A Fork in My Road

For a good deal of my life I’d been announcing, practically bragging, to my family and peers that I was going to be an engineer. So, you can probably imagine how difficult it was for me to ask my parents if they could see me working in another career.

As much as I wanted a job in engineering, the higher level math requirements became too much to bear. For reasons that still elude me to this day, math just seemed pointless to me now. I used to love math for its patterns and predictability. Now the algorithms didn’t seem to touch on anything in the real-world anymore. Eventually I had to drop out of the class and forfeit the path of engineering altogether.

My academic journey was stuck at a fork in the road. I had to uncover new talents and new inspiration for a new calling for myself. When I didn’t have papers to write or tests to panic over, I pondered and reflected upon who I am, what I have done up to this point, and what do I want to do for the rest of my life. I knew that discovering my true vocation was a matter that deserved careful deliberation. However, I also knew that my time for pondering was running out.

I dreaded the worst when I informed my parents newfound struggles. When I came across difficulty with a class, I would always stay the course by working through the problem or find a way around it. This was the first time I had to abandon such an important waypoint. Oddly enough, they were very open-minded and were supportive about this change in potential professions. This was not to say that they were happy about me leaving engineering; this just meant that they would support me wherever my path would lead.

I tried to put my dilemma into the perspective of “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” (Confucius) Then came the query of what do I like to do and can I make a stable career out of it? I thought about my dilemma long and hard, but I needed inspiration to move me in the right direction.

One night while I was contemplating my career decision, my Mom suggested helpfully, “Maybe you can be like the people at KAP?” I thought about it. It was true that KAP’s career was focused around helping people, but how was that career classified? I did some digging on the matter and discovered that the organizers of KAP are classified as a social-work program, a vocation that I had been doing for fun for years with the Boy Scouts, National Honors Society, and the Beta Club.

Very soon after my discovery, I declared myself as a Social Work major at WKU and signed up for the necessary courses for the third year. Fortunately for me, I had already dispensed with most of the major’s prerequisites and Gen Ed requirements so I was able to jump right in to the major’s introductory courses unchallenged.

Though I was taking a new academic and career path, I did not regret my time in the engineering courses that I had taken in High School. I may not be putting my education from them to everyday use for my new profession, but I still value my time in the engineering magnet. The program gave me motivation to get out of bed and seize the day. It gave me hope that every school day I was going to wake up and learn something that would make a difference in somebody’s life. This was also a time that I could get an idea on what parts of engineering I was good at. I had new skills that could aid me in a domestic setting-such as the time when I repaired my dying TV with the skills I learned from my electronics course. I could also say that my high school years were anything but ordinary. After all, how many can say they made a human-sized canoe out of cardboard and duct tape?

The Monsters Still Chase Me

Ever since my time in Middle School, I saw that all teachers as heroes and advocates for students that were experiencing trouble. They answered my many questions, tolerated my ignorance and protected me from bullies. However, I soon found out that not all professors were as friendly and helpful toward their pupils.

As I said before, I had bullies in my younger years of life, but I wasn’t targeted for my autism specifically. My youthful tormentors usually preyed on me because I was seen as a loner with lousy social skills. As such, I was a good source for a cheap laugh. I wasn’t afraid of them; they were only immature jerks.

My only true villain didn’t appear until in my second year of college. The fully-grown bully was not a fellow classmate on campus or an old peer from my early years. The situation would probably have been far more favorable if he had been. My bully at this point in my life, the person who harassed me for my autism, was a College professor.

This whole affair began in my sophomore year of college when I was taking a Standard English class for my General Education requirements. On my first day in the class, I went up to the teacher, introduced myself, handed him my disability papers, and took an advantageous seat in the front row. In all fairness, upon my first meeting with my teacher, he seemed like a nice guy. My tasks in the class were simple: Read the many short stories in the assigned book, take a short quizzes based on the readings, write three papers for the semester, and study for three tests plus the final exam.

For the next few months I did my best to earn a decent grade on my appointed assignments. However, nothing I did seemed to please the teacher. During my Study Table hours at KAP, I would read the scheduled stories, memorize the key notations, and have KAP help me prepare for the quiz the following day. However, on the quizzes, he wouldn’t ask for the main ideas, Meta messages, foreshadowing, or the moral of the story. No. Instead he would ask for the details of the story that were often missed due to their unimportance to the tale; tidbits that would pass off as decoration to fluff up the story. If the short story had a street brawl, he would ask for the eye color of the mute onlookers. If the story were about a teen girl confronting a dangerous youth, he would ask about what kind of wallpaper she had in the kitchen. If the tale was about a lottery that nobody wanted to win, he would ask what kind of weather the villagers were having. And so I would get nothing but F’s on my quizzes. My grades for the writing assignments for the class weren’t much better.

In spite of my best effort, despite all my work and dedication, the English teacher would pass back my papers with an F stamped on it and not have a single comment to explain why. Three months into the class, and I was at my wits’ end. If it will help me improve, I will accept any form of constructive criticism, but all I was getting back were failed assignments, failed tests, and a improving migraine. I couldn’t understand why I was having such a hard time.

Difficulty understanding English assignments was not a new concept for me. Weather it was writing my own story or interpreting someone else’s, I would always need help. So I thought there were more unwritten rules I wasn’t picking up on. I approached the teacher many times to figure out what was going on. But he would only provide limited feedback, a smile, and say, “Hang in there.” His response gave me a glimmer of hope, but no answers.

It wasn’t until my second test I figured out what was REALLY going on. Before the second test took place, I had spent many hours each day reviewing the class’s test material and, after the test, I felt really confident in the results. But alas, there was nothing but an F waiting for me upon grading day. In dismay, I approached the teacher one last time to ask one last question, WHY? “What was I doing wrong?” I asked him.

I was expecting some form of constructive criticism, but all he said was “You didn’t answer the questions the right way.” …. WHAT!?

I snapped. “What do you mean ‘the right way’?!” I asked in outrage.

He quickly silenced me and said, “You should be grateful for the grades I have given you! I will report your poor behavior to KAP. Do you understand?!”

At this point, I had plenty to say in response with some very choice words and colorful vocabulary to this man, but before then, I had to keep myself from crying.

