When I was four years old I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. This would later be classified as a developmental disorder on the autism spectrum, which can encompass a number of disabilities. I would not learn what this disorder was until many years later and was not entirely aware of how much I would struggle socially.
I received a great deal of help during my career as a student. It came from teachers, family members, and friends who all wanted me to succeed in life. Despite this, my social development was behind that of my peers throughout my teenage years.
As a result of this, I ended up learning about things that many of my peers would have learned in high school when I was in my twenties. It has been a long and sometimes frustrating journey, but I have managed to live a successful and happy life so far. I have a good job, am a college graduate, and have made good friends and lasting relationships.
It is because of this that I want to write this blog post – to show that people on the autism spectrum are able to live successful and happy lives. I want to get rid of the stigma that autism and all of the disorders that it can encompass are horrible illnesses.
This kind of mentality has led to a lot of misinformation and apprehension about how autism can develop. Some have even pointed to vaccination for life-altering diseases as a cause, which no reputable study has accurately confirmed. In the opinion of people who adhere to this ideology, autism is worth risking illnesses that can be deadly or cause life-changing complications to avoid.
Theories like this show a general issue in our society with how we discuss and view neurodivergence. Autistic people and people with other developmental disorders have to live in a world that refuses to accommodate them. There are even times when they are not able to receive the support they need. This can lead to discouraging statistics such as only 38% of autistic students will graduate college.
Despite all of this, I want to make clear to the readers of this post that I believe that autistic people are perfectly capable of living successful lives. So, I have decided to share with you my experiences with it over the years.
Over the course of my elementary school years, I received a great deal of help from teachers at school, though I was not aware of why. I was quite social during this time, despite my aspergers, but I was often perceived as “weird” due to the fact that I could not pick up on certain social cues.
One other issue I had is that I could not understand sarcasm, and whenever someone was being sarcastic I took what they were saying literally. I also had to learn what idioms were, as I struggled to understand anything metaphorical.
Most of my friends were other special education students. We always played games that came from our extensive imaginations. They also related to my interests, which during this time were constantly changing. Autistic people often have “hyperfixations” that become the focal point of their interests. For me, this could be Batman, Transformers, or NASA. I often played with toys with my brother and we came up with different games, combining the things that we were interested in. Occasionally, we did tell jokes in our stories that we were a little too young for.
My constantly changing interests would lead me into middle school and high school, where the social struggles I had would be even greater than elementary school
Middle school was very hard for me. The social dynamic was far different from elementary school. Gone were the days of playing with toys and games from the imagination. I had an even harder time during middle school and was perceived even further as the “weird” kid.
For the majority of my early teenage years, I was still into playing with action figures, spending numerous amounts of my allowance on Transformers and Iron Man action figures. Unfortunately for me, all of my peers had moved on from being interested in playing with toys. All of a sudden, I had to learn that those things were “unexpected”, as my teachers put it, for a young teenager.
Eventually, in the eighth grade, I did give up on playing with my action figures. In fact, I can distinctly remember that I gave them up right in the middle of playing with them. I was creating a scenario with them and suddenly I felt bored and put them away to do something else. At the time, it was because other things had interested me, but it was mostly because I grew out of them.
What made middle school even harder for me was hitting puberty. Puberty can be a very hard time for a young person, as it is filled with new, unfamiliar sensations and emotions that you never had as a child. You begin discovering things about yourself that you previously didn’t know were there, as you transition into adulthood.
High school was not quite as hard for me, given that I had moved on from action figures and had gained more “typical” teenage interests. However, I still had a lot of very nerdy things that I liked, though this was mainly around the media itself and not the toys. I gained further interest in superheroes and superhero comic books. At one point, I even started trying to write my own, wanting to become a writer for Marvel Comics.
Socially, however, I struggled a great deal. I didn’t have very many friends outside of the three guys that I usually hung out with. This isn’t to say that I didn’t interact with anyone else, but I was very introverted and usually kept to myself. I also struggled academically, as I had trouble with math and science classes (we had to hire a tutor).
When I finished high school, I felt like I could conquer the world and was incredibly excited about college.
College Years and Adulthood
My first year of college was a great year. I made a lot of new friends and was surrounded by people who were like me and liked the same things as me. I had plenty of new experiences from that year that showed me new things about the world that I didn’t know yet.
However, despite how well my first year went, my second year had to be cut short. In the beginning, I was placed with a roommate that was always in the room. As an introvert (which can be an attribute of people on the autism spectrum), I need to be alone from time to time to recharge my social battery, as it were. But when I had a roommate that rarely ever left the room, I began to have a crisis.
Because of this, I started having panic attacks that I couldn’t explain at first until one day I went to the emergency room because I thought I had appendicitis. I was having fears of germs and sickness as well as being poisoned and dying, and I couldn’t bring myself to tell anyone besides my family.
What we realized was that I have an anxiety disorder, which was misdiagnosed at first. When I saw a psychiatrist, he properly diagnosed me with OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). I had an obsession with sickness that caused me anxiety and I was compulsively trying to relieve that anxiety. This would range from washing my hands too much to constantly asking my family for reassurance.
Eventually, I got treated at a behavioral health program that was meant for people with OCD. What they had me do was exposure therapy, which made me face my fears and not rely on my usual compulsions to relieve that anxiety. It helped me a great deal, though it did take me some time to recover and find a job. I applied to a new school that was closer to home just in case I needed to come home for the weekend.
I got a new job that I liked and I started my new school. While I did like it, I had a much harder time socially at the new school than at my previous school. I had some people that I saw regularly, but I usually ate alone at lunch and dinner.
That isn’t to say that I was entirely alone. I joined an acapella group and sang with them many times; we even sang at a competition. One of the best things to come out of this new college was that I got to go to Japan to study abroad. However, it had to be cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
I came home and got my job back and worked for a while, but I was plagued by new anxieties, this time relating to the things I liked. I had a lot of trouble making decisions on small things that had very little impact on my life, but my mind wanted me to treat them like they were the most important things. What didn’t help was that I was doing school online, which was much harder than being on campus.
Still, I did finish school and graduated college, and began the baking and pastry arts program at HACC. I also started volunteering at the Y and was hired to work for the marketing team, where I make social media posts and many of the blog posts that you have seen recently. Overall, things are going well, and I am happy with how my life is going right now.
A Successful Life with Autism
I hope that by reading this you have learned that people on the spectrum are perfectly capable of leading successful lives. I feel that I have lived a life that was full of struggles and difficulties, but I am in a place right now where I am pursuing something that I am passionate about and I am confident enough in social situations to be able to make new connections and new friends.
I am very happy that I got to share my experiences in this post and I hope that you have gained something from it.
–Mack Schmitz, Program Aide