or live by yourself alone in the wilderness, you must interact with people. It is an inescapable facet of life. If you want friends and lovers and children, if you want to buy goods and services, if you want to live in the modern world with all its trappings, you have to talk to people.
Social interaction is the chief weakness of most autistics. You don’t have to be a social butterfly, but you can at least be functional in society.
Fortunately, society runs on social scripts.
Social scripts are predictable and expectable responses to specific circumstances. People who know each other exchange greetings when they meet. If someone does another wrong, the wronged party expects an apology and the offending party issues one. Societies enforce taboos and teach their members how to behave in public and private. Organisations have specific procedures and jargon so everyone is on the same page.
Imagine an intricate machine filled with uncountable numbers of enmeshed gears rotating in unison. That is society. Social scripts, especially codes of etiquette, are the lubricants that keep everything turning smoothly. They allow complete strangers to interact each other, and intimates to predict what the other party will say or do.
Social scripts enable mutual understanding and minimise conflict. Most people are unaware of these scripts. Autistics cannot afford to be—and, at the same time, can craft scripts of their own to pre-empt difficulties. For example, when buying groceries, the standard script takes six steps:
- Set groceries on counter
- Wait for cashier to register every sale and declare the price
- Check the price and make payment
- Receive change or card as necessary
- Double-check all items and gather them up
To regular people, buying groceries is a simple, mindless transaction. It took me years to figure out how to do it smoothly. A neurotypical person may see groceries as an undifferentiated mass of stuff. For me, every bag, every good, every coin, every card, every person, every gesture, every sound, every perceivable action and object and event is a discrete item that must be logged and tracked and moved into appropriate positions or otherwise accounted for.
For autistic people, the mere act of buying groceries is a recipe for mental congestion. And that’s before accounting for off-script events.
It’s the little things: the cashier talking to you, children chatting behind you, dropping coins, incorrect change, a cash register noisier than usual, a bellicose customer. Neurotypical people may not have a problem with it, but autists with their minds busy processing the transaction will not be able to respond effectively.
If you can break down a script, you can pre-empt it and create your own scripts to your advantage. On the way to the counter you can start calculating the bill. As the cashier keys in the sales, you can prepare payment. When you pay the cashier you can take the time to check items. This frees up cognitive capacity to check items and prepare to go.
A script allows you to work with minimal cognitive load. It is a reliable heuristic governing human behaviour. Life is difficult enough; no need to make it worse
4. Empathy is A Skill
If you can talk and think you can do this.
Neurotypical people instinctively learn social skills through everyday interaction. Autists are challenged to consciously learn them.
Empathy is a skill. Charm is a skill. All kinds of interpersonal communication are skills. Skills can be learned. If you are not brain-damaged, you can pick up the ability to communicate effectively in society.
Social scripts are useful, but they only apply to specific contexts. When events go off-script, you need to respond smoothly and appropriately. Social skills allow you to respond with a minimal of disruption. They allow you to broaden your horizons and spontaneously interact with people in multiple environments. To be an integral part of society, you must know how to talk to people. It’s not easy, but it doesn’t have to be impossible.
There are hundreds of books and websites out there that teach people, specifically autistic people, social skills, empathy and charm. After learning them, put them into practice. Start with social scripts, then graduate to unplanned encounters. Work your way up to ever-increasing levels of difficulty.
To highly introverted autists, this is extremely difficult. It requires obsessive study, the willingness to put theory into practice, the recognition that failure is inevitable and the will to get back up and try again anyway. It requires endurance and courage and sheer bloody-mindedness to keep trying. It is exhausting, but this is why you manage your energy and develop endurance.
And the rewards?
Friends, family, a career. The ability to be a functional member of society, to share your thoughts and aspirations and emotions, to find companionship, to divide sorrow and multiply joy. To live, fully and completely, in the world.
It is difficult, but it is worth it.
5. Change Yourself, Change the World
Start with the man in the mirror
The world is not made for autists.
It’s simple demographics. Most people are neurotypical, ergo they shape society per their thought patterns, their quirks, their foibles. Many of them don’t know how to interact with autistics, many don’t want to, many don’t even care.
It’s nice to call for autism awareness. It’s nice to call for neurodiversity. It’s nice to call for autism rights. People who want to be nice will try their best to accommodate the needs of autists.
Not everyone will.
Nobody can change the world. Not by themselves.
Nobody can force people to change. Not without guns and concentration camps and the tools of dictatorship. People who demand that everybody change to accommodate them without themselves being willing to compromise are little more than bullies and petty tyrants.
You can’t change people without coercion but you can always change yourself.
You can choose many things: how you feel about events, how you act in response to stimuli, whether to change or stand fast.
Choose growth. Choose change. Choose to be the best person you can be. Choose to surround yourself with people who bring out your best.
Do this, and the world will change with you.
These five lessons aren’t just for autistics. They are for everybody. Autists need them the most, but they apply to neurotypicals too.
No matter where you stand on the autistic spectrum, if you are on the spectrum at all, you are as human as me and everyone else. Growth is universal to all humans. All I have done is lay bare a few aspects of growth and placed them in a frame. Frame them a different way and the lessons still apply.