The Best and Worst Parts of Being Autistic
I have debated for a while whether I should write this post. Eventually I decided to write it, since first, even if it may harm my opportunities of employment after I graduate, I don’t want to work with someone who discriminates against autistics anyway because passing as neurotypical is very stressful; I need to reserve my energy for the real cool work. Second, we need to make the positive aspects of autism more well-known to reduce discrimination and increase acceptance. This is not an autism blog, since I have no experience with working with autistic people1, nor have I done extensive research on autism. In case you have never heard how autistic people themselves think about autism, please delete all your preconceptions and stereotypes about autism and see here for an introduction written by someone who is actually autistic. Here’s another insider’s perspective. There are many blogs written by autistic people (for instance, see this very long list); feel free to take a look at them to get a sense of the diversity of insiders’ perspectives and commonalities among them. Stereotypes usually have a grain of truth, but they’re so harmful because they’re by and large false but are believed to be true by the mob.
I have long been wondering why I’m a little different from most other people, and why socializing is persistently a challenge. Back in 2015, I came across a term called “Asperger’s syndrome”, and its descriptions sound quite like me. Later, I learnt more about Asperger’s online, and realized that Asperger’s syndrome is now subsumed under the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Eventually, earlier this year, I received a diagnosis of ASD level 12, which answered the question why I’m different. As the diagnosis lead me to view my personal history in a new light, I would like to write about what I think about my version of autism. My version, since every autistic person is unique; my experiences may not be generalizable to other autistic people.
The best parts
Since there has been a lot of misunderstandings and negative portrayal of autism, I’ll start with the best parts of being autistic:
One of the characteristics of autism is unusually intense interest in a topic; we call this “special interest”. Actually the topic doesn’t have to weird, though it often is weird. I have learnt a lot from special interests, such as a lot about R programming and science and religion dialogues. This is how I participate in academic subjects as hobbies.
Since I’m quite unsocial, I’m more resistant to social pressure. Actually I can still be influenced by social pressure; I mean I don’t find it hard to rebel against it, nor do I need social pressure to do things. This is how back in high school, I came to God despite having been raised in a secular family and environment, and how I kept on practicing religion without a church and keep a distance from orthodoxy when I find it questionable. I didn’t go to church in my undergraduate years, though now I do go to church, though not to seek social pressure. While the community is important, religion shouldn’t be reduced to tribalism; that would be idolizing a group identity. So often, in the Bible and the Quran, prophets of God have been rejected by their communities; non-conformity can be a positive trait.
Autistics tend to be very analytic. I developed the special interest in science and religion as this way of thinking meets religiosity, so I try to think through tough questions, which strengthened my understanding of faith. Honestly I’m still wrestling with some tough questions such as the problem of natural evil and divine action; I’ll write more about them in the future in this blog after doing more research, God willing.
Another characteristic of autism is difficulty in switching activities. This has benefited me, in that I can remain highly focused on tasks for a long time.
I’m very artless and ingenuous, as if I haven’t grown up in some ways.
I have a very nerdy sense of humor.
I use socializing time well to discuss important and deep questions.
The worst parts
Meanwhile, there’re challenges caused by autism:
Social interactions are challenging and exhausting. Though I like talking about research and big, deep questions with others (as a result, I can only make friends with people who share my interests), small talk is difficult. I just don’t understand why people would socialize just for the sake of socializing; for me, socializing is for collaboration and exchange of valuable information, and as a result, it’s challenging to get friendships beyond the common interest. Over time, I developed a list of topics for small talk, but this doesn’t address all the challenges, since in computer terms, small talk takes very high CPU load, and eventually may cause the blue screen of death if I push myself too hard (I mean shutdown or meltdown3). Furthermore, I haven’t really worked on body language; that’s simply too much.
