What Does it Feel Like to be Autistic?
What is Autism?
Autism spectrum disorder is a highly variable developmental irregularity; the severity varies from person to person. There is a large spectrum of symptoms. The symptoms may be so mild that they only become apparent as the affected person interacts with their peers. Impairments in social interactions and restricted and repetitive behaviour patterns are typical for autistic people. Since many of us do not look disabled, it is common for someone to remain undiagnosed well into adulthood.
Autistic traits are thought to manifest due to differences in how the different parts of the brain form and connect. So far, there are no characteristic brain structures, meaning science is yet to witness a single pattern of changes that occur in the autistic mind, but trends are emerging. Magnetic resonance imaging techniques have indicated a few regions in the brain that set us apart from neurotypical individuals. Autistic people tend to have an enlarged hippocampus, the area of the brain that we think is responsible for memory formation and storage. We do have a reduction in brain tissue volume in the cerebellum, a site that we know coordinates body movements and social interactions. There are more persistent connections across various regions of the autistic brain, making it harder to switch between different tasks, which may also explain why we are uncomfortable processing too much information at the same time.
I Feel Like it’s Me Against the World.
When people talk about autism, they frame it negatively; it is thought to be a disability. I am not broken, but at the same time, I am not normal; I am neurodivergent. For me, autism manifests with two key features, social differences and repetitive — restrictive patterns in behaviour. Many people on the spectrum can tell you tales of how these differences can ultimately result in social isolation and exclusion. It can influence various aspects of our lives, such as our relationships and employment, making things challenging for us to operate efficiently. Autistic people are prone to be marginalized for not being able to keep up with their peers.
We do not look disabled; often, our vulnerabilities will be masked by having superior ability in specific niche categories. Many people on the spectrum can become specialists in highly technical fields. It gives people an excuse to think, “Hey, this person is talented; therefore, he should know better, so screw that guy!”. These impressions often lead to misunderstandings of intentions when interacting with neurotypical people. Autistic people generally have difficulty reading neurotypicals and vice versa. We’re challenging to read; my facial expressions do not match the emotions that I’m feeling.
Honestly, I do require companionship, but my social needs are low. It is difficult for me to make friends, and I am generally not interested in socializing. I don’t actually have a problem being left alone and not having friends around; it feels good most of the time. What feels terrible is when people see me alone, they view me as a reject or view my life as something that they need to take pity on. Some people even take things to a different level of annoying, treating their companionship as a favour. Because I am a loner, I should be grateful to them for their companionship, which is laughable.
I don’t like it when people force their expectations on me. If most people want something, act in a certain way, or prioritize things in a particular order, it’s a problem if you don’t reciprocate those sentiments. Failure to reciprocate will result in criticism regardless of whether you are correct; social norms are not always synonymous with proper conduct; however, people treat them as if they are. When you’re different, people care less about your problems; people only care if they can empathize with the issue. Generally, people are not empathetic toward minority groups. People can be racist; it’s easier to treat you unequally if you look too different. People can be sexist; if you’re of a different gender, it’s easier for you to be treated unequally. People can be homophobic; if you like to have sex differently, it is easier for you to be treated unequally. People can be ignorant; and will treat you unequally if you have a different opinion. Autistic people are neurodivergent; our brains work differently it is regular for us to be treated unequally. I don’t bother talking about my issues in most situations; I can not depend on other people to sort out my problems, so I grind with my own hands.
I like to compare autistic and neurotypical brains to footballs and rugby balls. They have a lot of similarities, but they also have some undeniably significant differences. Both balls will bounce and roll; both balls can be kicked, caught and thrown. If you were to take a rugby ball for a football game, that game would be very awkward, wouldn’t it? Autism is like navigating through a society that doesn’t function with your needs as a priority.
Restricted and Repetitive Interests and Behaviours
Common traits associated with people on the autism spectrum are behaviours categorized as autistic stereotypy, the presence of restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviours, activities and interests.
In many cases, you can find autistic people who perform well in niche subjects; they may seem incredibly smart. They may be a “quiet type” who suddenly comes alive when it is time for them to engage in said activity. The person I’m describing has no exceptional talent or ability. They are simply obsessed with their craft; this obsession has led them down a path where they then become specialists by default.
Do you know how sometimes you can get bored doing the same thing repeatedly? I don’t get those feelings. My life is simplistic, and I’m a low maintenance type; I prefer repetitive tasks.
When I decide to put my mind on a task, I am fully locked in and focused; it’ll take priority over anything, there is little to no wiggle room. I can be so engaged in my crafts that I would forget to feed myself.
I can become so engaged in my crafts and hobbies that the positivity I feel while doing my work can overwhelm sensations such as my appetite or the need to go out and socialize. Often I do not share the same interests as others. When I meet new people, I often talk about my interests, not because I like talking about myself but because I want to see if the other person can connect to the things I’m interested in. If you’re going to engage in conversation with an autistic person, my top tip is to avoid all small talk. You can talk to me directly about your interests or things you’ve been doing or plans or ideas for the day. I define small talk as purposeless discussion; my mind goes blank. Maintaining the conversation becomes a source of anxiety because there are no “details” for my mind to focus on that would interest us both.
