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Why I Thrive on Challenge as an Autistic Person

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I am autistic. What crosses your mind when you think of autistic? Meltdowns? Obsessions? One-ended conversations, perhaps? Well, I hardly have anyone to talk to except family, and I spend much of my time alone… but obsessions? I’ve got plenty of them. That’s what labels me as a “geek” and proud! I’ll not deny that for a Texas minute!

“Star Trek,” JRPGs (Japanese role-playing games), beading, writing, fantasy novels (namely the late Robert Jordan), dystopian science fiction, scrapbooking, to name a few… and did I mention I’m quite adept at playing the clarinet? I am also attempting to teach myself piano, albeit not very well, since I cannot read bass clef. But that does not deter me; I love challenge! I live for challenge! If there is no challenge, there is no game, no fun for me.

I also have cerebral palsy and epilepsy, and I struggle with chronic pain and migraines. There are many passions that were a part of my life that I can no longer indulge in, and I miss them so deeply. Passions such as dancing; taking long, slow walks through the park under a sunset or a starry night; even a decent aerobics workout. These things cause excessive physical pain that I can no longer endure, even while under constant pain management care, and I miss my dancing! I took dance classes and was even on a dance and drill team in my youth (I don’t believe I was half-bad, either)! If the music was playing, my body would move, and I would lose myself in the motion. This I can do no longer. But, I digress.

I focus on the things I love to do now. Video games, music, reading, making jewelry, and writing. Many autistics need a calm, collected environment that thrives on routine. My daily life is routine… for the most part. But, when it comes to the things I do for fun, I tend to “shake it up” a bit.

The author dressed up for Halloween as a video game character
The author dressed up for Halloween as a video game character, holding two swords with the lower half of her face and her forehead covered by black fabric

Let’s start with my playing video games. I love games that provide a challenge. I tend to focus on JRPGs. My very first one as a child was Dragon Warrior (what is known now as Dragon Quest). I was about 7, maybe 8, and it was on the Nintendo Entertainment System. You had to complete one objective, which led to another sequence of events, which led to another…and this went on throughout the whole game. I was captivated. But what I didn’t get at the time was how to stay alive. Then, it hit me: get stronger. You get experience points in battle with every monster you slay. The more you slay, the stronger you get, the further you can go from home. With each new installment, I learned new skills. Then 1990, Final Fantasy came out. Storyline? Unbelievable! I could purchase spells? Customize my party as I saw fit? Cool! I had total control over a virtual environment, and I learned how to adapt these skills for virtually every contingency. And I still do it today, when I plug in Final Fantasy XIII onto my Xbox 360, and try various paradigm shifts against an incredibly tough monster. If it fails, I simply retry, setup the paradigm parameters, and try again. It’s an irresistible challenge.

What did this teach me? There’s always another option. Keep pushing yourself, and you’ll grow stronger, even if it takes longer for you… but I know when to put the controller down.

Then there is my music. I’ve been playing music since I was 10, when all music students were required to play a plastic recorder in the fifth grade (mind you, this was in the early 1990s). I always could read sheet music as clearly as I can read words on a page… if the music was in the treble clef. Bass clef, well, that’s another matter altogether. I cannot read bass clef; therefore, I cannot play any bass music or bass range instruments. Understanding musical symbols was simple. It all came so natural to me, where many of my classmates struggled. To me, music was as natural as the English language. When sixth grade rolled around, it was time to choose an elective: band, choir or art. I chose band. Then it was time to choose an instrument. I initially chose the tuba (although I have no idea why now), but because of my physical limitations, I could not hold the instrument. I had to choose something else. The flute was too awkward to hold, so I looked at this black-and-silver thing called a “clarinet.” I held it, and it felt perfect in my hands. My hands fit the keys perfectly — I felt complete with it in my hands. I made my decision. This was my future. This clarinet and I were destined for each other. In no time, I had attained the much-coveted first chair position (meaning I was the top clarinet player in my class).

