By Georgia Fielding, Student, University of St. Andrews
When talking about autism, we can often find ourselves absorbed by the damaging views and stereotypes that exist within society: that we’re rude; we can’t communicate; we have tantrums. I’ll confess, there are some days I struggle to look beyond the thunderous torture that occurs in my brain and the meltdowns that leave me immobile on my bedroom floor. Sometimes, I wish I could take a pill to wash away the autism that laces my mind. Sometimes, I find myself regularly apologising for laughing at the wrong time or for not understanding simple instructions. Yes, I apologise for being autistic: which, I now realise, is the same as apologising for existing!
The journey that led to my diagnosis is comparable to sailing a cruise ship through the Mediterranean, despite only possessing the knowledge to operate a car. It was rough, to say the least. And there are times when perhaps I’m a bit more abrupt than I mean to be and then I do have a reason for saying sorry. But the purpose of this article is not to criminalize autism any more than society already does. The truth is, I’m rather fond of my diagnosis and I’m proud of the part autism plays in my life. The years leading to the day of my diagnosis were merely the beginning.
“You do meet the criteria for ASD” are now the most precious words that have ever been spoken to me. Perhaps there’s a common view that a diagnosis can be debilitating and a hindrance. Personally, I’ve found this is only true when the people around me don’t understand what it really means to be autistic. My diagnosis has given me an explanation. An answer. It has given me the green-light to unmask, to loosen the restraints and to breathe. I have researched autism until it has ironically became my new special interest. I have made an in-depth sensory profile, adorned my University room with soft fairy lights and, most importantly, that short sentence has given me the confidence to talk.
Believe me, I can talk! Suddenly, I was able to talk without feeling like I was sitting an exam I hadn’t revised for, or like I was performing a speech to a lecture hall of uninterested students. I was given permission to fidget with toys like a child, to self-soothe by clicking my tongue. The upset caused by last-minute changes in plans could now be explained and understood. I no longer felt alone. Sure, I will never be neurotypical but finally I have discovered my own community and I have never felt more at home. But it’s not just a home because we’ve all been given the same label after ticking pages of the correct boxes and shoved into the slums together. No. It’s a home because of the incredible humans autism has allowed me to meet and connect with.
My own diagnosis has given me the opportunity to meet autism in many different people – I have been able to see its distinct masks and faces – but one I feel I have to mention is Jamie Rodney, the President of the University of St Andrews Students Association, who defies all autistic stereotypes. Having such a prestigious title carries a lot of weight that autism can make even heavier. His role deals with the outward-facing issues of University life, from accommodation and sustainability to community relations and local and national representation. With being an influential public figure, it’s understandable how autism can sometimes make speeches and communication more difficult than they already are for even the neurotypical population. I can’t hide my admiration as I appreciate the paralysing anxiety public speaking can create. But autism has many gifts, like hyper-focusing on a topic and noticing details on the same level as a microscope, to name just two, which allow Jamie to fulfil his role effectively and to a high standard – I can vouch! During our email correspondence for this article, he made it clear that while his diagnosis can create additional challenges, when surrounded by people who understand and accept autism, anyone with autism can succeed. In his own words: “I should say that everyone I work with is really accepting. I’ve never been in a workplace, or any non-work setting, where I’ve felt more comfortable being autistic”.
Which sums up that you don’t have to be autistic to understand autism and that all it takes is acceptance for a person with autism to succeed. Let’s take my Autism Advisor at university, who once sat in our session with a coat pulled up to her neck because she was wearing a yellow jumper that burnt my eyes. She has taught me that autism matters and that autistic individuals are important, despite not being autistic herself. I have learned that we don’t always have to suffer and that, sometimes, the solutions to our discomfort can be easily overcome when autism is understood. And then there’s my old Deputy Head of sixth form, back home in Leeds, who was there to read through my report on the same day I received my diagnosis, who chatted with me for innumerable hours to help discover what autism meant to me, who motivated me to embrace what we had found and ultimately, who prepared me for the daunting world outside school as an autistic adult.
Although the years that led to me receiving my diagnosis were long and often dark and despite the fact that sometimes autism is like being padlocked to the ground, it’s essential I conclude by saying that I have only learnt to view autism positively due to the acceptance of the people I have been privileged to be surrounded by. But I say privileged because, not only are they rare gems but also because the hostile views and attitudes which surround autism still exist. Because of this, there are hundreds of hiding autists who don’t feel safe enough to be who they really are: honest, intelligent, creative and unapologetically autistic.
Georgia is a first year undergraduate at the University of St Andrews studying Spanish, Italian and German.