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How Being Autistic Is Like Visiting Another Country

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I’m on the autistic spectrum, and one of the most common questions I get is, “What it’s like?” I can’t just give an explanation in one sentence — but here is how it feels to me.

Autism means I see the world differently. Imagine being lost in a foreign city and unable to speak or understand the language. You know hardly anything about this city, but it seems a little “weird” and you have a completely different perspective from the locals who call the city home. You’re not on the same wavelength as the people who live there; you can’t understand a word they’re saying. You can’t understand they might be asking a rhetorical question, you’re unsure if they’re using sarcasm or not, and you feel uneasy about approaching anyone.

The city is a lot more fast-paced than where you live. The streets are hectic and it’s much noisier and slightly overwhelming. You’re not used to being somewhere this loud. It makes you feel slightly anxious and nervous, always glancing around for an escape route. You just want to leave; it’s too much to deal with. The stalls nearby are selling exotic food. The food isn’t appealing; the smell is intense and you can’t understand why people love it so much. Many people go past you. It’s incredibly crowded, and as people brush your shoulder, the fabric they wear makes you cringe. The colors you see are obnoxiously bright and the lights are blinding. You don’t understand why the light here needs to be so bright; it strains your eyesight.

You keep on walking through the city, not quite knowing what to do. You don’t understand the culture. It’s difficult to pick up and hand gestures mean something entirely different to them. People seem to have different interests and styles. Most of the shops don’t interest you. Their idea of fashion/style is hard to grasp, and you know if you wore clothes like that, the fabric would be annoying and you would feel strange.

Other shops display a variety of things in the window such as records and books. You’ve heard of the records, but your taste is more varied or you might only enjoy one genre. If you told people what you enjoyed, they would be puzzled and not know the name of the artists. You might have a favorite artist and be very fixated on their music; you use their music as an audio stim. Audio stims are comforting to you and make you feel relaxed.

You’re wandering along when one shop immediately catches your eye. You can see one of your special interests in the window — maybe it’s model planes, quirky bracelets, makeup or animals. You step inside and straight away you feel at ease plus a sense of belonging in this odd city. This shop is filled with nothing but stuff related to your special interest. You feel happy and you can’t help but be transfixed as you take everything in.

Other people around you feel comfortable here as well, and nobody seems to mind that you’re twirling hair around a finger, fiddling with display objects, or drumming your fingers on a wooden shelf. People seem to be drawn to you because you’re different. Surprisingly, one person understands your language and culture. They speak very fluently and seem to have an understanding of your world.

Getty image by rclassenlayouts.

Originally published: October 28, 2019
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