An Antidote to Autism
Before you continue reading, this article is not about a real antidote to autism. We all know autism can’t be cured, this does not mean that it can’t become less noticeable or even benefit you in some cases. To be clear, I’m talking from the perspective of a person with autism and what factors lead to the decrease of external traits that are commonly associate with forms of autism. Because autism is a spectrum, these things may not apply for you.
I am a 23-year-old man living in The Netherlands. When I was very young (2–3 years old) my parents noticed that my behaviour differed from my twin sister’s. From that moment on I got a big stamp on my forehead that said: ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder). Don’t get me wrong, this is not a sob story about someone with a light form of autism who wants attention. Well, maybe, but apart from that, I would like to share my story and maybe help some people who also have a form of autism and who are struggling for example to have social interactions with other people. We’ll also be looking at the advantages and disadvantages of being autistic.
Besides that, I would like to look at what the literature says about the common features of autistic people. This includes anti-social behaviour, abstract thinking and why lying is an unusual action undertaken by these people.
Both my parents (don’t forget my twin sister) have helped me tremendously by encouraging me to achieve goals that were previously impossible in my eyes. Mostly by saying (almost always indirectly) that I should never use my autism as a justification/excuse for not being able to do something. When I made my transfer from special needs education to a regular high school, I didn’t really fit in and I remember I thought it was really strange for me that a lot of my classmates didn’t obey the rules (I still find it strange).
My parents had regular talks with teachers and my school counsellor so that they knew about my “problem” and could have an eye on me and the students around me that were let's say, a little more ‘exuberant’. My mother knew (they always know) that my first few years in the regular high school were not the easiest. She knew when I got home from school and I went straight to my room without talking, that probably some classmates said something to me about the strangeness of my autism. I don’t blame them [my classmates]. At this time there weren’t a lot of students in regular high schools that had a developmental disorder.
Around 2014 they introduced “the law of appropriate education”, where a lot of students with a disability or developmental disorder had to be put in a regular school, instead of a special needs school (something I find to be a big mistake). My mother also knew that she couldn’t do more about it than she was already doing. She probably would love to protect me of the ‘Dragon of Chaos’ for the rest of my ‘autistic life’, but on the other hand, she had in mind that she didn’t want to take away my self-governing ability to ‘slay the dragon’ myself.
She’s (also my dad) still a little protective and doesn’t always follow the ‘anti-empathetic rule’: “Don’t do anything that they can do themselves”. Especially when I’m doing something that used to never do, like going out to a club, going to crowded places or going on a Tinder date. This does not mean that my parents aren’t happy for me when they found out I did something unusual (like going to a party). Don’t get me wrong, I get it why parents can be (over)protective about their kids with a developmental disorder. In the eyes of the parents, their kid is a great bait for all the anxiety, threads and evil in the world. You could say that these kids should be free of conflicts and all sorts of responsibilities. Unfortunately, the price you’ll pay for the protectiveness and lack of responsibility will be much worse than the anxiety they will get in the medium to long term.
Abandoning your positive traits
At present, I am studying to be a high school economics teacher and I have about three months left before getting my degree (hopefully). When I chose to enter this bachelor, you could say that I probably didn’t think hard enough about the career/work I would get myself into. I didn’t, to be honest, and I regret it (partly). When I was in high school myself, I loved explaining/teaching my fellow classmates in economics class when they were struggling. But I was very naïve when I didn’t think about the other part of teaching to high school students. The part where you play as a cop and where you have a lot of social contact with students, but also with fellow teachers/colleagues.
Maybe it was willful blindness — I probably knew about this part, because I saw it played out in class by my own teachers, but I just didn’t want to think about this part of teaching, because this would probably be the part that would be the hardest for me to do. I was right, (un)fortunately it didn’t stop me from applying. I started my bachelor in 2015 and I am about to finish it in a few months. The last few years I am pretty unhappy about my job as a teacher. The thing is, in these last years I had to become aware of why I really chose this bachelor and make the decision if it is enough to keep working as a teacher after graduating.
The reason why I am telling you all this is because I became aware of my (previously forgotten) positive traits as someone with autism. Around December 2017 — January 2018, I got myself into psychology. I started reading everything I got my hands on and I loved it. Reading on my own, being interested in one subject in an extreme way made me feel autistic again — in a (very) positive way. I concluded that I chose this bachelor (partly) because I wanted to show mostly myself (but also my family and teachers) that I could do something completely out of my comfort zone.
Again, don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with getting out of your comfort zone. I learned so much these few years doing this. It just didn’t make me feel good at the end of the day. What I want to get to, (if you are autistic or not) that you should ask yourself “What do I have to contribute in a positive way, by making this decision?”. If you are good at something, why would you abandon it?
We all know the famous Dr House line ‘Everybody lies’. I love that line, because it’s true, it’s the truth. But the truth is also that we can be really careful about using the lie for short-term gratification. When you read a book about autism, you’ll probably encounter a part that will say something like; ‘autistic kids/people will tell you like it is, the truth’. Well, why is that? Lying is a common phenomenon amongst human beings. It seems to play a role in making social interactions run more smoothly (Jaarsma, Gelhaus, & Welin, 2011).
The development of social skills goes in contrary to telling the truth.
That isn’t to say that you should predicate on the idea that ALL your social interactions will go “smoothly” when you lie. The factor that plays a big role in lying, is the social one. You could say, why is this a problem? Immanuel Kant would agree with you. The opposite of truth is falsehood: when it is held for truth, it is called error — Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). The development of social skills goes in contrary to telling the truth.
