For autism acceptance week, autistic people are asking for greater acceptance in society. This is essential, but so is accepting yourself.
As a child, I didn’t know that I was different, I just knew I wasn’t coping with things that other people seemed to find easy. It was difficult to accept myself, it was easier to blame myself.
When I was 25, I was diagnosed autistic. It was a relief to finally have an explanation for some of the difficulties I had experienced, but the diagnosis was only really the beginning of a road to discovery. But at least I now had a word I could look up: “autism.”
I found information about autism, which helped me to understand my difficulties, and forgive myself for them, because I realised they weren’t my fault. I began to find strategies to help cope with my difficulties, even though these things will never come easily to me. It helped me to begin to build some self-confidence, and learn to find ways of doing things I didn’t think I could do. It also helped me to identify my strengths. I never thought they were strengths, because they came easily to me, so I thought they came easily to everyone. But it turns out they don’t.
What really helped the most was meeting other autistic people, who understood me. I started to feel less alone, and I was able to learn hints and tips from other autistic people, and to meet up with other people who were like me.
For the first time I started to see that as well as my difficulties, I also have skills. I am intensely curious, which means that I am never bored, because I am always thinking about things like, “do whales have belly buttons?” I enjoy finding out new things. I notice small details and can do precise work. I enjoy repetitive tasks that others find boring. I can shut out distractions and focus on complex tasks for long periods. I was appreciated at work for these skills. I had value. I had value at home too. I understood my cat, who was very nervous, and I helped her feel safe and happy. I watched her become more relaxed and we developed a close bond. I found I had a natural way with cats, and I became increasingly interested in animal behaviour.
By the time I was 29 I felt ready to go to university. I found that you can actually do a whole degree in Animal Behaviour! For the first time, I started to think positively about my future, and I was excited about studying for three years, and what sort of career it might lead to. My family were excited for me, and my brother promised to help me with my application. He was really proud of me, and told all his friends that I was going to university to learn how to be a zookeeper. I was approaching my 30th birthday and I felt a mix of feelings about whether I had achieved what you’re “supposed” to have achieved by the age of 30. Some people tried to encourage me by telling me I was amazing, or that I could do anything. I found this difficult to believe, as it felt unrealistic. But my brother always said things like, “I think you could manage that,” or, “you did alright.” He made me feel like I could celebrate my successes, even if they looked small from the outside. I still hear these quiet, realistic words of encouragement now.
Six weeks before my 30th birthday, my brother was knocked off his bike and killed. He was my best friend and it tore my world apart. Every day was a battle, but every day I got through became a success. I didn’t know how I would manage without his encouragement, but it turned out that he had already given me a strength that would stay with me.
It was hard to think about the future when I wrote my university application, but I must have written something sensible, because I was offered a place. It was very difficult to make such a big change in my life, and be unable to share it with my brother. Although I had a loving family encouraging me, I really missed my brother’s support, and I felt very alone. I found it very difficult to study because I always wanted everything to be perfect, but I had to learn you don’t always have to do everything perfectly. Good enough is genuinely good enough, and I passed my degree. Although I didn’t get top marks, I was able to see this as a success.
I’d had to do work placements as part of my course, and I volunteered at a cat shelter. I was able to spend time with the cats and help them feel safe. Some of the nervous cats started to become friendly and that helped them to find new homes. I really liked working with the cats and felt I had finally found something that I was good at, and enjoyed. In my third year a paid opportunity arose. I was nervous about the interview, but it helped that I already knew them, and they had already seen my work. I started working at the shelter as a paid employee, and I still work there now. I look after the cats and I help match them up with suitable adopters who can meet their individual needs, and I am really happy that I get to help cats.
I was approaching 40 when I applied to do a postgraduate course in Autism Studies. I really enjoyed the course and I learned more about autism, and therefore, about myself. When I had my 40th birthday I didn’t think much about what people expect you to have achieved by 40. I was just proud of what I have achieved, and grateful for the opportunity to get older, because not everyone gets that chance. My 40s are turning out to be uneventful so far, which is a bit of a relief really.
After I completed my course, I had the opportunity to help develop and deliver training about autism. It is part time work which means I can combine my two biggest passions: cats and autism. I hope that I can help other autistic people on their journeys of discovery, just like I was supported in mine. Life isn’t perfect: I still have challenges, and I will always miss my brother immensely. But there is a lot of happiness too, and a lot to be proud of. I’m so grateful for finding out I am autistic, and the support I have received that has helped me accept and value myself.
Whales do have belly buttons, but they are quite flat, so luckily it doesn’t affect their streamlining.
Contributed by Laura