When the World Expects You to Bend as an Autistic Person
I don’t remember who said it, but I once heard the analogy that a person on the spectrum sees the details before they see the big picture. The problem is the world is designed around people who see the big picture first. It meant I had to adapt to a world that does not accommodate me. To be autistic means to bend to the world, and for autistic people, it is difficult to bend.
Autistic kids first meet this need to bend within the formal education system, and that’s where many of them break. I have been in school environments that would rather have autistic kids fit the mold rather than try and help, and I have been in school environments that can accommodate people on the spectrum. The American public school system is not great for autistic kids. If it was not required by law, I think the school I went to would have done nothing to accommodate my being on the spectrum.
Worse than the demands of the system is the social toll on kids with autism. I got bullied a lot and there was no way out of it. If I fought back, the school would punish me. If I ignored the bullies, they just pushed harder. I could not leave school so there was no escape. If I told a teacher or faculty member, maybe the kid would get a stern finger shake, but for the most part, nothing happened. There was one incident where I was minding my own business in front of the library. Some kids came up to me, grabbed a deck of info cards that was next to me, and threw it into a bush while I chased after them. The deck was ruined and the school knew who did it and promised to replace the cards, but nothing came of it.
There is a philosophical razor called “Hanlon’s razor” which means “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” Hanlon’s razor applies to most bullies. In middle school, for example, my friend and I were getting bullied a lot by this one kid and it got to the point my friend pulled a pair of scissors on him in self-defense. My friend got temporarily suspended. The school did nothing to the bully, but he realized how scared he made us feel and left us alone. Later he apologized to me for his behavior. I think kids bully because they think it is funny and nobody taught them any better. They were smart enough to know that the school would never really do anything. They did not consider those other kids they were bullying would be hurt.
Kids can be smart and want to learn, but for the most part, kids are foolish. I was foolish. In middle school I was under the delusion I was some sort of savant and did not have to study for tests or classes, which came to bite me in the ass when I got to college. The stereotypes of autistic people that I was exposed to at the time were that of geniuses without good social skills. That stereotype gave me delusions of grandeur and as a result, I did not work as hard as I should have. After my middle school experience, it was clear that a public high school would have torn me apart. So, my parents looked at a couple of different options until I found my Jerusalem — a small school that specializes in kids like me. That school was fewer than a hundred kids total, which includes all grades and a graduating class that was less than 20 each year.
There were two groups of kids in that school. One was the neurodiverse kids like me where I made all my friends and made me feel like I was among my people. The second was kids with disciplinary problems; the environment provided made these kids mellow out. Both groups were neglected by the wider system of public schools. The school was so small that no one could get away with anything and the school was better at dealing with problems if they arose.
Much like in that middle-school special education class, it was easy for me to make friends among the neurodiverse kids. I made some great friendships at that school. I played Dungeons and Dragons and discovered I had a knack for writing. My teacher had us do this thing called national writing novel month or NaNoWriMo where you had to write a novel in a month. I enjoyed that and I still do it to this day. The classes were good and the teachers were very engaging and passionate.
But I still had problems, mostly socially. While I got along with my neurodiverse friends I tried to make it with the “cool” kids. I never had much success. I think the worst thing about high school for me was that I said a bunch of stupid shit. I said things that were inappropriate because at the time I did not know what I was saying. One example I could think of is when I told another student the “wink wink, nudge nudge” without knowing it implied sex. If I could go back in time I would have slapped myself for some of the stuff I said.
Overall, my high school experience was good. While I gave all my high school friends my email before graduating, I neglected to get their contact info and made the mistake of having them make the first move. Because of that, I lost contact with all my high school friends swiftly after graduating. But nothing could have prepared me for college.
I don’t think anyone is prepared for college. Sure, you can prepare and be ready for the subjects to take but I don’t think anyone mentions the environment. I go to a community college, not a four-year university, so I don’t know if my experience is universal, but here it goes. Before college things are very rigid; your schedule is decided for you, you cannot leave the campus in most cases, and you are pretty tight-knit with your classmates. College is different.
As a person on the spectrum, the level of freedom that college gave me was intimidating and liberating. As an autistic person, I need structure to function, but as an adult I naturally wanted independence. This is where not learning how to study bit me in the ass. I struggled the first few quarters as I underestimated the workload classes gave you and I had to drop a class or two when it was clear I could not handle it. I even outright failed one class. There were accommodations for me and I got some genuine help from counselors with managing my schedule. For the most part, those accommodations were useless to me.
