Growing up, I had a fairly normal childhood. But there was something a little different in the way I behaved compared to many of my peers. I was shy for a number of years and had trouble with social interactions, which resulted in me feeling isolated for a significant period of my time as a student. I felt awkward and nervous around others. In addition, I had this habit of fidgeting with my hands that I wasn’t particularly proud of. In high school, some of my peers made remarks about my “emotionless” state, asking me why I looked like I was dead.
I had growing suspicions of something being wrong about me that I couldn’t quite understand, which I tried to ignore. It wasn’t until I got treated for my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder that I was diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder, which is a fancy word for Autism. You know that scene in the Matrix where Morpheus tells Neo his whole life was a lie and offers him a red and blue pill? That’s what it felt like to discover I had Autism. As I had previously associated this disorder with a good deal of stigma, I felt ten inches and IQ points smaller.
However, it becomes much easier to accept, and even embrace, this disorder with both time and action, and you could choose either to take the pill that leads to shame and self-pity or one that leads to success and growth. So, allow me to be the Morpheus figure who leads you through the door to success on the Autism spectrum, as it is up to you whether you make it a gift or a curse. Here are five ways to survive on the Autism Spectrum.
- Fake it Till You Make it
One thing many of us with Autism have in common is that we appear to show very little expression or emotion when we communicate. Overtime, we start to feel that our natural responses betray us when talking to others, and as a result feel uncomfortable. I struggled with my largely monotone voice and inability to smile appropriately. Having to deal with such a social barrier can result in increased social anxiety and awkwardness.
Steps I took: What really helped me to form relationships with people and articulate my feelings was to practice smiling in the mirror every day. It was the hardest thing for me at first, but after two days it started to almost become second nature. I discovered that if I tell myself I’m happy, fake a smile or open my eyes wide in interest when someone talks to me, that this barrier would start to dissolve and break apart. The great thing about life is that we can always improve an aspect of our lives we are not satisfied with.
- Learn How to Talk
One bad habit I still have from time to time is interrupting people I am talking to. It’s just difficult to keep my mouth shut when a spontaneous light bulb of a thought comes into my head that I have to share before I forget. It’s nowhere as severe as it used to be, but is a common example of how those on the spectrum are notorious for lacking social awareness and communication skills. However, many with this disorder have a unique aptitude for intelligence and creativity, which are important in conversations . We indeed have a unique way of looking at the world, and once we master the art of communication, we will fit the role of that interesting and attractive friend.
Entering into conversation with others can be extremely overwhelming and nerve-racking, and I struggled with this greatly until I learned the “three follow up question trick.” This trick involves coming up with one-to-three follow-up questions that are related to the topic at hand. For instance, if someone tells you they went on vacation, ask them questions like what did they do on the trip or what they liked about it. When in conversation, it is most important to focus on the other person. Leaders are well-liked because they don’t need to show off, but take an interest in learning about the strengths of others around them. Try to talk or listen to what the other person is interested in, and focus on connecting through common interests(I can’t stress this enough!)
- Build Confidence
People with autism often struggle with face-to-face interactions, and as a result, develop other emotional problems such as depression and anxiety. They may also feel highly self-conscious or inferior to others whom they may deem “normal and happy.” These symptoms are also linked to a lack of confidence. Success in life, we are constantly told, is linked to having confidence. In order to attract a mate, succeed in an interview, or feel comfortable in your own skin, you must develop this highly sought after “holy grail” of qualities that seem impossible for the Autistic mind to quantify. When I started acting more confident in my own life, my social interactions became much more pleasant. I felt an increasing level of happiness and power as I acted out the role of a confident person. When you are more confident, you celebrate rather than disown what makes you different from others. You should practice telling yourself that your unique traits make you a special commodity in this world, and you should also treat yourself like you are worthy of great things.
Imagine yourself as a political leader, a master salesman, or a character you admire from a television series. How would they act? Think like a producer, not just a consumer. When you approach others, make a habit of looking them in the eye, while turning away from time to time. Shake hands firmly and smile. It may be difficult to smile on cue, so I would recommend attempting a closed smile. After some time, a closed smile becomes an automatic response to new encounters. I would also recommend dressing confidently. Research via the internet what attractive men wear, or clothes that will make you feel better about yourself and go shopping. I can’t stress how much this builds confidence. When someone talks to me, even if I can’t fully process what they are saying, I practice opening up my eyes and acting surprised in order to show interest and empathy to the person I am talking to. When you do these things, you will produce a safety net around you that will make interactions with others much more comfortable.
- Make Autism Your Superpower
People with Autism are often thought to be experts or prodigies in certain subjects. Some are expert coders, while others have high levels of creativity. While Autism may have its shortcomings, it often comes with certain benefits. Cultivating the unique aspects of your personality can help you stand out from the crowd. Identify what you think most passionately about everyday and try to excel in that subject. It’s better to focus on what you enjoy and are good at rather than trying to do something to please others, because the latter will only cause you stress and disappointment. If you are obsessed with film, then work on producing your own content and networking in the industry. Many jobs are specifically looking for people on the spectrum with unique skill sets. Allow your disability to help you get services such as free housing, employment services, income and other disability services if needed.
Because many people with Autism have focused interests in certain topics, they can convey that passion in ways that can help them excel greatly. You can express the struggles you’ve faced in your life through art or working for different causes. Since I am passionate about expressing my struggles and have an aptitude for writing, I writing blogs and lyrics about my struggles. It’s not surprising at all that the adjective “Autistic” is only a letter away from being “Artistic,” because people with this disorder have a unique and creative way of looking at the word.
- Become A Well-Rounded Person
While it is important to focus on cultivating your interests, becoming a well-rounded person is equally valuable. Aspies, including myself, tend to have focused interests, which can make it difficult to relate to others in conversations. Flexibility is an integral component of relationships, and many people don’t like to hear the same thing over and over. I’m not talking about learning about things that you have no interest in at tall, but rather things that you have some interest in or can benefit from. For instance, I have been taking up ballroom dancing, going on hikes, singing Karaoke and participating in other activities I would never had guessed I would enjoy or benefit from.
I recommend Meetup.com for activities like these and more. While having a set routine schedule and repetitive interests is fine, you need to grow your interests and build up social skills in order to build social health and relate to others. Take an interest in what people are talking about. Use your daily interactions as an opportunity to learn by asking others questions. Doing so will make them want to talk to you.
While there is no cure for Autism, applying these five things to your life will result in you almost forgetting you have it in the first place. Any perceived limitations can be overcome. You will take pride in who you are and realize that you’re not so different from anyone else. People will respect you for who you are and become drawn to you. Building your social skills and confidence, regulating your thoughts and becoming a more interesting person will help you survive in life whether you are on the spectrum or not.