Bigots, racists, prejudice. I have known of their existence since I did a report on the Ku Klux Klan back in Middle School. Ever since I have grown to despise such idealism and the creatures that worship it. I despise what they have done in the past. And I despise them still what they do now. I have seen such bigots in action in the form of the annoying protestors that insists that Gods hates homosexuals.

I have come to despise the idea of judging someone for not WHO they are but WHAT they are. I can always change WHO I am through the choices I make each and every day. I cannot, however, change WHAT I am because I did not choose to be born as a human, where I was raised, my parents, or to have Autism.

Although I was aware of bigotry in all of its elements, this was the first time I felt the cold jagged blade of prejudice stabbing my heart. How naive of me to believe the threat of bullying would just end with high school. Bullying can carry into adulthood too. Never before had I felt so helpless. I knew that I was different from everyone else. But I had assumed that being different were the only extent of the damage. Things that are deviant was not supposed to be a sin. For the first time in my life, I felt absolutely pathetic.

I spent the rest of the day in doldrums, wandering from class to class, half aware of my surroundings. I tried to focus on my studies but I just too depressed to care. Helpfully, the kind organizers at KAP were as devastated and outraged at this development as I was and tried their hardest to rectify the situation in my favor. However, whenever KAP tried to contact the teacher, he would have a “convenient” excuse at the last minute to miss the meeting. When they finally cornered the rat, it was already too late for me and many others in my class. It was the first time in my life I had an F on my report card.

The semester finally ended with lackluster results. I may have walked out a little wiser, but I was mostly mad. I was infuriated at the professor for being a fat egotistic demon disguised as a teacher and mad at myself for not seeing the signs earlier that this instructor had no intention of giving me a chance to succeed.

A semester later after that horrible experience, I learned that another student at KAP was taking the same English professor I had and was having an equally difficult time with him.

It is a learned habit of mine to retain all of my notes and assignment papers of past classes just in case I might need them for future reference.

Feeling sympathy for the student, I tried to help him out by rendering all of my class notes, assignments, and quizzes that I kept from that class. I hoped that the notes would give him a fighting chance and to succeed where I have failed. He was grateful of course and used my notes. Nonetheless, my hopes were in vain. The professor still wouldn’t pass him despite his best efforts, and I felt nothing but rage.

I was betrayed! Teachers are meant to guide and protect their students and every professor before this bully did just that. How dare he deny me the one thing I ask, one chance to prove myself.

My heart was filled anger and anguish. After this episode, I thirsted for revenge. While I paced, I had countless dark fantasies of payback, each one blacker than the last. But I could not bring myself to act on any of them. Not because “revenge is wrong,” “hatred leads to more hatred,” “violence solves nothing,” “two wrongs don’t make a right,” or other similar clichés. As needlessly cruel as my pretend proctor was, I refused to become his successor and become a monster like him.

I don’t how or when, but I do know that such villainy rarely goes unchallenged. Be it of God’s wrath or karma’s cycle, he will be punished for his transgressions. Such is the way of all with closed minds, bigoted attitudes, and inflated egotists –they will get their just rewards in the end.

So, life moves on. Although I was still bitter about what happened to me in that class and how I was treated; I had to realize that life had hills and potholes and I had to learn to get over them or endure them. I learned to both choose my classes and my professors more carefully. I have also learned that it does no good to worry about the “could’ve, should’ve, would’ve.” All it is extra baggage and I wouldn’t become any stronger nor wiser by lugging it around. The only thing I could do was pick myself up, dust myself down, and move on.

College Assistance

When I entered WKU, I still had aspirations to become an engineer, but I had to get most of my tedious basic level courses out of the way before I could fully enjoy my major’s important aspects. As such, I declared myself as Undecided to preemptively knock out my college General Education (Gen Ed) requirements-the basic level required courses that every WKU student needs to take before graduating (English, Math, History, Foreign Language). Lucky for me, I was able to get a tremendous amount of help from a local organization that is stationed on campus.

The organization is called the Kelly Autism Program (KAP). KAP specializes in assisting individuals with autism and works with autistic clients that range anywhere from elementary to college level students. When I joined KAP in my freshman year, I was enrolled in KAP’s Study Tables program. Simply put, the Study Tables program is a service that provides active help throughout the client’s college experience. This help includes homework assistance, in-class accommodation authorization (Office for Student Disability Services), guidance on how to conduct oneself in the real world, and building a healthy social repertoire. It was thanks to these people that I was able to survive and thrive in College from start to finish.

One does not normally find such help as you find at KAP. They provide the resources and Help Piece that is normally missing at other autism-help facilities. Not only do the students get the tools they need, they are also taught how to use them step by step. For example, after the KAP students were released to go home, a KAP worker found a student going the wrong way and heading further and further from campus. The worker flagged down the student and took him back to KAP where she walked back and forth with the student to make sure that he could find his way to and from his dorm the next time on his own. This is the Help Piece that KAP provides, and this is exactly what the autistic community needs to succeed.

When my mom and I visited KAP for the first time, the manager of the facility asked my mom some questions about me and my abilities. One question that stood out to me was when the manager asked my mom very sternly, “Can he do this work?”

After a moment of thought, my mom replied to the manager, “I don’t know, but we can’t not try. Because every goal he set out for he found a way to make it happen, and we cannot deprive him the right to try.”

Oddly enough, I was not offended by the manger’s question. I have achieved much during my time in High School, however I also had to agree with her skepticism in my ability to survive in College. The manager knew very well that some students with disabilities have been babied by their parents/teachers and have taken an easy road through their life without learning the necessary skills to live on their own.

Such as the case with my neighbor in the freshman dorm. He was a fellow autistic student who enrolled into WKU at the same time as I. However, after we both moved into our new dorms, I didn’t see him much outside the dorm or at KAP. I later learned that he dropped out after the first few weeks because he hadn’t learned what he needed to from home. College has a lot more social variables than high school. These included academic expectations, attitudes of the professors, living independently, communicating and cooperating with peers, and compensating for unexpected turn of events.

While KAP did help me perform in my daily assignments outside of class, I still needed some additional help for my daily tasks during class. This is where the Office for Student Disability Services comes in. This office offers students with disabilities in-class accommodations, such as extended time, books of tape, or even a note-taker (a fellow student would get paid by the office to share their notes with the recipient).

