Every so often some of the autism pages on facebook ask questions about what we would tell ourselves/ our teachers/ our parents/ our classmates if we could go back in time and give some tidbits of advice. I find it an entertaining little thought experiment, so I thought I’d go ahead and think about things I’d want to say to various people in the past. It kind of seems like a pointless hypothetical, but actually I think it’s more than that. It’s true that I can’t change the past. And it’s true that my past, good and bad, has played a huge role in who I am today and I’d think carefully about if I’d really want to change that. However, I would like to see children today not necessarily have to deal with the things I had to deal with. I had so much trouble with so many things, it would have been nice if there had been less misunderstandings and accusations adding to that. So while I say that these are things I would say to myself or those around me if I could go back in time, they are also things I think I’d like to say to young people on the autism spectrum, and those around them.
So, some things I’d want to say to my parents and teachers 20-some years ago:
~ No, I don’t “know what I did” and I am not intentionally being difficult. Please just explain it to me directly.
So often I find that people think they are being direct, but they are not. People are not even always aware that they are using metaphors. If I don’t understand something, please really take a look at how you are explaining it to me, and consider that maybe I’m doing my best but I’m just not understanding some nuance or something that you consider implicit.
~ That’s not a tantrum, it’s a meltdown. It is not an attempt at manipulation, it is an outpouring of extreme emotion because something was just too much.
When I was very young my mom once took me to see a therapist (one of many), and the therapist spent about an hour with me a declared that I was just pushing my mom’s buttons. That I was, essentially, being manipulative. Oh, the harm that therapist caused. In any case, I wasn’t just trying to get a reaction or push buttons. And my “tantrums” were not calculated moves in order to get what I wanted. I still have meltdowns sometimes, though I’ve gotten a lot better at figuring out when I’m heading in that direction and doing something about it – because, you know, meltdowns are really unpleasant for me as well. Those meltdowns are still what they always were, the outpourings of extreme emotions that I Just. Cannot. Handle anymore.
~ Don’t spring things on me unexpectedly. Even something good can be bad if I’m not mentally prepared.
I am not particularly spontaneous. I also do not cope well with change. I have no idea how typical people handle spontaneity, but personally, I really need to prepare ahead of time for what I’m going to be doing, even if it’s a thing that I am very much looking forward to. This was true for me as a child at least as much as it’s true for me now.
~ Encourage my obsessions and interests, even if you don’t share them personally or think they’re weird.
I’ve written a defense of obsessions before, so any expanding I do here will not be as good as that post. Suffice to say – trying to force me to do or read other things will have limited effects. My interests motivate me. They educate me. They stimulate my mind and my imagination. Temple Grandin, John Elder Robison and others have had their interests turn into careers. Please, encourage me.
Some things I’d want to say to myself (or at least, things I wish I knew when I was young:
~ You’re right, “just be yourself” doesn’t make sense. You’re always yourself. However, worry less about what other people think of you, and more about what brings you joy.
I never understood it when people told me to just be myself. Aren’t I always myself? How can I be anything else? What if I am the kind of person who worries about what other people think of me? Then “being myself” would involve doing that, wouldn’t it? How would doing something different be “being myself”? Honestly, I still think the phrase is weird so I mostly just don’t use it. However, I have also found that focusing on what brings me joy – which yes, is usually in the realm of my special interests and obsessions – does a whole lot more for my happiness than anything else. I do what brings me joy, even if it isn’t what everyone else is doing.
~ Trying to be like everyone else will only hurt you in the long run.
This is closely related to the above. I tried for years to be like everyone else. It never got me anything more than pain. I am *not* like everyone else. I am different in very real, very substantial, and sometimes very difficult ways. Other people confuse me, and I confuse them. I can’t be like everyone else, so I am far better off not worrying about it and, as I said above, concerning myself more what what brings me joy.
~ It may not seem like it now, but it’s possible to be proud of your differences.
I am me. I am, slowly but surely, working on radical self acceptance. It’s there in my rejection of shame, in my embracing of obsessions, in my pride in who and what I am. I no longer want to be like everyone else, because I wouldn’t be me anymore. I would be some other person. I like being me, and I might as well take pride in it.