Autism – From the Heart of a Woman with Autism

Circa 2003

In recent years. I have had to frequently remind myself that the sweetest flowers are never the first to bloom. How many times have I come to the edge of a cliff, gazing outward over an abyss? Whether the canyon below holds catastrophe or deliverance, it is still a change, which always terrifies me.

When it seems that I have nothing, while most people in the outside world gain rewards for their efforts. I must then slow myself down and begin to meditate. When my mind is still my inner wisdom reminds me that my accomplishments, although different, are no less golden than those of typical people.

As a woman with autism. I’m faced with many obstacles. Since an obstacle is an unseen barrier between myself and a goal. I simply need to reinvent my strategies for leaping over or charging my way through them. In autism there is an inner experience set apart from the collective touchable reality that other individuals perceive as the world.

I was not diagnosed with autism until a short time ago. Already a young adult, I discovered my condition when I read the autobiography of an autistic girl. It was a bolt of illumination to me. I plunged into my own research to educate myself as much as possible about the disorder. Although I have a background in medical matters and did not expect to be discounted, I located a psychiatrist who specialized in autism who confirmed my diagnosis.

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Autism is not a mental state that disappears with the coming of age. Some of the characteristics will lessen or change as one grows into adulthood, but there is still a core that can be described as an autistic personality.

I think my condition helps me to experience life in unique ways. For example, my sense of hearing is exceptionally sharp, allowing me to hear sounds of very low or high pitch. It also helps me discern different types of speech, including regional accents. This gift serves as great entertainment when I choose to use one of my many humorous accents.

My smell is also rather acute. Sight is the sense that humans seem to value over all others. In autism, the rest of the senses can achieve a hyper development so that they are relied upon as strongly as sight. With my nose, ears and touch I explore my surroundings, gathering a universe of information.

I extend my tentacles slowly, like a creature in a seashell. It takes me a while to become accustomed to any new environment or person I meet. I find that a person is far more foreign to me than a new place tends to be.

I am repelled by social gatherings and crowds of people. In some circumstances a stimulating situation can become as overwhelming as the roar of a train. What doesn’t seem to affect most other people may induce a panic attack for me.

Imagine a roomful of human beings, clothed in a myriad of colors, like the wonder of true blue, the loud laughter of sun-yellow, the shadow of gray. Along with that comes the clatter of many voices talking. From all directions spoken words and perfumed scents float, with no way for me to filter any of them. I shrink away from the close pressing of other bodies. To escape, I focus on a point of reference like the sparkle of a wine glass in the lowered evening light. This is my coping mechanism. I find small talk to be boring and unnecessary. I am shy and quiet, only speaking when I feel there is something to say. Close friends and family are the only people with whom I am comfortable enough to chatter.

I am able to record and remember the smallest details of an event or location. For instance. I have never forgotten the scarlet magnificence of sunsets in Hawaii. Also. there are certain songs I play in my head because I love the way their melodies tickle my mind and there is a certain pattern on the bathroom wallpaper that is quite lovely. I often listen to the breathing of the tides even when I’m not close to the ocean. I long to imprint my mind with more images like these.

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My happiest moments are when I’m at home in my purple room, my temple of security, doing activities I enjoy. One of these is reading, since books have always been sacred to me. I taught myself at the age of 3 to read. Soon after that, I began to write and illustrate stories. I grew up immersed in literature, poetry, music, art, dance and acting. I was also strongly attracted to history and science, particularly medicine. My exacting mind has always loved the precise structure of human anatomy. My autism has contributed to heightened retention, and when I’m interested in a subject, I learn very quickly by reading everything I can find on the topic. I brought books with me to school every day and would disappear into them when tormented by my classmates.

The intensity of a typical interaction with another per son often proves to be disconcerting. When I look into someone’s eyes, I can see deeper-beyond the gold, chestnut or turquoise of the iris and into the soul. It is like falling deeply into that person, drowning in somebody who is not myself. It seems as though the energy in those eyes could snatch my own soul from my body.

Something that sets me apart from many individuals with autism is my tendency towards extremely powerful emotions. My moods span from the deepest agonies of depression to a joyous, ecstatic state where I feel as though I am soaring like a Gregorian chant. There is a dark side to me, and I can feel the suffering of the world. My own pain grows into a lonely hole of longing for the love and unique understanding of a lifelong partner. The autistic brain finds it difficult to integrate, so I usually have the sensation of being isolated and alienated. I don’t know what it feels like to be part of a group, although I do feel delighted and loved in the presence of animals.

I have not, thus far, been presented with many opportunities that match my capabilities. I struggled through school, often frustrated by boring classes and laughed at by my peers, who sneered, freak or retard. I rebelled by dressing flamboyantly. There was no point in trying to fit in and I decided that I actually did not wish to. I did not need their praise. I had my few friends and my many heroes, including Albert Einstein, Katharine Hepburn, Winston Churchill, Gandhi and the cast of my favorite TV show M*A*S*H!

I have considered becoming a veterinarian, a heart surgeon or a psychiatrist, but all involve too much inter action with people. I feel there are other ways for me to use my abilities and interest in medicine. One obvious outlet is through my writing. I’m not the type of person to work for someone else since I need to follow my own routines and I sometimes panic when the unexpected happens. I must know what is going on at all times.

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I suppose I’m rather anti-social, but that doesn’t bother me. I did not naturally assimilate the norms of social behavior as I was growing up as non-autistic children do. When I attend an opera, I do so because I love the music. When I go to a dance-I am a ballroom dancer and have performed professionally—I go because I like the creative expression of moving my body to rhythms. Attempting to decipher the behavior of other people is as fruitless as their trying to decipher mine; it makes me tired and can cause headaches. The best path is to accept that people have their own ways of doing things, none superior or inferior.

I anguish to see how society is so reluctant to make con cessions for those of us who are unique and require specific support. There is an opportunity for the quality of life for people with autism to significantly improve if society would cease expecting them to conform to a typical lifestyle, something which many of us are unable to do. We need to find our niche. The danger lies in the fact that denying someone else respect also denies that individual a chance of being equal or worthy of human rights.

by Jasmine Lee O’Neill

Jasmine Lee O’Neill is the author of numerous articles, and a book about autism, entitled Through the Eyes of Aliens, published in London by Jessica Kingsley Publishers

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