If it weren’t for KAP I would have not known these accommodations existed. KAP took the time to get to know me, assess what services would benefit me, and how to use them to their fullest extent.

Although I had these services available to me, this did not mean that I was lazy. From the office, I did ask to take extra time on tests and hire a note-taker. However, I did not allow my accommodations to do all of the work for me. I had to work and, at times, fight to get all of my assignments competed and ready for the assigned due date. My ultimate goal here was that I tried to live my college life with as few complications as possible.

As time went by, I began to see myself as a burden to my parents. Particularly my Mom. Every time I’ve had an issue, I needed to come back to her for a solution. If I needed to study for a spelling test, my mom quizzed me. If I needed to know what happened in 1887, mom would make a study guide to make it easier to recall. If I had peers who were harassing me, mom would call a school meeting and take care of them.

For each event that I couldn’t support myself, I felt more pathetic because I couldn’t handle it myself. I appreciate my mother’s unwavering support and I appreciate the help I get from KAP. But I continually felt that I was at the mercy of someone else and I hated it. I hated myself that was over 18 and still needed had to burden another for my shortcomings.

“Even Jesus had apostles” my mom would say. “Even Jesus had apostles,” another way of saying that everyone helps in his or her life in one point or another. These were words that I didn’t take to heart until much later. In the meantime, I tried my hardest to be self-reliant. Which meant to have all of my tasks of the day under my thumb. I knew that I was only human and that I had weakness here and there, but no one else in the room seemed to have difficulties like mine.

Looking back on it now, it was probably during High School graduation that I finally understood something important. When the graduate stood up to receive their diploma and when the graduates’ families would cheer for them upon recognition, I understood that although that each student may have attended class as an individual, they were not alone. Each one of them had a team that supported them and helped and guided them through their journey. I was still a little hesitant to ask for help at first. However, when I saw that college professors encouraged students to come seek help, I had a quick change of heart and a new paradigm on the subject.

Only in video games can one person plow through overwhelming odds and change the world. The only reason why a fictional character can charge through armies armed with only a sword and live is because they are supposed too. For the sake of plot the heroes of fiction are scripted to deliver a happy ending. People of the real world aren’t so invincible. Our lives are not scripted and fate does not favor dunderheads that think can button mash through their problems. People need other people to survive our independent trails.

Continent College

Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep!

I wake up one sunny day in August 2007. I turn off my alarm and look around to find myself alone in my room. I took a deep breath in search of the familiar smell of fresh coffee and toasted bagels only to find the scent of still air. I listen for the familiar sounds of my parents and sisters as they stir out of bed only to find silence. It was then it dawned on me that I was alone and on my own. It was my first day in College.

When I learned that I was going to a university, I admit, I had some reservations. When I initially thought what my new college life was going to consist of, I thought that the atmosphere of the college campus was going to be similar to my previous high school life along with frat parties, inhuman hazing initiations, and dead-boring professors over 60. My biggest concern I had was that I was going to be living on my own in the dorms. The longest I have ever been apart from my parents were about a week for Boy Scout summer camp.

I admit, I was lonely, overwhelmed, and confused at first. But after I settled in, I quickly found out that college life was a whole new culture with new people and new rules. Not only that, I found out more about myself and how to be self-reliant when I was living alone.

When I stepped onto Western Kentucky University’s (WKU) campus for the first time, one of my first thoughts was that this place was big. Really big. While High School could be described as island. College could be its own continent. This world was not contained into one boring looking building and a bus ride like at High School. The entire school was a whole community with lots of places to traverse and explore.

I found it very refreshing to see the atmosphere around me change from a noisy habitat of wasted effort to a den of potential scholars. When I looked around on campus and see the people moving back forth on the sidewalk, I could see it in their eyes that there was something occupying their minds. A project? A test? A new job? Laundry? Overseas internship? Lunch? Whatever the case, they knew that they had a task to complete and they would get to work to get it done without delay. There were still some dunderheads here and there, but they quickly learned the hard way that life is not their playground anymore.

One such example took place during my freshman year when I took an Art Appreciation class. The class was just getting results back from a test we had taken the week before. That was when one of the students leisurely approached the professor and confessed that he had missed the test and requested to take a makeup. To say that the professor was not keen on the idea was an understatement. The student could have informed the professor weeks beforehand and they could have arranged something, but he didn’t. Now that everyone in the class has gotten their test back, the student could pull another student aside and ask to look at the graded test and thus have an unfair advantage. The professor was quick to realize this and quicker to eject the laid-back student from the class. The student tried to play it cool and nonchalant, but the infuriated teacher made short work of his insolence and ejected him from class with a very loud and angry “GET OUT!!” Nobody could blame her.

I couldn’t help but nurse a secret delight in seeing the obnoxious, immature twits being filtered from the hard workers. I took pride in knowing that I had surpassed the breeding grounds of immature tormentors and had moved to a higher level in life. Although the college atmosphere had been mostly cleared of juvenile beings, there would always be some that would prey on the weaknesses of others.

Upon my freshman year, I also noticed a change in tone from my teachers in high school and my professors in college. Whenever I would interact with the professors, I’d notice a transition from “How can I help you today?” to an unsaid ‘Do you really care about my class?’ Unlike the high school teachers, I had to earn any help from my professors by showing that I cared about passing their class and meeting their challenges. In short, if I showed that gave a damn about my class, the professors gave a damn about me.

WKU also became the ultimate proving ground for overcoming my autism. Not only did I have to overcome my deficiencies when doing my class assignments and performing my duties as a college student, I had to be able to provide for myself independently.

From this day forward, I had to be responsible for my classes! Laundry! Dishes! Hygiene! Responsible for my meals! PAYING for groceries! And then be at least two steps ahead of the game for the next day. It felt like someone had loosened a pair of training wheels on my life. This was a brand new experience to be so responsible for my life when my parents weren’t around to clean up after me.

Finding balance to do it all was always a tricky job. This was because, before college, my sisters and I would divide up our household chores among us. When I became a college resident, it was now my responsibility to do all of the chores whether I liked them or not. However, this did not mean that I had to complete five years of college on my own. When you live on your own, you can’t be a one-man show. You are going to need help in one aspect of college or another. Like it is said in another one of my favorite mom-isms, “Even Jesus had apostles.” Everyone needs help from time to time.

