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How My Special Interest Helped Me With School Anxiety as an Autistic Teen

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I thought I would dedicate my first article on The Mighty to how Pokemon has enhanced my life — more specifically, how a particular character became my source of light during my autistic burnout. I am hoping this article can help spread the message of how important special interests are to many autistic people, and how much good they can bring when we don’t feel pressured to suppress them.

Ever since I was 7, Pokemon has been my primary hobby. I have always found the Pokemon world super intriguing, as it is both complex and lighthearted. There are so many things to keep track of, like Pokemon types, abilities and stats, and I love that. It’s so easy to get lost in thought about Pokemon, almost as if I am entering a whole other world. That, combined with the fact that Pokemon’s atmosphere is so lighthearted, makes it a great distraction for when I am feeling stressed.

When I started middle school in 2013, it wasn’t overly bad, but I didn’t enjoy how loud and crowded it was and how many students swore like sailors. Fortunately, I still had the calming atmosphere of Pokemon to help compensate for the less-than-calming atmosphere of middle school. Pokemon gave me lots of distractions to help me unwind after a long day, including dozens of new characters who just so happened to make their debut the same fall I started middle school.

The main contributor, however, was the anime series that aired at this time. “Pokemon the Series: XY” had lots of characters I found entertaining to watch, many of whom I could also relate to. Characters like Clemont learning to become more self-confident, and Serena blushing hard when someone teases her about her crush on Ash were all endearing for me to watch. Getting to see a new episode with my dad every Saturday was more often than not the highlight of my week.

Although nearly all the characters were enjoyable for me to watch, there was one in particular who would play an especially therapeutic role for me in 2016. I saw a lot of myself in a recurring character, Sawyer, who is a Pokemon trainer. We both like taking notes to help us work toward a goal we feel passionate about, and we can both very easily set our mind to that goal (that’s why I managed to finish this article before the end of Pokemon Day).

In Sawyer’s case, his goal was to catch up to Ash, who had far more Gym Badges than him at the time of his debut. This was back in the summer of 2015, right before my grade nine year. Back then, I didn’t think much of Sawyer as a rival to Ash, as it seemed impossible that he would catch up to him before the end of the XY series. That didn’t seem to faze him though, because even after he lost badly to Ash, he still confidently declared he would get stronger and stronger on his way to surpass Ash.

As Sawyer did just that offscreen, I began my final year of middle school. Grade nine was eventful to say the least. I had lots of fond moments with the friends I had made throughout middle school, which seemed to compensate for the increasing level of stress I felt from the uncomfortable atmosphere. Yeah, that didn’t last. Once May came along, all the built-up stress of middle school led to autistic burnout. I became significantly more irritable and scared of my school environment, which reached the point where I needed to take many days off school. It was clear that I needed my special interest more than ever.

Although playing Pokemon every day did help me temporarily escape from my anxiety, it still did not manage to make up for it like it did before. I still knew that I would eventually be back in school, and even though I didn’t know I was going through autistic burnout at the time, I could sense it would take more than just time for my anxiety to disappear. I needed something that could help me in the long term rather than the short term.

Fortunately, it just so happened that at that time, in the original Japanese version of the anime, Sawyer revealed he won more Gym Badges than Ash. He achieved his goal of catching up to his role model before the series’ end, which took every character and myself by surprise. This was a powerful moment for me, as it showed that with determination, you can make an incredible amount of progress.

I believe this was just the message I needed during my burnout. At first, I had felt doubtful that I had the power to make a satisfying improvement to my school life seeing as how nothing I tried seemed to work. After seeing how much progress Sawyer’s determination helped him make, however, I felt much more hopeful that I could find an effective and practical solution to my anxiety at school.

I didn’t find a solution overnight though. Like Sawyer with his goal, I knew it would take time and effort, as well as a reliable calming strategy that would allow me to think more clearly. Luckily, Sawyer helped immensely with that as well. Just thinking about him brought me a sense of comfort and optimism that sometimes made me forget all about my anxiety, just like Pokemon in general did before my burnout. He was by far the most effective distraction from my stress. This is why most of my Pokemon-related activities centered around him, such as writing a novel adaptation about his episodes or playing through his scenes in my head, both of which did wonders in easing my day-to-day anxiety.

The only thing that was holding me back from this strategy at first was self-consciousness about being so hyper-focused on an anime character, especially one who was four years younger than me at the time. I knew there were probably some people who would find this weird. As I allowed myself to focus on Sawyer, however, I realized that taking care of myself was much more important than conforming to expectations that wouldn’t even affect anyone negatively. Thinking about Sawyer was the one thing I found enough comfort in that I could actually forget about my stress at school temporarily. I did still keep my interest in him mostly to myself, though I didn’t suppress it all. Instead, I embraced it, and that was what led to me feeling somewhat calmer by the end of my summer before high school.

Although I was at a new school in a slightly calmer headspace, it wasn’t long before I realized this school wasn’t working for me either. Fortunately, because I was able to think more clearly, I could look for what exactly I needed that didn’t involve kicking anyone out of the school. I wanted to be away from specific people, but I didn’t want to say goodbye to my friends, so the first thing I did was ask if they go to any after-school events. This was when I discovered the youth group half of them went to every Thursday. I tried it out, and although it took several weeks of getting used to because of how loud it was, I eventually grew to enjoy it.

Once I had this routine in place, I knew I would be just fine with leaving the school and doing online school instead. I expected it would take some trial and error as well, but if it meant I could reach my goal of finding a school routine that worked for me, I was completely up for it.

I’ll never forget the moment I left my high school for the last time right before Christmas break. It felt like a huge weight was suddenly lifted off my shoulders as my brother’s support worker drove me away from the sensory nightmare I would never have to experience again. New Year’s was also an unforgettable day for me, as it was a fresh start to a much calmer year, but also the last time I heard a new clip of Sawyer’s voice. This was probably one of the most bittersweet days of my life. I don’t know if Sawyer will make a return at some point, but I’m happy he can live on as the reason I had at least some fond memories during my burnout (and the protagonist of a long series of fanfictions I later wrote).

My decision to homeschool did lead to a much happier life for me. All the trial and error was worth it, and I managed to get all my high school credits six months before I would have even graduated public school. Switching to homeschooling was easily the best decision of my life, and so was embracing the interest I had in the character who allowed me to find some comfort along the way.

Image via Bulbapedia.

Originally published: April 13, 2020
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