I’ve written a separate article on physical stimming; this is another type of repetitive behaviour which concerns specific movements or actions rather than being obsessed with a particular activity. For some, this could include hand-biting, rocking back/forth, spinning, hand-flapping, leg-jogging, and even repeating sounds, words, or phrases. These actions will look odd to people not on the spectrum, but it is not a cause for concern. Stimming is a self-soothing mechanism; autistic people tend to be hypersensitive to environmental stimulants (sights and sounds, etc.). In places where a lot is going on, physical stimulation can distract the mind from being overwhelmed. Similarly, my mind is hyperactive; it constantly races and never stops; when my mind races, physical stimuli act to guide me back into reality.
As much as I pretend not to care, it does bring me a sense of pain, knowing that my interests or habits may not be things that most people will care about as much as I do. It makes me feel dull, regardless of how much I could be enjoying myself. I find more comfort navigating virtual spaces than in real life; my laptop is a crucial part of my daily routine that I can’t go without. I crave endless sources of mental stimulation on my laptop. I can connect to millions of people on my laptop, having complete control over when and where I choose to do so. I can relate to people who are just as quirky as me or who have similar interests.
My social skills are not the best. Strangers make me uncomfortable; eye contact is not something l like to maintain for prolonged periods. I have a close circle of friends that I like interacting with.
I come across as an asshole, and there are many valid reasons. It is in my face; people have stopped me numerous times to say things like, “smile, bro, you look like you’re about to kill someone”, or “how come you look pissed off all the time”. I believe it’s called resting bitch face, and it doesn’t help that after hearing these comments, I genuinely get annoyed.
Secondly, I’m likely to say no to many opportunities to chill or hang out unless I have a specific reason for wanting to. I feel guilty because there have been numerous occasions where someone has extended their hand in friendship, never to be reciprocated. “Jason, if there’s any time you want to hang out sometime, let me know!” They’ll never hear from me. I struggle with eye contact and small talk; it’s not difficult for you to think I don’t like you. There is something abnormal in my head; I don’t prioritize social interaction with the same energy as most people.
I’m not just an introvert; I am an autistic introvert, meaning I am probably one of the most reserved individuals you’ll ever meet. I think of my behaviour or demeanour by comparing myself to either a calculator or an actor. Public speaking gives me minimal anxiety when I can prepare what I say beforehand. Giving presentations or speeches is relatively straightforward; spontaneous small talk is an entirely different stress level. In scenarios where I have an extent of preparation that allows me to “act out a role,” you would never acknowledge there are communication irregularities.
In settings with overwhelming audio or visual stimuli, you’d see me In “calculator mode”. I sit back and analyze whatever is going on around me. I zone out, blocking out all of the environmental noise and then slowly taking in whatever is happening around me. I may listen to what people are saying or watch what people do. My mind will latch onto any sounds or moving objects in my vicinity; autistic people are sensitive to what is going on around us. My mind gets overwhelmed by trying to take in everything going on at once, often leaving me indecisive about how I should conduct myself.
You’d mistake me for a stoic/stern individual; my personality is more volatile. I can be overjoyed, bursting with laughter over trivial things. I can be a crying mess, obsessing over my insecurities or incompetents. I am not sure what I come across as to other people. I have a hard time projecting my true intentions to people. I can be insensitive, upsetting people without really meaning to do it.
When I look at other people, it seems as if they inherently know how to interact and communicate with each other. I find it easier to understand clear-consistent language which matches up word to word with your intended message. I frequently misinterpret gestures and tone of voice; I would need extra time to process them.
Understanding nonverbal communication, abstract concepts, sarcasm and other crap becomes a lot easier once I’ve familiarised myself with a person and studied their way of communicating, but it does take a while. It isn’t that my mind can’t interpret these cues; my mind will automatically ignore them and listen to your words. My mind is logical and literal when you talk. When interacting with people, this logical/literal default to my information processing is a consistent communication barrier.
I find it difficult to form friendships or maintain healthy ones. Even if I want to interact with people, I remain unsure how to do it. It can also mean that I tend to form more toxic relationships. Psychopaths, sociopaths, and narcissists often form “friends” or drain life from more socially isolated people. Due to my inability to make friends, I tend to keep toxic people in my life longer than I should, as if I am a slave to my loyalty. In the past, I have failed to establish or enforce firm boundaries with some people in my life. Due to differences in communication, it is easier for boundaries to be crossed unintentionally or maliciously. I lacked confidence in the strength of those friendships. I thought that addressing the issues would result in losing that person. I failed to realize that I was better off losing that person anyway if we could not talk it over.
I genuinely cannot tell whether people like me or not; it is a jarring process. All I can do is carry on working on personal development. I can overcome many of these difficulties with time; I have no doubt. I am 23 now, and it is only recently that I have realized that I am on the autism spectrum. Right now, it’s 26/02/2022, and it was at the start of this month that I came to the realization. I don’t even know If I have this on my medical record, I may have been diagnosed when I was young, but I was kept in the dark about it all. My life is finally starting to make sense; it has given me a new burst of motivation; recently, my mental health has not been so good. But I am looking forward to my future.