Land of Magic, Swords, and Mecha

I love anime! There, I’ve said it!

If I were given a choice between a stack of random fantasy manga (Japanese comics) and a stack of the Harry Potter series, I would choose the manga. Why? I don’t hate Harry. I am a visional learner; I understand things better with visual aid.

Liking anime is not a subject I’d widely admit to most people. Mainly because I feel that most people will associate cartoons as entertainment for children and with me being an adult will seem childish for reveling in worlds with super-human warriors and giant robots. I know that the realism is not likely. In fact, the hairstyles on most of the anime characters alone can defy laws of physics. However, there is just something about the unrealism and imagination that is put into these animated worlds that is so appealing to me and the advancing story of struggle and growth hits home for some reason.

The plots can be more than just ‘good guy’ vs ‘bad guy’, they delve into the grey area in between. Most anime plots are silly and made to make you laugh, but they can also contain real-world elements like bullies, same-sex relationships, single parents, racial discrimination, pollution, poverty and other real-life elements viewers can identify with.

With the Light: Raising an Autistic Child, for example, is a drama manga about an ordinary Japanese family raising their son who has autism. No swords, no robots, just a simple family dealing with familiar problems and miracles that come with autism.

Along with Japanese branded comics, I also read freelanced branded webcomics as well. Just like in manga, webcomics also deliver story with unique characters and a compelling offbeat story. The difference in the two mediums is that the story is delivered in smaller increments and the story can have fewer content restrictions. The artist has the freedom to be as originally imaginative, wacky, mature, and/or symbolic as they please without adhering to corporate supply and demand. The content of these novels can also touch on real-world subjects viewers can relate to.

Recently I have come across several independent studies that suggest there might be a connection between autism and anime. After some reading, I can see some merit to this study. Besides being an anime fan myself, I have met a family that has three autistic children and they all love anime as well, to the point that going to anime conventions are commonplace.

The observations made by Robert Rozema in his article, Manga and the Autistic Mind was the most illuminating. Now I am well aware that not members of autism are inherently anime fans. “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism,” (Dr. Stephen Shore). In fact, have met some individuals on the spectrum and they prefer real-world dramas over animation. All the same, I do believe that this is a revenue worth exploring.

Some of the keynotes of the anime/autism studies by Mr. Rozema’s and various online forums include:

1) Anime focuses less on verbal narratives and more on picture-specific storytelling, which appeals to visual thinkers.

2) Broken down to their base elements anime characters are physically drawn the same. Besides the outrageous hairdos, the authors add small and distinct facial details to separate one character from another. Being able to pick up on these subtle differences can teach autistic individuals how to discriminate between faces.

3) Anime character emotions are easy to read unlike a real person. When an anime person is being expressive, they will display their emotions through exaggerated facial ques and/or emotional symbols (sweat drop for worry, popping vein for anger, etc).

4) Anime does not have a lot of background clutter (unneeded distractions, background noise, unimportant extra characters)

5) Manga use geometric panels to organize the books content. Block panels for backgrounds, circle panels for dialogs, and other shaped panels for emotional effect. This setup appeals to pattern thinkers.

6) Anime can provide social ammunition for fans to get together and socialize.

7) Escaping reality. Much like pacing (autistic fantasy), anime can be used as a way to escape reality and decompress from the real-world.

8) Using manga to teach readers about Japanese culture. In turn, this can have the autistic reader curious enough to voluntary venture outside their comfort zone to explore the real world.

Whether or not these findings are completely reliable may be up for debate for years to come. Regardless, I do believe people with or without autism need various ways to escape reality to cope with the harshness of the real-world from time to time. Coloring books shouldn’t be just for kids, video game aren’t just for teens, and building models shouldn’t be just for the retired. Even adults should be allowed some time to have some fun. Maybe some adults would be less grumpy if they allowed their inner child to run around every once in a while.

 

 

 

 

 

Article source

Rozema, R. (2015). Manga and the Autistic Mind. Retrieved from http://www.ncte.org/library/NCTEFiles/Resources/Journals/EJ/1051-sep2015/EJ1051Manga.pdf

Rewards Greater Than Gold

School always feels smaller after you graduate.

-Anonymous

Looking back at it now, school life back then did look pretty small after you go through college. Elementary, Junior High, Senior High. If I had to describe them now, I would embody them as independent islands. An isolated colony that resides far from my home and the only way to get to these islands was to be ferried by bus.

Year after year. All of my life, I have been obediently following a set schedule and path that has been predetermined for me. Get up. Get on the bus. Complete school objectives. Come home. Homework. Everyday the same thing. Now after what feels like a lifetime of hard work, diligence, homework, jerks, barriers, discoveries, it was finally time to close this chapter in my life.

Graduation. The time of freedom, choices, direction, goodbyes, ambitions, and rewards. What else can I say? I was happy. I have spent my entire life bouncing from one School Island to another. And after four years of High School, there are plenty of rewards to reap.

My first prize was for my diligence and hard work toward my studies was rewarded with a 3.5 GPA average and a prominent place on the School’s Honor Roll for many years.

For my newly polished literary and writing skills, the before mentioned Seniors Writing Guild for the English paper My Eagle Project.

Next was from the National Honors Society and Beta Club. Anyone who participates in these clubs is assigned a set number of service hours to complete before graduation. Being part of the Boy Scouts, I had no trouble finding service hour opportunities. When my requirement was met for both clubs, I was given recognition for my time and services to the communities.

Finally, the Outstanding Seniors Reward. This is a rare prestigious reward for any High School student. Once a year, the mayor of my city would hold a banquet for the most amazing High School seniors from different schools. In 2007, 45 students and their families from 45 different schools were invited to take part. And I was chosen to represent my school that year. I think back to those early years, when so many school officials didn’t think I had what it takes to survive such advanced courses. The head honchos thought that I was too different, too slow, not ready to take on high school or even college level courses. I would have liked to invite them all that night to the banquet, just to show them how wrong they were. All that I needed was a chance to prove myself.

I have had good times, and I have had bad times as well. But I didn’t let the bad things trip me up too badly. I didn’t let up and I didn’t give up my dreams to some little stones on my path.

“Steps to enlightenment brighten the way; but the steps are steep. Take them one at a time.” -Cheshire Cat (American McGee’s Alice)

Evolution

High School was home of many changes. Not just growing taller or fighting acne. It was also the chance to grow into a new person.

