Article by Kay Kerr, Sydney Morning Herald, 1 April 2015
There is a calm that comes with truly knowing yourself. It's a quietness I have only recently encountered after 27 years of noise.
The noise came to a deafening crescendo on a holiday to New York last year. I'd been looking forward to the trip immensely, but I wasn't able to enjoy myself when I got there. The smell of garbage made me want to throw up, the bright lights gave me a pounding headache, and the sound of traffic made me feel disorientated and overwhelmed. I didn't sleep more than two hours in three nights.
When I got home I started looking up 'light sensitivity' and 'sensory overload', and when I read the symptoms of Asperger's Syndrome I cried for three days. Everything I had struggled with my entire life was summed up in a dozen dot points. Asperger's is part of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and I was officially diagnosed at the beginning of this year.
Of everything I have read about 'aspies', the most important piece of information I have taken away is this: when you meet one person with Asperger's Syndrome, you've met one person with Asperger's Syndrome. According to Autism Awareness Australia, one in 100 people is diagnosed on the autism spectrum. So right now that's more than 230,000 people in Australia. This is only one story.
As a child I had an intense love of reading and would often mourn the end of a good book, as it signalled my reluctant return to real life. I lacked the nuance necessary to succeed in precarious female friendships and often found myself on the outer. Who could have known that young girls would not like having their flaws pointed out right to their faces? It seemed perfectly logical for me to tell Samantha* she was bad at math and had a big nose in grade two, because both of those things were true.
But it wasn't long before I learned the art of imitation as a survival technique. I took part as an observer, a mimic. This continued through to high school where I discovered the sweet release of alcohol. This magical liquid gave me the ability to converse freely, to live in the moment and to take a break from my own mind.
Unfortunately I had two settings when it came to alcohol – drinking and black out drunk. I drank not for enjoyment, but to feel like a 'normal', fun, social person. Vodka was liquid courage. If a little bit gave me a little courage, then a lot would give me a lot of courage right? But really, while drinking helped to ease social anxieties in the moment, it in turn made those anxieties worse.
Alcohol and I are now more like old school friends than co-dependent lovers. We run into each other a couple of times a year, but no longer have anything left to talk about.
There were many years of this before New York, when I finally started to connect the dots.
Heightened sensitivity to light and sound? Check. Fixated with numbers, terrible with social settings? Check, check. Deep love of animals and nature? Check, check. Trouble making eye contact? Check. I am also obsessive about being on time, and I hate surprises so much I have to Google the ending of a movie and read the last page of a book first. I suffer social hangovers and regularly need time to myself in a quiet place.
Asperger's has typically been considered a 'male' condition, with a ratio of 4:1 males diagnosed compared to females, but as my psychologist explained, this is because females are often better able to adapt and mimic social cues, just like I did, to seem 'normal'. But it's exhausting trying to keep up and play a game when you don't know the rules.
Since my diagnosis I feel more myself. The missing puzzle piece has slotted into place and I feel authentic rather than defective. This is worth so much more than 'normal'. In telling people, I've been met with different reactions, from the deeply supportive, to the non-believers and minimisers. "You're just a little quirky," some have exclaimed. I'm not a Zooey Deschanel character though; I was born with a complex neurological condition.
I guess the misunderstanding comes because I am not what people expect when they hear the word autism. I've been a journalist for the past six years, I'm married and I love being around my friends and family. That's the thing about a spectrum though, it's made up of a rainbow of different colours.
Autism Spectrum Australia explains: "The word 'spectrum' describes the range of difficulties that people with autism may experience and the degree to which they may be affected. Some people may be able to live relatively normal lives, while others may have an accompanying learning disability and require continued specialist support."
Tomorrow (April 2) I'll be dressing in blue and doing my part to raise awareness for World Autism Awareness Day.
Famous people with Aspergers