To My Son on the Autism Spectrum: You Are Like the Sea to Me

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I can spend my life watching you, observing how you see the sea.

The more I see your connection to the sea, the more I understand your life.

I marvel at how you watch the water come and go — how you stick your hands in the sand. You stop, turn to see me and smile. Then you take me by the hand and we walk to the shore. We swim together. Then we go back to the shore and sit on the sand. I see your expression as you feel the waves thunder in your feet. You smile at me again, take my hand once more to get back in the water. We do this over and over, but each time, it’s as if it were the first. I wonder if you want to make sure the experience is real.

And it’s amazing, right? Impossible to believe, I know that feeling.

I keep looking at you, and my eyes fill with tears. I wonder how someone can say you’re “absent” when to me you’re the most alive and present being in this world. You are present in every moment, letting yourself feel in the full extent of the word. You feel the air move your hair in the sun, you hear the sound of the sea, you watch the clouds and the shapes they make in the sky, you touch all the textures around you with your hands and feet. You even savor the taste of salt in your mouth.

You perceive everything around you, and I wonder if that’s why it’s difficult to express yourself in words. With me, you do not need words to express yourself. I’m here with you, unconditionally. We are accomplices in life and in our souls.

The sea amazes me too, and now I understand how much you have in common with it.

That depth in your soul, your calm and your strength. That mysticism and greatness that everyone falls in love with. Serenity and tempest. Beauty and tension.

Like the sea, you awaken in me wonderful feelings and emotions.

I love you, Álvaro. I know you’ll be sad and you’ll cry for a while when we have to go, but it’s time to go to bed.

Love you always,
Mom

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What My Daily Life on the Autism Spectrum Is Like

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I wanted to write a post about what it’s like to live life on the autism spectrum. I was initially diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome in elementary school. In high school, the school psychologist changed this to PDD-NOS (pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified).

Please be aware, anything I write here should be considered to be from my own experiences. People on the autism spectrum deserve to be able to speak for themselves, and I do not want to overwrite anyone else’s experiences. Other people who are autistic have their own experiences and perspectives and deserve to be heard. I can only speak to my own experiences.

So that all being said, what is life actually like for me? Well, imagine if you had chronic allergies. You are allergic to so many things, that the littlest particle of dust, or a piece of pollen could set you off. Well, as a person on the spectrum, I am hypersensitive to things that might not bother some other people.

Someone touching me unexpectedly feels like I’m getting the wind knocked out of me. Large crowds can be very overwhelming for me, and make me feel like I’m being suffocated to death. Likewise, sounds that wouldn’t necessarily bother some other people can feel like fireworks going off if in my head. I’m sure you get the picture.

Going through my day, I can often feel overwhelmed and set off by even the littlest things. Sometimes I’ve had to leave college early, because I am just too overwhelmed to stay on campus. People on the spectrum are often accused of having no emotions. On the contrary, we can experience too many emotions, and this can overwhelm us easily.

Being social is much harder for me. It takes a lot of effort and energy on my part to put myself out there and be with my friends. It takes even more energy for me to introduce myself to new people. I’ve been blessed to have a small group of close friends who love and care about me. Still, putting myself out there in social situations can be taxing.

When I meet people, I don’t always make eye contact. Sometimes when I do look at a person, I’ll look at their forehead instead of looking them in the eyes. It’s just too hard to keep eye contact for me. Other times when I’m in a group of new people, I’ll just sit by myself silently, because I am too intimidated to get up and say hi, or I just feel too overwhelmed to do anything about it.

Both of these things — hanging out with my friends, and being with new people — take a lot of energy on my part, and quickly make me tired and exhausted. Being social with others takes a lot of time and effort on my part. Many times it is just easier for me to sit in silence and be alone than be social with others. Sometimes I do a good job with being social for a little bit, but then have to leave because I just lack the energy to continue.

If you looked at me when I’m in public, you might notice some peculiar things about me. When I’m sitting in a chair, I like to rock myself back and forth, or flap my hands. I don’t do these “stims” for fun. They are a way for me to cope and adjust myself to the overwhelming emotions I feel on a daily basis. When I am standing up, I like to pace as a way of also coping. Many people criticize my pacing, but I think it helps me cope with all the emotions I feel. I’m not going to stop harmless types of stimming that help me cope. My perspective is, unless the stimming is dangerous, let it be.

So what happens if I become too overwhelmed by something? I’ve developed a pretty simple coping skill. I just leave the situation or area that’s causing it. For example, sometimes I leave a building at school or a class early if something is bothering me too much. What happens if you can’t leave, though?

