Taylor Mitchell, A&E Editor
Every year, I write an editorial for Autism Awareness month to attempt to help people understand Autism and Autistics just that little bit better. I am a high functioning autistic myself and try to use that as a way to help with what I can. Fair warning: this is a rough one and I am still not entirely sure I should be writing it. This article will include a discussion of my experiences as an autistic child, and admittedly there is a bit of trauma and pain wrapped up in that. Yet I feel I should write it.
First, let’s start with something that illustrates how growing up can be a little bit different. On March 31, 2016 the British National Autistic Society released a video titled “Can you make it to the end?” on its YouTube channel. The video simulates what a trip to a shopping mall can be like for a child with autism. The young boy in the video quickly begins to experience sensory overload from the many different sights and sounds in the mall, and despite his mother’s attempts to calm him, he begins to have a fit due to the flood of information. The last bit of the video features derisive looks from many onlookers before cutting to the child explaining that he is not naughty but just autistic. It’s a wonderful video in that it gives viewers a very good idea of what that kind of overload is truly like through the growing flashes of visuals and intense sound. It’s a horrible experience and its very hard to describe. The child’s functioning level is left unclear during most of the video, but the sensory overload he experiences can be experienced by several different parts of the spectrum. I have experienced them and I have seen others experience it. By allowing people to actually see what that is like is incredibly useful for people.
Something I also liked about the video is the phrase: “I am not naughty, I am autistic”. It’s a very true statement for me. Growing up, I experienced many episodes like the one shown in the video. Sometimes things would just become too much. It wasn’t always just sights and sounds, many times it was simply feelings I couldn’t control. My mind wasn’t ready for the rush of information and it lashed out when it couldn’t handle it. I would begin to fall apart, to lose control because in that moment there was nothing else I could do. It wasn’t a conscious choice, it was in fact in that moment a theft of choice. So how could it be called “naughty?”
The truth is, it’s not. It wasn’t willful bad behavior but rather an uncontrollable reaction. That being said, it is rarely perceived that way. I want to say now that I have had very helpful, understanding, and supportive teachers, therapist, case workers, and family members; but not everyone is this way. The video I have been discussing shows derisive looks from several mall patrons, several judgements made in moments of not understanding. I have experienced those looks and admittedly a bit worse.
More than once I had a fit like in the video during school. The lack of understanding from my peers caused me to be labeled as either a bad kid, crazy, or just a joke. This wasn’t just kids either, many teachers just looked on me as a bad kid who threw a fit for attention. That’s the difference, however, I was never doing it on purpose. It was something that was happening to me… Something scary that was hard to stop. I was laughed at, I was left alone. It got to the point some people told me I should be institutionalized, that the only place for me was a mental hospital.
Even at home, sometimes it was hard on my family to deal with me when I lost control. It was hard on them and hard on me. I have been talking to several people in the lead up of writing this, just to get my thoughts together, and when people ask me about this part of my life I can never get away from the fact that I felt ashamed of it all.
The thing is, I naturally want control, and it is difficult to forgive not having it. I think that for any readers on the spectrum that is what I am writing to tell you: sometimes there are things even about your own body and mind you can’t control. Learn to cope with it, catch your breath and find your center, but never, and I mean never, hate yourself for it. You aren’t crazy and you aren’t naughty, you are just autistic. You are different, but you have never been less.
For any readers not on the spectrum, I want to challenge you to remember that. Never assume a child is a bad kid just because they sometimes lose control when overwhelmed. Never be those people who look disapprovingly or just watch and laugh. I had many people who supported me through the years; honestly if it wasn’t for my grandmother, professor, and editors being very supportive I am not sure I could be writing this. Be like those people. The worst thing a child can feel, autistic or not, is alone.