Exactly two years ago, I walked into the office of my therapist. I sat down on her couch with my wife by my side. I took a long, deep breath and slowly exhaled, waiting for some answers to my 36 year-long question. After what seemed like a life time, she grabbed her clipboard. She glanced over the multiple assessments we had completed in weeks prior and looked me in the eye (well, at least she tried), uttering the three words I had both worried about and wanted to hear: “autism spectrum disorder.”
While the diagnosis didn’t change who I was, it did change my understanding of who I had been. In many ways I have spent the last two years learning myself all over again.
At times the journey into the past has been perplexing. Other times the journey has been painful. Ultimately the journey has ignited a passion for sharing my story, serving others, and speaking words of hope and encouragement for all those who also walk this path.
One the most interesting and educational parts of my journey has been the time spent reflecting with my family. According to my mother, a teacher once told her, “Lamar is very smart, but there is something wrong with him and I can’t quite figure it out.”
I never heard her say those words. In fact, I never heard most of what people said about me or around me, but I felt it. I felt it so strongly that the smart but somewhat difficult, awkward, and puzzling kid went away around middle school. What surfaced was a frightened child who created a phony image of myself because I desperately needed to survive a world that my brain wasn’t built for and a society that thought I was strange.
My grades began to plummet because while I didn’t always know what to do, I learned what not to do to fit it in. Don’t be smart. Mask your intelligence. Pretend to be someone else. Nod and smile. Be “normal.” This was how I survived until high school when it stopped working. My freshman year of high school I was kicked out of school for not going to class. If you had asked me why, I wouldn’t have been able to explain.
I knew my strategy had to change. I had exhausted the energy needed to continue my façade of fitting in, and I was failing miserably. At age 14, I turned to drugs and alcohol as a response to pressure to behave like a “people person” and entertain the unreasonable expectations the world placed on me. It led me down a road that dead ends at the corner of lonely and lost.
Thankfully, I survived and am doing well today, but decades later I find myself searching for more ways to use my story, my experiences, and my past to point other young autistic boys and girls in the right direction. I can’t change my past, but perhaps I can help change someone’s path.
If I had a chance to write a letter to the undiagnosed, brilliant but bullied, burdened, and burnt-out young teenaged Lamar, this is what I would say. Perhaps if you’re young and on the spectrum, it may help you too.
Let me cut to the chase. Everyone is right. You are different. It’s OK, embrace it. Different does not mean deficient. In fact, I’ve learned at age 38 that the only way to truly make a difference in the world is to be willing to be different. You were born to make a difference, so be different.
Don’t aspire to be “normal.” Trust me, normal isn’t working anymore and it hasn’t been working for quite some time now. The reality is that “normal” in many ways has been defined by others. The world is filled with different types of minds, and maybe the problem isn’t being normal — perhaps the problem is with who has decided what “normal” means.
I know you’re only 14 right now, and fitting in seems to be the primary purpose in life. But I have to tell you that the pursuit of pleasing everyone will leave an enormous void in your heart. It will also leave a void in the world. That void can only be filled with your unique voice, a voice that can bring change. So don’t aspire to be normal, aspire to be a leader.
Your voice has the potential to be bigger and broader then you believe. Your voice matters, and because of it, you can break down walls and barriers with a blunt force brought on by your relentless pursuit of your dreams.
I am challenging you to not just shatter the glass ceiling over your head, but to burn down the entire building and use the flames from the fallen stereotypes to blaze a trail that leaves your trials in ashes.
Allow the curiosity that comes so naturally from your autistic brain to capture your imagination. Use that imagination and curiosity to challenge the status quo. “We’ve always done it that way” is not a reason; it is merely an observation from someone else. Always believe more in your potential than in the problems people say you have. Dare to go first. Lead with conviction and character, and be greater than their best excuse. Your mind is beautiful. Your voice is powerful. Your purpose is wonderful.
Don’t settle for normal. Be great.
A version of the post originally appeared on autismpastor.com.
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