I have mentioned before that Math was one of my favorite classes. That was because there was rhythm and reason. However, during my third year, my regimen of mathematics of any sort began to lose interest with each passing day. My only strength in my career as a student had become a subject of weakness. To make matters more odd for me, was my sudden improvement in my English classes.

I have also mentioned that English class was one of my weaker classes. Spelling didn’t make sense to me, and that is still true. English didn’t just confine itself to spelling out words and putting them in the right order. In High School, it now meant to write papers. English Papers: The talent of transcribing ideas, information, feelings through paper and ink. To me, writing a paper involved typing down my feeling about a subject blindly and then have my Mom comb out the mess into a passable paper. Writing a proper paper myself seemed an impossible task.

In one particular English class in my third year, the students were required to write a daily journal entry with a specific topic in mind. With my laptop handy, I wrote my daily requirement and handed my entry. When the English teacher would finally pass back our graded journals, I would always be enamored by the results. The teacher at the time continuously complimented that my journal entries were the best in the class. Here are some examples of my early handiwork:

journal-1journal-2

Thankfully my literary skills have improved significantly since then in form, style, and purpose.

Naturally I was flattered by the teacher’s comments, and I was not ungrateful. Yet here I am; the autistic student, with the worst spelling and literary skills in the world and using a laptop like his life depended on it, is excelling in an English class with literary doodles. “How did this happen?” I would ask myself. “When did start having trouble in Math and start improving in English?” Unfortunately, I had little time to reflect on this new development. With a combination of after school clubs, homework, and tests to study for, I had enough on my plate to worry about and would have to ponder this mystery at another time.

Ever since those journal entries, my literary aptitude had developed. With each project paper I was assigned from any of my classes, my abilities to transcribe thoughts to paper improved slowly but surely. However, truth be told, I was not born a scribe, and my new abilities did not come to me overnight. I required some sufficient coaching to make full use of this method of communication and to achieve the desired passing grade.

To be properly coached on how to write a project paper, my parents decided to take the strengths vs. weakness approach. Back then I had a hard time learning how to create a project paper the traditional way, but I did know how to build things like models or Legos. So my parents restructured the basics of creating a project paper into a construction blocks-like premise. Like so:

slide1

In essence, I built papers. I understood building. Papers consisted of parts and my job was to find the parts and put them together. In addition, my parents and I set up an agreement with my current teachers. The agreement was that once I was assigned a paper project I would:

1) Immediately set to work on the paper and build a working rough draft

2) Take the rough draft to the teacher WEEKS before the due date, have the teacher look over the contents, and provide constructive feedback on how to improve for the new version

3) Repeat steps 1 and 2 until paper was at satisfactory status

This technique helped me build my literary repertoire for future project papers, build better language compositions, and helped build respect with my teachers. This is one of my favorite pieces during high school. It depicts the events of my Boy Scout Eagle Project in 2004:

my-eagle-project-ii

I became very proud of my literacy accomplishments. Before I knew it, I started to take a liking to project papers and to express my opinions and knowledge through my new skill. At first, I only wrote the papers so well so to make a good grade for the respective class. But eventually I found that writing these papers was an effective conduit to express my true thoughts and feelings on any subject. By writing these papers, I could communicate to the world and express my true self that would be otherwise confined by my lack of social grace and hindered vocal aptitude.

No one was more surprised than I when I entered “My Eagle Project” in the Seniors Writing Guild. A school wide contest for the Senior class to judge who has the best English paper in the school. There are only three winners per senior class and my project paper was one of them. Image my surprise. I started out by struggling with spelling and now I was writing prize winning papers.

And that’s how I realized that I was not just a man of rhyme and reason. I can be fluid, changeable — capable of evolving so to speak. Time changes everything.

I Am Not Alone

Teachers weren’t my only friends at school. You might recall that I had a lot of trouble with my peers during Middle School. They were loud and immature kids that had no direction for their youthful energy. When I started riding the bus to traverse to and from school, slightly less obnoxious company surrounded me. The caravan was as loud as it can be, but loudness was focused in different circles. Not just in random directions.

One of these circles included me and a few familiar faces with whom I shared the ride home, a few classes, and lunch break. These were my High School friends. Although we didn’t do much outside of school, we made lots of small talk about our lives in general (TV, favorite comedians, movies, news, local gossip, etc.). These new friends made for great company and made me experience for the first time what it was like to have a social life in the real world instead of in a structurally guided club.

And speaking of clubs, I was a member of a couple different after school clubs throughout my time in High School. I may not be what you call a “social butterfly”, but I did enjoy the activities. Some of these activities lead to making some real-world friends later on. My favorite club being the Boy Scouts. With them I was able to open up a lot more than I did in school. We went on trips; we hiked, camped, cooked and learned how to be self-reliant and work as a team.

Along with my teachers and my real-world friends I had one more friend that I have nurtured from birth and has helped guide me through all of my life’s inconveniences. He lives in the Happy Place, the place where I pace.

I am not sure exactly when or how this started, but I can remember this extending back to my elementary school years. Back then I had fabricated another traveling companion besides my autism. This traveler was a fictional self that I often modeled after others who inspired me as a child.

You see, as an autistic child, I had very little idea how a boy my age was supposed to behave under certain social conditions when “tuning out” didn’t help. To help me get a bead on how to conduct myself, I subconsciously invented a shadow self that would act as an encouraging guide towards how I would behave. This alter ego often took on the appearance and qualities of many different inspirational figures, both fictional and non-fictional, I admired at the time in my youth.

As I got older, this shape-changing tutor evolved into a completely new entity altogether. Midway through high school, I had finally combined all the best elements of the past incarnations and composed a new permanent alter ego; one with a fixed purpose, form, and name. This new fabricated entity was named Vizor Keys…Don’t ask me why or where that name came from. For some reason the name “Vizor” just stuck.

When I made Vizor Keys, I made him to be an ideal version of myself. Not in realism mind you, but in perspective. This fictional shadow self I created is free from any social deficiencies that the real me suffers from. Through him, I would engage in a ritual known as pacing.

Some psychologists will refer to the ritual with the term “Autistic Fantasy”. This ritual of mine can be observed from afar as moving back and forth, engaging in a self-soliloquy.