You could say two things about this. First, we could say that the ability, to tell the truth, should not be taken away or be harmed in any way, for the social skills to develop. From a Kantian point of view, the autistic tendency to always tell the truth appears praiseworthy and should not be changed, though it creates problems in the social life of persons with autism (Jaarsma, Gelhaus, & Welin, 2011). Second, we should celebrate the accomplishment of telling a lie, because it signifies the systemic growth of the individual. If you choose for the former or the latter, it depends on the goal you set for the development of your child (or yourself).
Before you choose the second option I would like to give you a brief description of ‘The Liar’ of one of my favourite books (Maps of Meaning): The liar chooses his own game, sets his own rules and then cheats. This cheating is failure to grow, to mature; it is rejection of the process of consciousness itself (Peterson, 1999). This is the reason I think we should be very careful about lying and we should recognize when we are doing it. Do you want to be the weak person that is afraid of everything new? Ruin all the possibilities of improving your game? If you think that you’ll get away with it [the lie], then please think again. From my point of view, it’s a naïve approach, which will result in digging your own grave (maybe not literally, maybe). If you think about using it to better yourself, be responsible for it. I’m not saying, never lie, I’m saying, think about it very carefully and then maybe use it.
“You’re perfect as you are”
I am not a particular fan of this message. I get the positive intentions behind the message and I’ve heard it a lot of times by other people but also seen it being told to other kids/teenagers. From my own experience, it [the message] gets used a lot at special needs schools to kids that don’t usually fit in that well. (Un) fortunately, I can tell you that you are not perfect, probably not in the least. I’m saying this in the most optimistic way (I’m not an optimistic person by the way, but you’ll get this one for free).
There is so much more to you than just your ‘autistic’ flaws and to hide behind them is so much easier than to do something about it. I know what it’s like to have a giant shield of excuses for not developing yourself because you have some form of autism. You are just at the start of becoming ‘just okay.’ I’m not saying it’s easy, I’m really not. ‘Fitting in’ still is a struggle I’m facing almost every day. At school, at work, even around my friends sometimes. But getting the message that there is nothing wrong with you so that you can be happy for a few seconds is not the solution.
Two weeks of lying to yourself, corrupting yourself.
You could say, I’ll change myself in a way that I’ll fit in, in a way that I’m just like the people that judge me for being a little different. That’s a negative change I’d say. It’s the same as being the student that writes his paper in a way that the teacher will like it. The authenticity gets lost because you’ll write something 60 people before you also wrote. I’ve tried it when I was around 15 years old. I tried to make jokes that others made, getting bad grades just like the other classmates, hanging around classmates that other people also liked, etc. It may be worked for a week or two. Two weeks of lying to yourself, corrupting yourself.
There are already too many people that think the same, look the same and for all we know, are the same person. Something I see a lot in colleges. It’s like a machine that prints the same person, like the Oompa Loompa’s in Charlie and the chocolate factory. Unless you’re going to sing me a song about a kid who is drowning in chocolate, It seems really boring to me to be the same person. I would love to go on about the college-clone issue, but I’ll save it for another time.
My point is that you don’t have to act like everybody else, you don’t have to go where you’re friends go if you feel good about it. A lot of times in your life you’ll feel excluded and you’ll feel horrible about not being like other people, but by acting like everybody else by lying to yourself will make it worse on the long term. This doesn’t mean you can’t use them as role models and learn skills you would like to learn without cloning their personality. You may choose your own ideal, but keep in mind that you’ll not become the ideal just by someone telling you that you are ‘perfect’. They are giving you a reason for sending the judge home, but the judge is the only one that will tell you that you’re not done, not even close.
Confronting the unknown (un)willingly
Finally, I would like to talk about friends. Like I told you at the beginning, I’ve changed from regular schools to special needs schools and I did this a few times. Besides that, I went to some kind of boarding school for one year and a half, because living at home was too hard for both my parents and me. When I was 17, I moved back from Peru (long story) to the Netherlands. I still had one year of high school left, so I could get my high school diploma. I was put back on the same regular school that I was in before I emigrated. This time I didn’t know anyone.
This changed pretty quickly and without me knowing it, I found a group of friends that have come to terms with my still noticeable negative autistic traits. Some of them didn’t even have a choice of getting to know me. For example, one of my best friends I met in chemistry class that same year. In the first class, the teacher made a floorplan of the classmates, and that was your place for the rest of the year. (un)fortunately for him, there were not that many seats left, except beside me.
Another one of my best friends also approached me that same week, but I don’t remember why (as if there should be a reason). I used to help her with economics and she would (indirectly) help me with developing my social skills. There are many more to talk about, these were just a few examples of people that changed my life (I don’t want to give them too much credit) by voluntarily encountering the, let’s say, weirdness that was and still is part of me.
The stranger is usually not the person (at least for me) that you approach without internal warnings. He or she could shatter your belief system, could scare you, could drown you with unknown information. But the stranger could also carry important information, the information you could learn from. This is a message I could still learn a lot from.
Let's summarize: don’t pay the prize for not doing things you could do yourself, stay in a close relationship with your positive traits, be careful about lying if you’re going to use it, you’re far from being perfect/don’t corrupt yourself by “being” someone else and last but not least, find the people that want to confront the unknown in you (they are out there).
I don’t claim any of these ideas to be officially mine, just saying.