Max's shop of horrors

Warning: imagination testing site. Enter at own risk

What Autism feels like

Life on the spectrum is like a triple espresso. Like a fiery curry. Like a pizza with the lot.

It’s like watching a movie at the cinema from the front row, like showering in the dark, like driving a hundred kilometers an hour with the top down.

It’s like surfing when the sea is wild, like kayaking through rapids, like sun, rain, hail and lightning all in the same afternoon.

It’s getting up every day and venturing out into a world of vibrant chaos, where indescribable joy and immeasurable terror clash and fracture into a kaleidoscope of thought and feeling.

And I wouldn’t have my life any other way.

Autism and Birds

A penguin cannot fly. On land it seems clumsy, limited, and slow.

But underwater it soars with magnificent grace, at home in its element.

A penguin is not a failed or defective bird. It is simply a different kind of bird, specialized for a different way of being.

Do not weep for the penguin, any more than you would weep for the eagle that cannot swim; instead, appreciate each for their own qualities.

Growing up Autistic: What my parents and teachers got right

Like a lot of Autistics, I didn’t receive an official diagnosis until I was an adult, in my case at the age of 19. The 1990s and 2000s were a very different time, and there weren’t a whole lot of Autism experts in the small country town where I grew up.

As a result, not only did I not have the benefit of knowing I was Autistic, but neither did my parents and teachers. There was no roadmap for them to go by; they could only try to work with the unusual child in front of them. In some ways, this was probably a good thing, as Autism wasn’t very well understood back then anyway, and was viewed very negatively.

To their credit, even flying blind, there was some important things they got right. One of the most impactful was that my obsession with writing was seen as a positive, and at school I was given the label of “gifted” from a young age. This helped me to feel good about myself in spite of the many other things I struggled with.

My parents also whole-heartedly embraced my special interests; when I was really into dinosaurs, my Dad would char chicken bones in the fire then hide them around the garden so I could play at being a palaeontologist. When I was obsessed with lights, they made me a lantern out of a tin with windows cut into it and a candle.

Some of my best teachers made room for my interests as well; in Grade 4 a teacher gave me five minutes at the start of class to show off the “jet pack” I’d made with a battery operated fan, while in Grade 6 another teacher helped me submit one of my stories for publication in a young writer’s anthology.

Only much later once I was a diagnosed adult did I learn that my parents were also working hard behind the scenes to try to get my teachers to be accommodating of my need to move around while I was thinking, for example.

All this is not to say that growing up as an undiagnosed Autistic was all sunshine and unicorn farts, but given the circumstances, I count myself fortunate to have had wonderful parents and a few really awesome teachers who went the extra mile to support me.

Want to know about Autism? Ask an Autistic

A friend and colleague of mine, Kyal Kay, has a terrific saying regarding learning about Autism; “Seek out primary sources, just as you would if you were studying history. When it comes to Autism, primary sources are people who are Autistic.”

In history, a primary source is a firsthand account of an event or period; a secondary source as the name suggests is a second hand analysis or interpretation of a primary source. For example, if we’re talking about World War 2, a primary source would talking to or reading the account of somebody who was actually there; a secondary account would be a textbook written by someone born decades later.

Autism is no different; there is only so much you can learn from a textbook written by someone who is not themselves Autistic.

Another analogy is the black and white room; a person is born into a windowless room where there are no colours. On a black and white monitor, they read about colours, about their wavelengths, their cultural connotations. But that person cannot truly know what it’s like to gaze into a deep blue sky or a fiery sunset.

The real experts on Autism are those of us who live and breathe it every day of our lives. There are millions of us out there. If you really want to learn about it, ask us.

A Different Kind of Socializing

One of the defining features of Autism as it is traditionally viewed is impaired social skills. Lack of eye contact, difficulty with conversation, and generally just a poor grasp of the intricacies of social protocol.

Here’s the thing though; all of this is measuring our ability to socialize using the way that Neurotypicals socialize as a baseline for “correct” behaviour.