When an autistic person is pushed to their breaking point, and is overwhelmed, it’s called a meltdown. Every autistic person has their own version of it, but for me its usually involves tears, and sobbing. Years ago, when I had depression, I was often easily overwhelmed, and would sob uncontrollably for hours. Today, I’m happy to say that because I’m more resilient, and have better coping skills, that meltdowns are rare. When they do happen, I typically calm down within a few minutes.

Now, the last thing I wanted to write about is my special interests. I have two: Pokemon and Harry Potter. I do not understand why everyone does not love Pokemon and the Harry Potter books like I do. If Harry Potter and Pokemon were the only things I could talk about, I would. Except, I’m not socially oblivious anymore. I’ve had years of therapy on social skills, and I realize most people do not share my interest in Harry Potter and Pokemon.

When I talk about Pokemon, sometimes it sounds a lot like a monologue. Very little real conversation takes place, and this can often be a problem. I can proudly say that with effort, I can hold a conversation and dialogue with other people on other topics.

This is basically what my life is like in a nutshell. Remember, these are my own personal experiences only. For other autistic people, it may be different. I am only speaking for myself. I just wanted to share what daily life is like for someone on the spectrum.

Follow this journey on Michael’s Portfolio.

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Thinkstock image by jokerpro

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How My Experiences as a Student on the Autism Spectrum Shaped My Career Path

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Imagine not being able to communicate with the people you care about the most about your basic needs growing up. This used to be my story.

When I was diagnosed with autism at 4, I was just starting pre-K. It was one of the most difficult transitions of my life. Ever since my diagnosis, I knew I was special, although it wasn’t until I was 11 that I learned I had an autism spectrum disorder, pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS).

During my academic career, I’ve dealt with many challenges in the school systems. One of those first challenges had to do with speech. I was completely nonverbal until I was 2 and a half and didn’t start saying my first few words until I was 3. I wouldn’t start speaking in complete sentences until I was 5. Along the way, I’d also have challenges with expressive and receptive language disorder, sensory integration dysfunction, auditory processing disorder, twirling, dysgraphia (a handwriting disorder), motor challenges, anxiety and emotional issues due to my lack of speech.

Added to this laundry list of challenges was being a victim of bullying. When I was in public school until fourth grade, I was in a special needs setting of students ranging in ages of 6 to 14. Along with being extremely shy due to my lack of speech, I was bullied by my classmates because I was one of the youngest kids in our classes. My peers who weren’t in special education used to call us the “retarded class.” When I was mainstreamed in mathematics in fourth grade, I was given the name “Captain retarded” because I was one of the only students with a disability to be mainstreamed. For so long I wanted to quit school because I thought no one would ever understand me or want to be my friend due to my autism diagnosis. When I transitioned to private school and found out about having autism for the first time, I researched about how I could use my autism as strength.

One of those strengths involved honing in on my key interests. This led me to thinking about one of my first key interests I ever had in basketball. I could tell you all 30 NBA basketball teams and most of the players on those teams. I turned that key interest into finding friends in school while also losing over 60 pounds to play basketball for my school team.

I turned learning about my key interests in school to finding ways to motivate myself to do well in my academics. This started with self-reflection exercises and later into reward systems (for example, one hour of homework would lead to 15 minutes of playing NBA 2K on PlayStation). This has been of the biggest triggers for me today being able to graduate from high school, graduating with my undergraduate degree, receiving my masters and getting accepted into a doctoral program to become a teacher.

Now after being able to say that I’ve overcome many of my obstacles, for the past six years I’ve traveled the country speaking at almost 700 events about autism, disabilities, story-telling, innovation and bullying prevention. One of my favorite talks I give today though is to educators called “Teach the way our students learn.” Autism is a spectrum disorder, and if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve truly met just that — one person with autism. I educate our educators today that when we establish a rapport with our students, and find what they love to do and help them harness that passion, we can help them succeed.

Along the route of public speaking I’ve been able to hold a full-time job for the past three and a half years; write two best-selling books; consult on several disability-related films to bring a realistic portrayal of disabilities to our entertainment industry; start a nonprofit organization that’s given more than 30 scholarships to students with autism for college; and accept a job as a local talk show host highlighting stories of people with disability, disease and overcoming obstacles. I also recently moved into my first apartment post-college and have been able to thrive through many vocational skills I once found challenging growing up.

In my spare time, as someone who grew up not knowing anyone who was on the spectrum to look up to, I now mentor high school students on the spectrum to help them transition to adulthood, whether it be housing, employment and/or postsecondary education.

The final words I say when I finish any talk are something I wanted to share here, too. Growing up in school, I said that autism had hindered my education. Now today in school, I say that autism is just one of the many parts of making me who I am. I now say, “Autism can’t define me. I define autism.” Now one day after graduating with my doctorate degree, I hope I can teach and help our educators and students even more.