Now, playing clarinet again as an adult (after not picking up one since age 17), I enjoy the challenge of learning again. I have chosen pieces of music that are challenging and fun (such as themes from my favorite video games), to pursue a dream of eventually joining a symphony orchestra.

Reading is another passion, but I always enjoyed reading more challenging and difficult books as a child. I was tackling James Michener at the age of 10, and some of Stephen Hawking by ninth and 10th grade. I loved reading psychology books in junior high and high school, and still enjoy reading books and internet information on theoretical physics today (a challenging subject, even for an adult without a degree in the field). If you find it surprising, and no doubt you might, I also find the subject of time travel and paradoxes not only challenging, but fascinating! I am also currently reading the fabulous “Wheel of Time” series to my autistic 11-year-old son, and he understands the nuances of the story! The world of Robert Jordan is so much richer than that of Tolkien (in my opinion), and I’m reading it to a fifth grader! Talk about a real challenge! For the record, I started reading this 15-book series in the 10th grade, at age 16 (in 1998), and had a bit of a hard time understanding it then. The final book was published in 2013. I still deeply enjoy re-reading this series today, and relearning things I never knew before.

I started making jewelry by sheer accident. At age 14, one of my silver chains had broken on the end. The ring had fallen off the end where the clasp connects, and I needed another if I was to wear it again. My autistic brain easily comprehended how the chain was connected, so I asked my grandfather if he had a tiny silver ring and pliers. I split the ring, threaded it onto the chain, pushed the ring together, and then tested the clasp: it worked! My first repair. From there, I realized if any of my jewelry broke (save my rings), I could easily fix it.

I saw a package of jewelry for sale in a teen magazine (a “grab bag”, if you will), and my grandpa ordered it. When it finally arrived, inside was a hodgepodge of jewelry…necklaces and bracelets. Lace chokers, large charms on rubber lanyards, charm bracelets. Now, keep in mind: this was at the peak of the 1990s. In 1997, these styles were popular! I loved some of the styles, but not the way they were connected or blended. For example, there was a lace choker that was plain, but a large peace sign on a rubber lanyard. I loved the charm, but hated the lanyard. How cool would it look if I could get it onto that lacy choker? Challenge accepted! I took the charm off the lanyard with my grandpa’s tools, and found a way to attach it flawlessly to the lace choker, then tried it on. It didn’t look half-bad. As a test, I wore it to school the following week. “Sweet necklace! Where did you get it?” My response? “I made it.” I was filled with pride. Thus, began my fixation with repairing and making jewelry. Now, I’m seeking inspiration for yet more challenging and more difficult beading designs.

Writing. What to say about the challenge of writing? Writing is a lot like speaking, to me. As an autistic, how do I put my thoughts into words? How do I express myself without countless redundancies? How do I say what I mean without coming across the wrong way? Expressing myself is a real challenge. There is still a genuine fear: rejection. There is also the fear of not being grammatically correct on paper, or fears around speaking in front of a live audience. How can I paint a picture with words when I can’t get the words out? My words feel trapped behind a force field, and I can’t short out the power. Best description I can think of. But I have had a lot of practice with writing. I ran our high school’s writer’s club. Creative writing was an elective that I took for a couple of years. Writing is a not a weakness with me, but it is a challenge, albeit an enjoyable one. I have been told, many times, I write the way that I talk; I’ve been told I write quite eloquently. Many times, I must think before I speak. I talk to myself when I’m alone, as if I’m rehearsing lines before a stage production. It is the same when I write. I think it, speak it, then write it. The one thing I don’t do is take notes (although maybe I should). However, I enjoy the challenge. In the end, I believe this challenge will yield its own rich rewards.

Maybe now, people will have a better understanding that not all autistic people are the same. We are all different. We think differently, process differently, function differently, and handle challenges differently. As for me, when presented with a challenge, I have three words for you: bring it on!

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Thinkstock image by nata_vkusidey

Originally published: March 7, 2017
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