While I pace, I would venture into a fabricated dream world of both fiction and nonfiction. To better elaborate, I would use the dream world in one of two ways:

-First as an adventure world for Vizor to let off some tension harmlessly. I would often use music of various types to set the tone and mood of the fictional stories.

-The second method is that I would use this simulated world as a virtual rehearsal to better prepare myself for real world events. The rehearsals I would emulate certain possible real-world case scenarios. Through these simulations, I would be better prepared on what I would do, what I say would, and how I would phrase my external messages in these instances.

I owe a lot to Vizor. He has helped me keep the peace between my world and the real world. Helping me coupe with bizarre, non-sensible, and the agitating. He has been the one to help clear my head and prepare my head for when the world is not perfect and I thank him.

Evidentially, I’m not the only one who has some to rely on such dimensions in the brain for comfort. I have met autistic others who pace when they are stressed and I have read stories about other people, both child and adult, who rely on autistic fantasy to help them relax and sort through stressful events. I found comfort in knowing I was not the only one who had island retreat like mine.

Hurdles and Monsters Oh My!

The Fast Track To A Dead-end

Although the Special Needs School was a great academic safe haven for my particular needs, I knew that I couldn’t stay in this place for long. You see I wanted to become a mechanical/robotics engineer for my adult career and to achieve this feat I couldn’t stay in the special needs program forever. As such, I stayed with this school for only three years (4th, 5th, and 6th grade). Just long enough to bring myself up to speed before transferring to the public mainstream again.

Now, I’m not going to tell you that everything in my life just magically fell into place. And I’m not going to tell you that most of the schools that I applied to opened their doors and rolled out the red carpet. On more than one occasion I was almost denied the school of my dreams. Denied the chance to show people who I am and what I’m capable of. Denied the opportunity to fulfill my potential. All because I wasn’t a cut-copy-and-paste student.

At first they were reluctant to take me because I didn’t do so well of their entrance exam, but my parents were determined to get me in and to get them to understand that I had the skills to succeed.

To convince the managers of my Middle School, and later on high school, my parents arranged meetings with Individual Education Program (IEP) and invoked their services. At IEP meetings, you, your family, and a lot of school officials decide what your “program” will consist of.

In these IEP meetings, there will be at least one person in the room who is in charge of the budget. As part of being responsible with the wallet, it is their job to find the most cost effect method your special needs. In other words; do nothing, and say, “We can’t afford it.” Other officials at the meeting feel that if the child is “different”; give them the water-downed course that guarantees a slow road to a lackluster career.

To contend with the IEP board, my parents did a lot of homework before each meeting. In the first few meetings, the board would hand my parents a single sheet of paper and call it the list of rules of what they can and can’t do. My Mom didn’t buy it, and countered their grocery list with their own rules and quoted word for word what is written in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (I.D.E.A.) detailing exactly what I’m entitled to and what the IEP board is required to do. And that always got them. In order to get anything from IEP, my parents had to learn the rules of I.D.E.A. inside and out.

The accommodations that I asked for weren’t unreasonable. I did not ask for the streets to be made with gold bricks. I could understand and do the work like that of my peers. I just understand things in the world in a unique way. All I asked for were some extra tools to help me operate in the best way possible. All we wanted were extra time to complete a class project, extra time to finish a test, and early notifications of upcoming events, plus a rental laptop, as assigned seat on the school bus and in class, and a locker at the end of a row. The reason being for the assigned places; was for a peace of mind.

To me, school buses were a big, yellow, four-wheeled vehicle designed to transport a large number of students to and from school. To everyone else, it was a gas-driven social zoo. And just like any other social gathering, it had unspoken rules of how things are done. Rules like, if you want a seat to yourself, you’re not going to get one. The bus will always have twice the number of people than it’s supposed to have. If you see someone sleeping alone in a seat, wake him up. He’s faking in order to protect his private seat. If you have someone that’s picking on you or bothering with his immature pranks, don’t get revenge by hitting him. He is a jerk, but he will win.

During my daily passage from Home to Middle School, such tricksters have constantly taunted me. They find amusement by hounding me with ill games and this often distracted me from my studies at school. In response, my parents marched up to the bus company and demanded that I would have an assigned seat next to a bus monitor. The company tried to discourage her by saying that there is no policy on assigned seats. But my mom was very persuasive. She argued that either I got the seat I wanted or they were to send a private bus for me. Eventually the bus company complied, and I got a safe seat on the bus to and from school. You can’t imagine what a relief it was!

Just as with school buses, having a locker at end of row was much more vital than you’d think. At the time I also didn’t like being boxed between others. You could say that this was a form of sensory claustrophobia. As such, my mom also made arrangements with the school to have my locker on the ends and my seat location on the ends so that I had plenty of elbow room. Eventually I gradually grew around this and learned how to be more tolerable of inconvenient circumstances.

 

New Jungles

Engineering was a sensible career, I had a deep fascination with the field of machines, a no-nonsense sensibility, and since my favorite toys as a child were Legos, Knexs, and Erector sets this was a perfect choice. I thought to myself: “How hard could it be?”

When the day came for me to transition from the safety of the Special Needs School to the regular Middle School, naturally I was petrified. The class size was bigger, the students were rowdier, and the teachers were less hands-on when teaching their lesson. However, in order for me to enter a high school of my choice, one that would allow me to fulfill my ambitions to become an engineer, transferring protocols dictated that I needed to take at least two years of public junior high. So, in the fall of 2001, I started my first years of public middle school. The most horrid two years of my life.

My chosen junior high was a mathematics/science/technology magnet by nature. Much of the school’s curriculum was geared towards the introduction of computers, electronic encyclopedias, graphing calculators, and video-editing equipment. In this school, there were also teachers that knew of my condition and very supportive of my ambitions. This school would lay the groundwork for all of my academic strengths and aspirations. The other students on the other hand, I could have done without.

Despite the school’s excellent reputation and good intentions, the atmosphere of this school seemed more appropriate for a daycare center than a school and a wild, out-of-control daycare center at that! My peer’s maturity levels left much to be desired. At first I thought that the biggest adjustment from a safe school to a public middle school was the social order. Unfortunately, it was not just the schools themselves who were different; it was the people that inhabit the school that was different. There were a sizable number of the students that were loud, obnoxious, and immature. Although I was never thrilled about going to school for those two long years, I went anyway to fulfill my educational commitment and to move on. During this time these juveniles often bothered me with childish pranks and they were deliberately disobedient to the brave teachers.

