When people used to hear the word “autism”, they would picture Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man, counting cards at the casino with Tom Cruise. Now, it seems like people know about the condition a lot more, with awareness campaigns around the world bringing it to our attention. Yet autism still remains largely misunderstood.
I know what autism is like firsthand. I was diagnosed with it at the age of 13, after suffering from depression and experiencing a psychotic breakdown. A year later, in 2003, I was sectioned by my own will at the psychiatric wing of a children’s hospital. Ever since my diagnosis, I have been on medication, and been lucky enough to have incredible parents who have always been there to support me.
I had some problems during my four years of school (especially with teasing and bullying from some other students), but I did well academically. University also went well, and after five years I was able to graduate with a degree in International Development.
Today, I work part-time for a large corporation in policy analysis; it a great working environment. However, I still don’t know if I can work one day without medication, or if I am independent enough to live alone. The other problem is that Obsessive Compulsive Behaviour (OCD) is also something that tends to define parts of my personality.
I like doing repetitive things and I am obsessive for many things. I am a bibliophile, and buy endless amounts of second-hand books. I also enjoy writing a lot of electoral statistics during my spare time. I don’t know if this is something chemical, but if I don’t do these things, I feel bad, as if there is something missing in my life.
Being autistic, I also struggle in social situations. I am able to have a few close friends, and can get by in large groups, but at the age of 25 I still don’t know how to have a romantic relationship. Like many people with autism, I’m also unable to be at my best in noisy places with bright lights.
Telling my personal story is the easy part. The complex part is that each person with autism has a different story. It's impossible to generalise, making it incredibly difficult to provide support to those affected by it. This is why I think cases of autism have always existed, but only appear to have risen in the last few decades because they were previously missed or misdiagnosed.
People with autism still have many great qualities. Wherever you are on the spectrum, it makes you tenacious. You have to work harder to achieve things, but you grow stronger by doing them. You also think differently about certain things, and in this day and age, standing out from the crowd, even if it’s considered “crazy”, this can get you further in today's world. Even if they have many challenges, many people would never want to be normal, because they see their autism as a sort of gift.
Of course, many people who have autism also have mental or physical issues. But at the same time, it’s not surprising that many organisations are trying to recruit people with autism.
In my opinion, we need fewer normal people and more people who think outside the box. People who speak with the heart like I am doing now, but who also think with their head.