It may be true that communication between Autistics and Neurotypicals comes with certain barriers, similar to those you might find when two people from different cultures communicate.

However, in both my work with Autistic youth and in my own life as someone with many Autistic friends and colleagues, I’ve observed something else; when a group of Autistics get together, we can socialise among ourselves very well.

When I’m with my Autistic friends, we know not to expect sustained eye contact from each other, we forego the formalities of social protocol, and we converse just fine.

I believe that it’s less a matter of Autistics being socially impaired, and more that we have a different social “language” to our non-Autistic peers. Our interactions with Neurotypicals essentially take place across a language barrier, and that is misinterpreted as us being socially incapable.

Autistics are expected to learn the social “language” of Neurotypicals; perhaps if the same allowances as are made with a language barrier were exercised, we could shift our perspective away from seeing Autistics in a negative light.

Who knows, maybe non-Autistics could even learn a little of our language; a meeting of the minds is that much easier when we meet each other halfway.

The Importance of Autistic Role Models

When I was a newly diagnosed teenager, there really wasn’t anybody I knew of that I could look to as an Autistic role model. There was nobody to reassure me that it gets better, that I wasn’t broken, to share what worked for them in conquering the challenges I was going through.

In classic Autistic fashion, I found the closest thing in fictional characters that weren’t canonically Autistic, from Seven of Nine and Spock from Star Trek to L from Death Note. But there really weren’t any really positive portrayals of Autism going around back then, at least that I recall.

It wasn’t until my mid-twenties when I started working with an Autism support group that I truly found my tribe; other real life Autistics with whom I could finally relate and share the lived experience of the spectrum.

Today, my role models are my peers and colleagues, and even my students, who often inspire me with their courage and strength.

And yet, I can’t help but wonder how much less painful my late teens and early twenties might have been had I had such role models when I needed them most.

This is what drives my work as an advocate and mentor; I want to give the next generation of Autistics what I needed at their age; an adult on the spectrum to show them that it’s not the end of the world, and to offer advice and validation. I truly feel that this is the way forward for Autism advocacy; Autistic adults mentoring Autistic youth, so that they don’t have to go through the isolation that so many of us did.

If you have a child who is Autistic, I think one of the most crucial pieces of advice I can give is to introduce them to others on the spectrum, and give them Autistic role models to look up to. While we still have a long way to go in terms of Autistic representation in the media, in the real world the Autistic community has never been bigger, more global, and more interconnected.

A sense of community, of belonging, can be absolutely vital to our emotional wellbeing. So many of us grew up without this. But as someone who finally found theirs, I can attest that it makes a life changing difference.

Knowing Your Limits

It’s sometimes frowned upon to talk about our “limits”. Phrases like “nothing is impossible” and “you can do anything you set your mind to” make for hotter slogans.

I for one feel like knowing one’s own limits is actually an essential part of living a healthy and happy life. For a lot of my own life, I didn’t know mine, and as a result I would often push myself way too hard, until I inevitably crashed and burned with disastrous results. I’d set myself unreasonable goals, then hate myself for not being able to achieve them.

Only in recent years have I learned to take my foot off the pedal when I’m spinning my tyres in the mud, or to take a detour instead of continuing to bash my head against a brick wall.

We have it hammered into us constantly that “winners don’t quit”, yet sometimes quitting is exactly what it takes to succeed; to abandon a strategy that’s getting us nowhere and try a different approach.

We can absolutely work to expand our limits, but they tend to be elastic, and snap back on us if pushed beyond our tolerance. I like to go by one of the core principals of the group I currently work for; “push yourself to grow, but not to breaking point.”

It’s important to instil resilience, determination, and persistence in the next generation of Autistics. But it’s also important to teach them that these are not absolutes; that it is okay to change course when something just isn’t working, and that we shouldn’t sacrifice our mental health on the altar of “never give up”.

As humans, we are all finite beings. None of us can do absolutely everything, and that’s okay. Figuring out where your threshold for burnout lies and knowing when to ease off, as well as how to self-regulate, is a vital life skill that I personally think should be more widely taught.

