As a child, I didn’t know I was different. I attributed bullying, bad situations, and negative conversations to my Hispanic background. As I got older, I thought people who didn’t like me were racist, sexist, or stupid. I figured out I was a little different in high school when I realized I had to have social situations explained to me by my close friends. I didn’t understand how I said the wrong thing all the time; I just knew I did it. My mom called it “foot-in-mouth syndrome.” I figured she was making a joke.
There are two crucial parts of autism: poor social skills and poor communication skills. The way those two parts interact in the autistic brain is that the stimuli in the environment distract from an emotional conversation (which, let’s face it, is every conversation). It’s in the brain, so it’s neurological. We can’t psychologically get distracted by the environment. Often, those distractions cause us to project invalid subtle emotional cues. The cues we unintentionally project get mistaken for emotions directed at whoever we’re our conversation partner. You can see how this poses problems — lots of misunderstandings.
I learned about emotions from reading a lot, but I still have trouble with social nuance. It’s a bit of a mystery to me. Sometimes I’ll recognize a subtle emotional cue is happening, like an eyebrow raise or a blank stare. Sometimes I respond appropriately, but sometimes I misinterpret what it means in regards to what I’m saying, and that will lead to confusion. It’s easier for me to ignore the cue, so I don’t get distracted from the main point of the conversation. I do this by looking away or closing my eyes. People won’t judge you for missing their cues if they can see that you aren’t looking for them.
Eye contact and staring at faces drift my focus from the speaker’s words to what’s going on around me. It’s the opposite that happens in neurotypical people. I’ll be listening intently and understanding completely, but if during my turn to talk, I can’t focus on getting my words together. Typically, the breakdown goes like this: first, I start listing off all of the things around me that are distracting, like noises, smells, brightness, etc. if it’s a lot, the tone of my voice changes and becomes a little aggressive. I didn’t use to think anything of it until I realized that was the reason people didn’t know I was a nice person. I get very nervous talking because of that now. I like people thinking that I’m nice. Wearing sensory dulling aids, like sunglasses, earplugs, and long-sleeved shirts help keep me focused on the person talking to me.
I learned about autism when I was 24. I had the phrases that I would say to common reactions to me, and I didn’t think anything of it. One day, after a particularly lousy interaction, I googled “not good at socializing” and found quite a few mental health resources. I stumbled on a page about autism, and my world went for a spin.
At first, I was in denial. This denial phase lasted for about a year. I learned little random things about autism, and I would tell myself I didn’t do them, so that meant I didn’t have it. I figured I wasn’t THAT different. I had some social skills, I just needed to get better, and just because I didn’t make eye contact didn’t mean I had autism.
That year was a tough year for my health. I was gaining weight, experiencing joint pain, headaches, fatigue, random rashes, and LOTS of stress. I would break out into hives if I got too stressed out, which seemed to happen over any little thing. I decided it was finally time to see a therapist. Not because of that autism business, I didn’t have autism, I thought, but just because I was so stressed by life and not being able to keep up. I was feeling pretty down about myself.
After a few visits with my therapist, she asked me if I’d ever heard of autism. We discussed it, and she advised me to look into the community. I got my diagnosis confirmed by a psychiatrist.
I’m still figuring out my life on the spectrum. I would say it was a little bit of a relief, but a massive jolt to reality. I had no idea I was as different as I am. When I was a kid, people told me I was special, but I thought it was one of those things they said to kids to make them feel good. I never took it seriously. I waited to tell my mom about my diagnosis, and when I told her, I started by telling her first that I was different. Like really different, according to my therapist. She told me that she knew. That was mostly the relief. It also made me feel self-conscious because I realized it wasn’t everyone else; it was me. My perspective changed. My diagnosis made me more self-aware.
My brain processes emotions based on words, so eventually in conversation, words start to mean nothing. I start getting anxious if I still don’t understand, and I notice this is beginning to happen. Combine this with sensory distractions, and I might shut down, have a panic attack, or maybe even have a meltdown. There is a reason that people with autism feel shame and humiliation when we experience meltdowns.
Meltdowns happen when we experience sensory or social overload or both. It’s difficult for us to control our emotions at that point, so the more emotional intelligence we have, the less likely we are to be a danger to ourselves. Self-hitting, crying, screaming, and yelling is examples of this harrowing and embarrassing experience.
I struggle with feeling proud and frustrated. Proud to be a part of a community based on inclusion, self-awareness, and acceptance. Frustrated that minute things out of my control affect what I can and can’t do at times. I find myself experiencing emotional awakening more times than I thought possible. There are so many layers to human emotion, and it’s so difficult to keep track. There is something to feel that I never considered before my diagnosis, though: being interpreted as friendly feels good.