As Sean Sees It: Juan Zapata interview

Jun 14, 2021 | ASD

Home » ASD » As Sean Sees It: Juan Zapata interview

S) So when we first spoke you had mentioned to me that you being a newlywed seemed to bring up issues that led you to discover your being on the Autism Spectrum. Are you comfortable sharing what those issues were that made things come to light?

J) Yes I am. Getting into a serious relationship and then married led to us both realizing that I have zero ability to perform other tasks while being spoken to. This became very frustrating for my wife because I didn’t register anything she was telling me while I was doing anything that required any amount of my attention.

We have discovered that I have a problem communicating because I tend to use synonyms or words with certain correlations instead of using the right word to describe something. For example, the other day my friend Daniel and I were playing video games online and I tried to warn my friend of enemies that were coming by the outside wall of a house. I said, “Watch out, there are enemies coming by the mural.”

I also describe paper letters as email, often without realizing it unless someone points the error out to me. I have referred to black cars as being white. I get confused.

 We have also taken note of other things. I have a tendency of falling asleep during activities that are too passive such as reading, writing, watching T.V., even standing up leaning against a wall if I have to do so for too long. I also fall asleep while driving if it is too calm or mellow without traffic. It seems to make no difference if I have slept well the night before either, sleep is never a problem, I sleep well.

 My wife and I have also noticed that I have a tendency to avoid eye contact and I often avoid neighbours even though they are super nice and very polite. Just as I came home today I decided to take a different entrance than usual as I entered my building because I know two of the nicest elders in my building, Billy and his wife, are in their garage and I didn’t want to have to run into them.

I may forget things I have just said and often anything with the numbers two and three in them. For example, while I work I am often measuring walls to cut and fit drywall. Anything in doubles or triples I have to write down or I will forget immediately. Generally when I speak I tend to tell a story a little different the second time around, this led to issues with my wife being concerned I was maybe lying about something but I wasn’t, I just couldn’t explain it until I learned I was a man with autism.

I now understand why I tend to suffer from what is known as “sensory overload.” When I feel overwhelmed by a situation I shut down and tend not to talk at all. If I try to say something I often get stuck or make up words. This comes up when I am playing games online with my friends. If I am attacked in the game and get overwhelmed when I try to describe the situation to my teammates I struggle to give clear information and sometimes it causes us to loose.

My wife began to assert I had traits like lacking attention skills and multi-tasking, understanding what’s said at times as well as lacking empathy. Now when I speak with my wife I stop what I am doing and pay full attention to her so as to not get mixed up. She felt that I didn’t give her enough attention before because I used to prefer to do things while speaking with her. This led to me hardly registering what she said.

S) Have you figured out many solutions or workarounds that help you navigate your relationship?

J) Yes a few but I am still learning. When it comes to understanding my wife, I have learned to listen to key words like “I hate when you…” So I know when there are things that I shouldn’t take lightly. I have a tendency to be too laid back and relaxed.

I noticed I lack empathy in some places. I know I should care more about my family and check in with them and if they are well. Most of my mother’s side of the family is here in Canada now but I have no interest in knowing if they’re okay or not most of the time. I have a great relationship with all of them and I even attend their family Christmas reunions but I can’t seem to find the will to keep in touch with them.

S) Have you recognized other challenges?

J) I have trouble with focusing on one task for a long time, especially if it is writing or reading or homework. My mind is always running on ahead of me. I started to use classical music to help me focus. I find that it puts me into a more focused state that allows me to zone in on whatever I have to do.

Things like some of the sensory overload are still really challenging. I haven’t figured that out yet. Some times if I go for a walk through a mall or crowded space I get overwhelmed. I find myself suddenly obsessing over the way I walk and breath. I hate going to malls for that reason so for now I just don’t go into them.

S) Do you have any childhood memories that you can recall that you can now see were likely challenges related to your Autism status as a kid?

J) As a child, from what I’ve been told, I never spoke a word or communicated much until I was four years old. Growing up I remember being difficult in my own way. I remember having anger issues, I remember raging a lot and I remember that I would often cry for just about any reason. I can recall wishing people dead in my rages and then sobbing afterwards. I also remember that, while I found communication challenging, I found math and English easy to grasp and I became autonomous at an early age. Though I still suck at Spanish, which is ironic being that I was born in Columbia.

I was very crafty but I would often destroy things in my anger. Usually in such instances my parents would whip me with a belt, spank me or use whatever item was at hand. This form of punishment was normal in those days, it taught me hard and harsh lessons and would put me in my place.  My parents were loving and caring parents and always did the best they could for me and my brothers, they were struggling as much as I was.

I remember being friendless for most of my childhood. I always did things on my own and would often ride my bike around town by myself. I also played video games, I liked to draw, I was always socially distant and felt that way naturally.

When I did try to socialize I often messed things up. When I was a kid doctors suggested my mother place me in sports to help me socialize. So she entered me into a soccer league. I never really played well and had a hard time understanding the other players. We played a game with a team in another town and once we had established a two-point lead my coach put me in. I made so many errors that we lost and I never went back to play again.  

My mother put me into Tae Kwon do after that and I felt more fitted to it. I was often in my own world during the lessons but I loved to spar. I still express myself in martial arts to present day though I now practice Brazilian jiu jitsu.

S) Thanks so much for your story Juan. It has been an honour to share it.

Sean Leal is on a mission to advocate both for mental health awareness and for Autism awareness as well as care. After looking back on the tragedy and abuse he suffered in his childhood he spent eight years in therapy and was diagnosed with level one Autism at the age of thirty-two. After his diagnosis other members of his family were tested for ASD as well. His brother, sister and uncle have been formally diagnosed with ASD as well as several of their children.

After helping his family learn more about the Autism spectrum he is very excited to be given the opportunity to volunteer and write for ASO. It is his hope that the book he has written, an autobiography of his life, will one day be published so that he might pursue his dream career of being a writer and published author. He considers his autistic traits to be a gift, they absolutely are the reason he survived what he did and he is proud to be on the spectrum. 

See more from Sean on Instagram and his website.

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