I didn’t understand the rationale behind the behavior of these kids. Even though my classmates were about the same age I was, I still considered them immature, childish, and collectively, the peanut gallery. Why would anyone purposely taunt and test the patience of the one who decides if you pass or fail a class? It made no sense.

In my mind I would often scream, “THIS is the task we are supposed to do, and THIS is how we do it. What part of that aren’t you getting?!” There is a time and place for everything, but I could not understand it. The students knew they had commitments to fill, so why would they waste their precious time to play childish pranks that should be reserved for elementary kids? There were even times that I wanted to aggressively discipline the dunderheads myself.

However, I didn’t act upon my urges no matter how strong the urge or how unpleasant the company. I knew that if I got into any trouble with the students or the school, I might forfeit my chances to enter a respectable high school and have repeat this whole horrible experience again elsewhere in a less privileged school.

As such, I performed my daily tasks and tolerated the company. My dedicated diligence often left me alone quite often. It was a rare commodity during these times to have a proper friend or common companion as I did in previous years. With that, I often found comfort and camaraderie with the teachers rather than with my peers.

This often made me feel like an alien in my own skin. “Why didn’t I act like the other students?” My parents knew I was odd. I knew that the world was odd. But this was the first time I thought I was odd. Why didn’t I talk as often as the other kids? Why didn’t we hang out? Maybe the difference between my classmates and myself was not just intelligence; maybe it was sociability.

Although I was diagnosed with autism when I was around eight years old and I was admitted into a special-needs school, I thought the world was just being unfair. However, during my years in Middle School, I began to acknowledge that autism had a real effect on me and that I would always be different from my peers. Over time, I began to see my autism as a new appendage or a traveling companion rather than a disabling condition. Sure, there was plenty I didn’t understand about people and proper order or things and I needed some special tools to help me succeed. I was still moving under my own power and the people around never handed me anything. I earned all of my rewards with hard work and determination.

My success, despite my supposed disability, was often reflected in my grades at school and in my GPA. In spite of having a zoo for Class Company, I was on the Honor Roll and my GPA was 3.5. I accredit this difference in maturity to my autism. I discovered that because of my autism, I had a no-nonsense outlook on my life and, as such, my persona grew mature at a faster pace as well as my sense of responsibility. I also discovered that I was both task-and goal-oriented when it came to completing my tasks. I never felt right if an assignment was only left half done.

2003 was the year I finally transitioned from middle school to high school. A most blessed change. When I entered through the doors of High School for the first time, I was immediately immersed by new surroundings, landmarks, laws, and culture shock. My particular high school was an engineering magnet school and was equipped with an advanced engineering program. The program was a four-year pre-engineering program whose mission is to teach high school students the basis of industrial engineering, including some pretty advanced courses such as computer aided drafting and circuit building. These courses aside, the students that make up this school were just as interesting.

My first culture shock in this place came to me when came across a peer with his pants sagging below his waist. My first thought that this young man must be unaware what had happened. So being the helpful sort that I am, I offered that he needs to pull up his pants before he trips. As a response, instead of a “Thank you for your concern” the young man responded; “You should pull your pants down!” in a playful tone. The reaction was more than a little unexpected. What custom or reason could possible warrant one’s pants to be so uselessly low like that? My last school was full of jerks, but everybody was clever enough to operate a belt. I tried to think of reason, but I could find none. So, I dismissed the incident that the person was an idiot. This was, in fact, in a strange new jungle.

There were some immature brats here and there. Yet, unlike the years before, the social crowd I was with had matured somewhat. When I looked around in this school, I was able to find individuals who cared about their future and were willing to take big steps to achieve their life ambitions. I didn’t quite understand some of the locals, but then again, school is about learning something new.

Unfortunately, new jungles came with new predators and my parents or my teachers could not protect me from everything life could throw at me. There were some things I had to deal with myself. That’s right; I had bullies in Middle School and High School.

 

Monsters and Heroes

            Bullies are monsters, a word that I don’t use often or use carelessly. Their only objective is to bar another person’s path and sling mud on to another’s ambitions. Bullies are created from the cycle of violence. One bully vents their hostility on a victim for any minute reason, then after a time that victim’s pain and rage swells to the point they take it out on another victim, and then a new bully is born. Bullies breed like an infestation, creating an endless cycle of hate.

bully-cycle

This is not the only fate of a victim. A victim of a bully can also lead to depression, madness, and even death. Bullies are creatures to fear. I live in a society where confronting a bully is not so simple. In this modern day, outside of a video game, a sword with good intentions can’t solve all of your problems, even if they deserve it. The rule here is that the last one to throw the punch will lose. After all, who are the lawmakers going to believe is the innocent victim? The one with blood on their fists? Or the one with blood on their face? Might doesn’t make right.

TV doesn’t offer any more clarity. As opposed to TV bullies, real bullies are harder to identify, don’t always get their just desserts in the end, and they don’t magically go away after 30 minutes. Just like every person is an individual and every autistic person is an individual, every bully is also an individual and must be treated as such.

I have learned early in my life that if there is even one thing that makes you different from anyone else, someone is not going to approve. As such, I never revealed that I had autism to my peers. Not in Elementary, Middle, or High School. Never, ever, ever. I feared if the wrong person heard of my struggles, they would find amusement by making my life harder.

Unfortunately, I was right. But autism wasn’t the only factor. To my benefit, they did not target me for my autism. I knew to keep it a secret from my peers. I knew that people had a nasty habit of treating others differently because of things like this, and I didn’t want that. My youthful tormentors usually preyed on me because I was normally seen alone and appeared to be underequipped socially. As such, they would harass me to get a cheap laugh at my expense, copy off my notes because they were lazy, stuff garbage in my backpack, or suffocate me with cigarette smoke in the bathroom. I had a hard time opening up to anyone or trusting someone new. I so wanted to have friends I could hang out with after school, but with so many bullies lurking about, I would just choke. The few people I could open up to at school were the teachers.