Prone to social anxiety and insomnia: While I have the courage to bike for 3 hours in the dark in unfamiliar neighborhoods, I usually don’t have the courage to talk to someone in the lab next door without someone else’s help. It also often takes over 2 hours after going to bed for me to fall asleep.
Special interest is a double edged sword. I often get so absorbed in one topic that I can’t stop thinking about it, and as a result, develop tunnel vision and forget about the big picture. It’s like when you hold a hammer, everything begins to look like nails. At present, R is certainly that hammer (I built this blog with R, using the package
blogdown, and wrote every post in RStudio). Moreover, while most of my special interests are good, I have developed some that aren’t so good, such as Tap Tap Revenge. Those can be significant distractions from my coursework and lead to an unhealthy lifestyle. Sometimes, even good special interests have distracted me from coursework not directly related to the special interests; this damaged my grades in middle school and senior year of high school, but I developed more self-control in college so this is no longer a significant problem.
Down side of hyper-focusing: Because it’s hard to switch activities, I often skipped meals, skipped shower, skipped grooming, and stayed up late when I couldn’t stop. That’s so unhealthy. More recently, I’m utilizing technology to help with self-care.
Down side of analytic style of thinking: I find it hard to understand love. Yes, God’s characteristics, such as Creator, Sustainer, Absolute, Truth, Judge, Guide, Forgiving, Omniscient, Omnipotent, and etc. are pretty easy to understand. Sometimes God just sounds like a Supreme, Transcendent, Immanent, awe inspiring, but impersonal entity. I may still get close to God, but my relationship with God is very different from a relationship between people. God’s love eludes me, and as a result, I have put in significant intellectual effort to make sense of God’s love (hopefully I’ll write about this later when I get enough insight), and finally it is beginning to make sense.
I have some other autistic traits that I find pretty much neutral, such as stimming4, neologism, and repetitive speech; well, so far nobody has complained. Some autistics find sensory overload the number one challenge, though in my case, while sometimes it causes problems, it’s not severe. Some may find changing routines very challenging, though it’s not as much a problem for me either. Social challenges can manifest in different ways in different people; some autistic people may not respond to social interactions, while I have more trouble initiating social interactions. Conversely, some autistics may have overcome social challenges by years of effort, so socialization is no longer a problem for them. I have also heard of autistics who have outgrown special interests. We’re very diverse.
What are your autistic superpowers and kryptonites5? Please write yours in the comments below.
About the cover image: This is the Expo Axis in the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai. The building to the left of the funnel in this photo is the China Pavilion. While most pavilions have been demolished after the Expo, both the Expo Axis and the China Pavilion, along with a few other pavilions, are still there, open to visitors. The 2010 World Expo was my special interest in 2010, something I couldn’t stop thinking and talking about wherever I went. I spent 3 weeks in Shanghai and visited all the 200+ pavilions (even North Korea had a pavilion) in spite of the long lines for many of the pavilions (I waited 6 hours in line to get into the Saudi Pavilion, and 4 hours for the Germany and Japan pavilions; many other pavilions would take at least one hour). My family has never lived in Shanghai, but thanks to the special interest back then, I often lied to strangers who initiated small talk with me that I was from Shanghai, for Shanghai was really more home to me than my physical home city, where I felt alienated. I have had many other special interests; before college, they lasted about 1 or 2 years on average. I chose the one in 2010, since 2010 is a transformative year, the year when I got to know God.
I said “autistic people” rather than “people with autism” since those who are actually autistic tend to prefer the former. ↩︎
While not on DSM-5, meltdowns and shutdowns are common among autistic people. Meltdown means losing composure and control when feeling overwhelmed, such as by stress and sensory overload. Shutdowns are also caused by being overwhelmed; during a shutdown, a person wants to be isolated to a quiet place and rest, too tired to function. ↩︎
Stimming means self stimulation, or repetitive behaviors often used to ease stress. ↩︎
Kryptonite means the biggest weaknesses, because kryptonite is what makes Superman weak. ↩︎