I was diagnosed as level one autistic when I turned thirty-two years old. Odd as that may sound I know a significant amount of people that have been diagnosed this late in life. Maybe it’s a generational thing, the “depression” generation and the generations before it had scarce understanding of autism and other issues that are only now just gaining moment in public awareness. Maybe it is the result of confusion regarding autism, much of the “diagnostic” criteria that Google searches bring up on “signs of autism” are more of a stereotype of what the public thinks autism looks like rather then an accurate depiction of the spectrum of autism. I couldn’t give a solid answer on why so many people aren’t diagnosed until adulthood, however I can give perspective on the experience.
Growing up and trying to navigate neurotypical expectations in the world while not fully grasping my autistic challenges and benefits wasn’t easy or smooth. For most people I knew life seemed like a straight line from destination to destination where as my own path of development seemed like a child had drawn a map to fairyland in crayon with loops and squiggles for fun along the way. Of course no one has a seamless straight path through life, I am aware everyone has their own challenges, it just felt that way to me.
I felt that way because of certain frustrations I had, frustrations shared by many persons on the autism spectrum. I got so upset after being fired from my job at a subway sandwich store, for reasons not clarified to me. I screamed at myself inside my own head,
“How can I read and understand whole novels on subjects like neuroplasticity or the history and evolution of human sexuality but not be able to hold down a job selling sandwiches!”
I didn’t know it at the time but the answer, in hindsight, was intelligence itself. When you can read and educate yourself to near master’s level on any subject of interest your mind has to make concessions. It seems like areas of my brain that would be used for things like socializing and cues in speech and body language had been reorganized by my brain and reapplied for tasks like learning about the detailed sciences of gut health or the history of vampirism. It’s easy to get frustrated but frustration doesn’t help, I still had to pay rent and eat, so I would go try another job, again and again.
Until I landed a job in security I felt like I couldn’t do anything right. For reasons that are obvious now I was excellent at providing security. I moved through the ranks and eventually became a bodyguard, provided asset protection and other challenging and unique services. Looking back I see that my hyposensitivity gifted me with an extremely high threshold for pain, a very useful asset during training in various martial arts and in live conflict with dangerous or desperate people. My strange interests and obsessive learning became a vital asset in the many unique problems I encountered. I solved puzzles at work very well.
When I think on my career and how autism gave me an edge I am filled with a well of sympathy for my peers on the spectrum that face challenges in finding a place to excel. I remember the frustrations of being fired over and over again. I know how my peers feel in these situations. In fact everyone experiences such set backs, some jobs just aren’t right for certain people and some workplaces have very toxic cultures or bad apples. Sometimes things just don’t work out the way we hope. I won’t try to give you some pep talk on why you should keep trying, I know it sucks, what I will do is share my thoughts on can and can’t.
My mother wasn’t an especially loving woman. In fact she was down right monstrously abusive. She used to tell me a long list of things I couldn’t do everyday, she would constantly tell me what I was incapable of. I was given no words of encouragement at home. I would try new things, like boxing, and my mother would say, “You’re such an oaf, you’ll just hurt yourself or get yourself killed.” I would try to learn how to draw and she’d say, “you’ll never get the lines right.” I couldn’t even do the dishes without her disapproval, I’d have just finished cleaning the last dish in the sink before my mother would walk up behind me and look at the drying plates, scratch something off of one and say “If you aren’t going to do something right then don’t do it at all.”
It made me determined. I wanted to try and I didn’t care if I failed because I wanted to be able to say I had done whatever I’d set out to do. So I tried, and I failed, again and again and again.
I want to tell you that failure is an amazing thing.
Failure is the key to success. Failure is the evidence of progress. In Brazilian Jiu jitsu we have a saying “A black belt is simply a white belt that wouldn’t quit.” There is truth more profound than one realizes in such sentiment. As an autistic adult I learned to re-define the word “can’t.”
When someone says you can’t, understand that that they mean is THEY can’t. When you tell yourself you can’t, understand that what you likely mean is “I can’t do it THIS way.” One of the greatest gifts the spectrum provides is the gift to think unconventionally. We on the spectrum CAN think outside of schrodinger’s box.
If I can’t push a car, I can tow it, problem solved, I did it. If I can’t serve sandwiches in person, I can serve them via online orders, and likely be better at it because I don’t have to deal directly with people when they order, I did it. If I can’t climb a mountain with my bare hands I can climb it using ropes and equipment, I did it. If I can’t strike an opponent into unconsciousness I can strangle them into unconsciousness, regardless of size, I did it. If I can’t navigate a university campus, I can learn online or go to the library, or read secretly in my room with a dictionary in one hand and the book I am reading in the other, because I can do anything, I just have to do it my own way. I have to do it in a manner that makes sense to me but in the end, if the results are the same or better, I did it.
Don’t say I can’t. Instead say HOW can I? Challenge isn’t a barrier. Challenge is an opportunity. We all need help sometimes. Maybe the help is one method of how you can. The only limit that will defeat you is if you force yourself to adhere to someone else’s method.
Be divergent, especially in your thinking.
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.