Sensory Shock

I grew up in a country town surrounded by farms, so I’ve received my share of electric shocks in my time.

And that feeling, that painful jolt that runs right though you like the thread of your existence was twanged by some celestial space demon, that’s a lot like how it feels for me when someone touches me unexpectedly, or when a loud car or motorbike passes me in the street.

See, what I don’t think is widely understood enough is that sensory overstimulation for Autistics isn’t just an annoyance or a discomfort; it’s actually almost physically painful. It’s not something we can just choose to ignore, any more than someone who isn’t Autistic could ignore being given an electric shock, or being smacked over the head with a frying pan.

Things that might seem completely innocuous to others; loud noises, bright lights, strong smells, being tapped on the shoulder, really can be a complete onslaught to us. And I really think that there needs to be more awareness of this.

“Discomfort” is too mild a word to describe the experience. It’s really more like a sensory shock or sensory pain. If you’re not Autistic, try to bear that in mind in your interactions with us.

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

Of all the advice I could give to parents, teachers, and other supporters of Autistic children, I think one of the most important tips would be this; don’t make something into a bigger deal than it really is.

If your kid lines up all their toys in a row instead of playing them as a neurotypical child would, don’t pathologize it and see it as dysfunctional behaviour that must be trained out of them; just accept that it makes sense to them even if it may not to you.

If a student of yours flaps their hands or fidgets while they’re thinking in class, don’t tell them off for it; recognize that it’s part of how they propel their thinking or cope with stress, and model acceptance for your neurotypical students.

If a child doesn’t want to make eye contact, don’t force them to. It doesn’t mean they’re not paying attention. Do you need to look at a radio when you listen to it?

There will be more than enough legitimate challenges in an Autistic person’s life that they will need support for; don’t make mountains out of molehills and call a red alert over every little thing they do that isn’t “normal”. Try to look at it this way; if the behaviour isn’t causing any real harm or danger, then what’s the problem?

In the course of experiencing the world in our own unique way, us Autistics are inevitably going to do a lot of things that might seem strange. Try to accept without judgment, learn when to let it go, and save your energy for actual problems. The child you’re supporting will be better off for it, and so will you.

“Growing out of” Autism

I’ve heard it asked so many times; “will my child grow out of their Autism?”

Well, as a 31 year old Autistic, I sure didn’t, and for that I am eternally thankful. But my relationship with Autism over the course of my life has certainly not been a static one.

As a small child, I was unapologetically Autistic. I flapped, galloped, and made noises to my heart’s content. Little kids are allowed to do that.

As I grew older though, it became seen as less acceptable. I was increasingly in trouble at school, told to sit down, to stop moving, to be quiet. Eventually, it also became unacceptable to my peers, and my friendship circle began to break down.

And so, as I moved into my teenage years, I repressed my Autistic impulses. To the external viewer, I might have seemed to be growing out of my Autism. But what I was really doing was learning to pretend to be someone I was not. And this performance was exhausting and costly.

Far too many years later, with the help of a wonderful community of Autistic peers, I finally learned, or rather re-learned, to accept and embrace my Autism, and now, as an adult, I once again stim openly. I am, to the external observer, more Autistic now in my 30s than I was as a teenager, and I’m a happier person for it.

My Autism has remained a deep, inner constant throughout my life. It just took me a quarter of a century to do consciously what my child self did subconsciously; to befriend it, and let it shine.

The Revelation of Diagnosis

Before I was diagnosed as Autistic, life was like wandering through a forest in a moonless night.

I stumbled through inky darkness, unable to see the brambles or the trees until I’d painfully run into them.

I couldn’t even find the path much less follow it.

Then, when I was diagnosed, the sun rose.

The path, the trees and the brambles were finally revealed to me.

For the first time I could see my way forwards.

But more than that, in time I could see the beauty of the trees and the sunlight trickling through the canopy.

And perhaps most importantly, I could see myself.