I had heard about people discovering themselves in college. I had thought I wanted to be a novelist, but it was clear I lacked the self-discipline to write a whole book. I drifted aimlessly for a solid year before I found my calling. I liked animals so naturally, I decided to become a vet tech. But becoming a vet tech meant taking some challenging science courses, so I had to get help and learn to study for my classes. As of this writing, I am taking classes and getting help to qualify for a veterinary technician program at my school, but I still write as a hobby.
As I was finding my way through community college, something else happened: the worst time of my life. November 2016. A lot happened that month. It was my first year out of high school and I thought I was ready to take on the world. I reached out to the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation to help me get a job. They did practically nothing to help me prepare for it and slapped me with the first grocery store job they could find. That job wore me out physically and mentally. I was on my feet for hours at a time. I often had inconsistent hours and was broken down fast. My bike even got stolen while I was working. After all that I was fired after less than two weeks. They didn’t tell me why I was fired. While it was a relief to not have to do the job, it did suck to get let go.
That was also the first year I was able to legally vote. Let us just say that the president who won did not represent autistic interests and leave it at that. I don’t want to go into detail because I am straight-up tired of talking about Trump. Getting fired and the presidential election all happened in the same week. Because of that, I can pinpoint that week at the start of my mental health decline. I have not mentioned it until now, but those on the spectrum are more susceptible to mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.
I fell into a depression that year. That depression got progressively worse over the next two years, even with help. At one point I thought about taking my own life. I was hospitalized and had to go to group therapy afterward for a few months. Most of that time is honestly a blur to me. I can say that I got better.
During that time I had given up on being a writer and was just kind of drifting with classes. It was so bad that I had started having panic attacks whenever the topic of my future came up. Then I took an intro to vet tech class and decided that working with animals was going to be my new career. With a goal in mind and a new drive, it was like climbing out of a pit of mud and I was reinvigorated to try harder in college with this long-term goal in mind. I had a plan to get into my community college’s Veterinary Technology program.
“May you live in interesting times” is an old curse, and I never knew what it meant until COVID-19 hit. The pandemic hit California in March of 2020 at the end of the school quarter. I had to switch to taking online classes. Online. Classes. Suck. Let me tell you why. A classroom is free of distractions. I would sometimes doodle in my notebook, but that was about it. Now I have to use a video conference program on the computer with all my games. If a lecture gets boring, what is stopping me from opening up a tab or a game in the middle of class? If I don’t have my camera on I could be absent the entire time and the professor would have no idea. It is like forcing yourself to reach for a plate of carrots surrounded by bowls of candy. You have to force yourself to not reach for the candy.
I tried to find other places to study away from home. I could not go to the school library to wind down or study because all the libraries were closed. Cafes can be a good place to study, but they don’t want you to use their wifi unless you buy something. I could not sit inside due to COVID-19 regulations and it got too cold to sit outside for long periods. I cut my schedule down to one class because I was struggling to pay attention.
There are a couple of upsides to COVID-19. I like wearing a mask because it is easier for me to interact with people. I don’t have to worry about reading people’s faces or managing my facial expressions. Another upside is I can walk my dog more often. But I would like things to go back to normal.
If you are not neurotypical, the world was not designed for you. I find places to be too loud and overstimulating at times. I have to do a social fake because I am not good at expressing my emotions. Atop all that, there are a lot of misconceptions about autism. If I tell a person I am autistic, I have no idea what their impression might be. They might think I have an intellectual disability or they just may not know what autism is. In a world where most people’s operating system is running Windows, I am running Linux. An autistic person can find organizations or people that do understand, but those are far and few between. If an autistic person wants to be a member of the wider world, it means they have to sacrifice some of their comforts. They have to deal with people who don’t understand boundaries, deal with systems that want conformity, and a government that does everything to do as little as possible to help if it can. I’m not going to pretend some people don’t have it worse. But it is not comforting being in a world where some people use you as an excuse to avoid vaccinations and spread disease.
There is some hope in the world. My mother told me that 20 years ago, there was very little information or organizations focused on helping autistic kids. Now there are conferences, services, communities, and people to help me and other autistic people. I am hopeful for autistic people. Maybe the world can bend a little bit, and maybe being different can be an asset instead of a liability. Time will tell.
Getty image by vejaa.