A version of this post originally appeared on Kerrymagro.com.

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Thinkstock image by CreativaImages

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AutonomyWorks Hires People With Autism for Their Unique Skills

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AutonomyWorks is a tech company with a goal to build a global network of over 10,000 employees with autism.

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This tech company hires people with autism for their unique skills.

AutonomyWorks creates jobs for people with autism that utilize their unique talents and abilities.

Based in Chicago, they provide technology services to different organizations such as Autism Speaks.

AutonomyWorks employees test software, update websites, process financial transactions and more.

Each associate receives a custom-tailored working environment.

Associates also receive occupational support, job coaching and social and life skills training.

AutonomyWorks hopes to change the way the world views people with autism,

As well as create a profitable, global business employing 10,000 adults with autism.

To learn more, visit autonomy.works.

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Mikaela Sheldt Paints Facial Expressions as an Artist on the Autism Spectrum

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When Mikaela Sheldt was 17 years old, her parents bought her painting supplies – opening the door to a world Sheldt’s mathematically-inclined brain never knew existed.

“Honestly, I wasn’t very interested in art,” Sheldt told The Mighty. “But one day I came home and started painting on my bedroom walls. I think I was 17 or something. It just seemed like a good idea and I went with it.”

Drawing in ink of a man with long hair and a beard.

A physics and mathematics student, Sheldt’s decision to pursue art as a career didn’t come until years after college. “I still continued to study math and physics in college, but art slowly took over my world,” Sheldt said. “I started painting as a way to process all the things I was feeling inside myself. It made me feel better to paint. When I was painting, I felt connected in a way I never had before.”

Sheldt graduated from Agnes Scott College, a women’s college in Decatur, Georgia, and took a job teaching mathematics at a nearby school for refugee boys. Two years later she left teaching to pursue art full-time.

Colorful painting of a woman's face.

Now, the 29-year-old artist focuses on a number of creative pursuits including painting, creative writing and photography. She’s painted large seascape commissions, spent time as the artist-in-residence at a Sonoma County winery and has had exhibits and galleries dedicated to her work.

Still, Sheldt insists she’s not a creative person. “I am not creative, I just see the world uniquely,” she said. “When I paint a portrait or a seascape I am doing so much more than rendering. I am painting they way a subject makes me feel. As a person on the autism spectrum, painting the way something feels has a very distinct meaning. The world is an incredibly loud place.”

Painting of an African American man

Of all the paintings in Sheldt’s portfolio, some of her most striking work are her portraitures – canvases that extend almost from floor to ceiling, featuring intimate gazes and candid expressions. Rather than live models, Sheldt uses photographs to create her artwork, referencing her experience of a person in addition to processing the visual information in front of her.

“A person’s face has in incredibly high concentration of information coming off of it. There are so many things to process all at once, often I can’t look at someone when I am tired because it is painful,” she said. “In my studio, I get lost exploring the depth of all of this information. I become obsessed with decoding and translating all of the stimulation that comes off a person’s face.”

Colorful painting of a woman's face

The whole process, Sheldt said, is exhausting. As a person on the autism spectrum, Sheldt experiences emotions, sounds, smells, weight and texture all at once. “During the day when I’m trying to engage with the world outside my bedroom, it is overwhelming,” she explained. “In my studio, when I’m painting, I get to focus and obsess on one thing at a time. I get to take as long as I want to experience and process.”

The process continues until the painting makes Sheldt feel the same way the paintings subject makes her feel. “I use an immense amount of energy trying to move through a world that isn’t designed for autistic people,” she said. “My painting process is exhausting, but it is also incredibly rewarding.”

Black and White up close painting of a face.

All images featured belong to Mikaela Sheldt, and are used with permission. 

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This Floral and Retail Shop Sells Gifts Made by People With Autism And Trains Them for Hire

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Autism Avenue is a floral and gift shop that trains and hires young adults with autism and sells items made by its employees.

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This floral and retail shop does more than just sell gifts made by people with autism.

Autism Avenue is a one of a kind floral and retail shop which hires young adults with autism.

The structured work environment provides job training and real world experience for its trainees.

Located in Wichita, Kansas, potential employees must master a pre-training program before they are considered for a position.

Working gives trainees the opportunity to practice the skills they’ve learned while building self-esteem, social connections and motivation.

Items sold in the shop are unique and personal because they are created by the employees.

The store also carries support resources as well as awareness items such as necklaces, bracelets and artwork.

To learn more about Autism Avenue, visit autismave.com.

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