I just finished reading Steve Silberman’s Neurotribes, and I have so many feelings about it. In short, I highly recommend it for people on the spectrum, parents, teachers, basically, anyone who has contact with someone on the spectrum. There’s a lot to go over and digest and I’ll likely be writing about thoughts it spun over a period of time.
I think the big one for me is it made me come to terms with the fact that I most likely am on the autism spectrum myself. When I was a child I was diagnosed with autistic tendencies. Pretty much my mom characterized me as a diagnostician’s nightmare. All the testing they did should I had deficiencies, but they were never strong enough to earn me a firm label, which made getting services difficult.
The question being that, given that the autism umbrella has widened since I was a child in the 1980s, would I have been diagnosed with autism given the larger umbrella?
For the most part I considered the question not relevant. Further, while I agreed that I have a lot of autistic traits I also have a lot of empathy. So much empathy it’s painful. Yet, as people who know me in real life will remark, I also have a remarkable poker face. People have often remarked (with exasperation) that they can never figure out what I’m thinking and what’s going on in my head. Still waters run deep, folks.
The other thing is I am intensely creative, and my work tends to be very emotional. Here’s a sample of my creative writing for instance:
Her bedroom dissolved like an ink picture left in the rain as a sob so forceful it tore through her throat erupted. The world spun, and suddenly she hit the floor of the inn with an all too real crash. She opened her eyes, staring at the chair by the window that she had fallen out of, feeling sore on the outside and the rawness of the emotions she had been suppressing for so long on the inside…She shut her eyes, already overflowing with tears as her emotions burned so hot they seared her brain. Realizing what he meant to her unleashed a fright so primal that it was unlike anything she had experienced before.
Further, my singing is incredibly expressive, and my mom would often remarkable that when I played the violin it was incredible how much emotion I was able to wretch from a stringed instrument.
And then there’s the fact that I became a mental health counselor.
None of these seemed compatible with me having autism. Further, I get annoyed with the amount of people who take an online quiz and proudly proclaim that they have Asperger’s. People who I know did not struggle with the issues I did in elementary school. So I’ve been leery of diagnosing myself and have always been careful to specify that I was diagnosed by a professional with autistic tendencies.
After reading Neurotribes, I have a better understanding of what autism looks like for adults, and realize it’s what I am.
To understand how I’ve come to understand autism, it’s essential to realize I learned about it as I started working with children. When I was thirteen I trained with the Red Cross to become a specialized babysitter for children with special needs. One of my clients was a three year old with autism. When I started reaching autism online, I saw a lot of myself in the descriptions. While I knew I was odd, I’d never heard the term autism applied in relation with me before.
I went to my mother and told her what I’d learned about autism and how I recognized myself within the descriptions, and she told me I had been diagnosed with autistic tendencies. My parents are convinced that if I have been tested in the 1990s I would have emerged with a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome, but it wasn’t well known in the 1980s.
When I was in high school the movie Mercury Rising came out. It was about an autistic boy who uncovers a secret NASA code and who gets targeted by agents for it. It wasn’t until college that I learned more about autism when I got a job as an ABA therapist.
This was in the days before ABA was licensed. I was recruited by a woman with an autistic son who trained college students to go into people’s home and do therapy in their homes. This was also in the days when the search for the cure for autism was on, parents were convinced that autism was caused by vaccines, and autism was considered a great tragedy. Neurodiversity was not in the vocabulary. Parents traded stories about the miracles of vitamin B and C, enzymes, special diets and the what not.
I was raised with issues of the Skeptical Inquirer in my house, and was really dubious about the vitamins and special diets. If anything it seemed to be making the kids miserable and resentful without any of the dramatic benefits that were promised, but those parents kept at it. The vaccines I was more hesitant on. I didn’t know much about vaccines and after meeting a group of parents convinced it was the vaccines, and considering they were employing me, it was an awkward introduction. I was pretty much a fence sitter, gathering information on both sides. The thing was, early in the vaccine scare, the information was dominated by the anti-vaxxers. It took a while, but eventually people with good knowledge of the issue put to rest every argument I heard brought up by the parents of autistic children.
When I worked there, though, I saw the range of autism, from extreme severe autism with mental retardation and severe seizure disorder as well (and granted, the medication for seizures can make even bright people seem dull) to mild autism and everything in between. Yet I never got a feel for what these children would grow up to be like or for what autism looks like in adults.
Considering I started working professionally with children when I was thirteen and made the transition to adults in my late twenties/early thirties (and I’m still in my early thirties), most of my professional experience has been with children. And when I started to become concerned that my son was autistic, I continued researching autism in children, and since I’ve been so focused on getting him through the now, I’ve not had much time to research or consider how things will change when he’s a teenager or an adult. I have a vague picture, but not much beyond that.
Reading Neutrotribes has given me a bit of a picture. For one thing, autistic adults do have a very strong sense of empathy, so strong that, like me, they find it painful and tend to withdraw to cope with it. Empathy in children with autism develops later in childhood than it does for typically developing children, but it does develop.
Further, high levels of creativity that are intensely emotional are also hallmarks of autistic adults. It’s as if we pour all those feels we have but don’t display into our art work.
Granted, counselor is not a profession autistic adults tend to go into, yet it’s not uncommon for their parents to be in the mental health field. In some ways I think my autism does help, though, eye contact is always a struggle. For one thing I don’t give people false hope or rush in to comfort them. When people want to unload they want to talk it through and process, they don’t want someone saying, “Oh, it’s not that bad!” or “I’m sure it’s better than you think.”
I not going to give someone pithy platitudes they haven’t earned or lie to make them feel better about themselves. If they messed up, I’ll help them evaluate it, however, when I give praise, I will give specifics, and it will be genuine and authentic. And considering I get infuriated with how unauthentic I think a lot of neurotypical people can be, and I don’t think I’m the only one, I think people like that I am genuine with them and value that when I praise them, I mean it.
When I was training to be a counselor I watched as neurotypical people struggled to have those tendencies trained out of them. For me it happened naturally. Further, I am very careful about what I say, but being careful requires that I take the time to think through my response, meaning I’m not going to interrupt my clients constantly. While the neurotypical people in my class were being trained to talk less and listen more, I was hounded with the fact that there are times that interruption is intervention (in fact, it’s interesting because my deficiencies were the polar opposite of the deficiencies of the neurotypical people, but it’s worth noting, my instructor believed I could be trained just like the neurotypical people). There’s also a logic in counseling to how you structure your sentences, in fact, I do a lot of Socratic questioning, which I think comes naturally with an autistic mindset.
I think the problem comes down to seeing autism solely in terms of deficits. As Silberman pointed out, autistic children also show profound strengths that, if nurtured, can be turned into professions, and this fact sadly got lost for a period of time (to learn more about the history of autism, read Neurotribes! The exciting story is all there!) We can’t afford to lose track of this fact again, though.
Which means that it’s time for me to proudly say I’m autistic and I’m a mental health counselor and I’m damn good at it!