In both Middle and High School, I had been in good graces with all of my teachers. Not because my IEP or my parents demanded it. It was because I always strived to go above and beyond of what they asked. When there was something I didn’t understand from a lesson, I would walk up after class and ask for a better explanation. When I wanted to know if my assignment was up to par with the professor’s expectations, I would shoot them an e-mail to clarify if I was on the right track. When I had a question on how to prepare for an exam, I would go and find my professor’s office and ask him/her to give me some direction on what to study. For that, all my professors recognized my earnestness, my diligence, and my sincerity. That audacity was rewarded with help inside and outside the classroom when I asked for it. And I thank them greatly for it.

The Awakening

“Why does this need to be so difficult? Nothing about spelling makes sense,” I cried, frustrated yet again.

“Why can’t a word be spelled out the same way it sounds? Why do these words have to have a silent vowel? Why do we have three ways to spell ‘there’? Why do I need to change Y to IES? Why doesn’t Spelling make sense?”

Another meltdown at my house.

There’s no better metaphor for my life than that episode during the 3rd grade– and the sense that everybody, just everybody, got it except for me. My sisters got it. My parents got it. My teachers got it. The other students got it. And then there was me. It was as if I were a traveler in a strange, inscrutable land.

When my parents learned that was something different about me. My parents tried their best to teach me what manners I lack, but something was missing. My parents sat down with me, they tutored me, and I tried to retain what was supposedly important. The overall experience was not unlike bashing my head against a brick wall. It wasn’t until the 3rd grade I had enough of trying to learn something that wasn’t fun or valued. At last during a regular spelling test review, I snapped. My mom asked why spelling was so hard for me and I answered. It was hard because it made no sense. There was no use for silent vowels. Words weren’t spelled out the way they sounded. It was then my parents learned that I was a unique individual and the conventional mainstream could no longer support me.

Were my mom and dad scared of this development? Yes, of course they were. Their child was going through a phase they never heard of before and I was traveling down a road that they cannot walk. And what could be worse? Nobody knew what was what was ailing me, let alone help me. We needed answers.

Keep in mind; this all took place in 1996, before the Internet was available. My parents couldn’t just GOOGLE my symptoms and make diagnosis. They go about this the old-fashioned way, by consulting expensive doctors. After some extensive research and testing it was determined that I have High-Functioning Autism.

Some parents may shudder in fear of such a diagnosis, because it means that people like me won’t have a normal conventional life. Not my parents, in fact they were relieved to hear that I have autism. They were relived because they now had a name to my ailment and know what kind of challenges my lay in wait upon my path.

Hot-aired Rumors

          Autism, taken from the Greek word meaning “self”, has been described as many things over the years since its discovery in the 1900’s. I want to start off by saying that autism itself is not a disease or disease-like in any aspect. “Where does autism come from?” is a question that still has no definite answer. But rest assured; it is not a contagious phenomenon and it is not something that can be passed off to your next of kin. In the beginning, most people blamed mercury poisoning as most people did in the days of Lewis Carroll when insane asylums were still popular. More modern theories suggest maybe certain chemicals are responsible for changing one’s brain structure and triggering autism. Others say that autism is the aftermath of when a child has problems being born. As realistic as these ideas are, as of now there are still no definite reasons as to why or how autism appears.

If you want a clean and cut definition of what autism actually is and what it looks like, you may as well ask a mathematician to square the circle or take up a hobby in cat herding. Because, truth be told, autism comes in many forms just as there are numerous print patterns on one’s hands. If you Google the term now, you may get a definition like, “Autism is a developmental disorder that appears in the first 3 years of life, and affects the brain’s normal development of social and communication skills.”

Unfortunately, like all misunderstood concepts in the world, most people will trust convenient rumors and not bother to do actual research and find the truth. Autism is not immune to this trend. Some rumors on autism include:

-Autistic people are specialized geniuses

-Autistic people are mentally disabled

-People with autism are incapable of empathy

-Autism is the result of child abuse

-Scientists have found ways to cure autism

In a nutshell, Autism is a social disability. People with autism, in all of its forms, are still just as intelligent as the next “normal” person. However, they just do not know what to do in very specific social situations, because they have not been told what is polite or not and what are the unwritten rules of society.

Whether we notice it or not, when we humans interact with each other, we dive into a subconscious social bank that is known as a social repertoire. The social repertoire is a reservoir of preconceived notions, insights, manners, and experiences of what to do and say in very specific social situations. Those without any social deficiencies normally have a readily available arsenal of proper social behaviors and a broad range of sociable topics. Those with autism, however, require help to build this reservoir and guidance on how to interact with others both professionally and socially.

One defect that I have in my communication skills is my ability to express myself. I do have a sizeable vocabulary and I have thoughts and opinions like everyone else. The problem is translating my thoughts and feelings into words and then sorting those words in the right order and the right tact. When I am in a conversation and I want express my opinion on the topic at hand — even when I have a message to express — I had a hard time finding the appropriate words to fit the message at hand. Recent research has shown that the average human brain works faster than the mouth can operate and sometimes the message in our heads loses clarity when our mouth tries to translate them. People with autism have especially hard time with this verbal cluttering.

Similarly, expressing feeling was also a challenge for me. Growing up there was a lot I didn’t understand, including how to be polite. As a child and as an adult, I was an honest person. If you ask a question, I gave you an honest answer. If you didn’t like my answer, then you should not have asked me the question. That was the way I was. It wouldn’t be until years later that I would learn how to curb my honesty and be more tactful towards others. Ignorance does not equal unfeeling. When I failed to provide the right emotion at the right time, it was not because I didn’t care. It was because I didn’t know how to read the atmosphere and I didn’t know the next step in the conversation.

“Am I to assume that the author of this blog is prime example of an autistic individual and should follow his example to the letter?” you may ask yourself. “Does this self-memoir depict the bare bones of every autistic person in the world?” The answer is no. Every person is an individual and that goes for autistic individuals as well.

Life with autism will never be easy, but nothing worth doing ever is. Thankfully I have my own sanctuary to help me organize my thoughts through turbulent times. This place is called Autism Island, my safe place and home.

Pacing, Happy Place, Daydreaming, Autistic Fantasy, it all means the same thing. When an autistic person feels stressed, we dive into a fabricated dream world of our creation. Every Autistic individual has his or her own island where feel safe, secure, and the world makes sense to him or her.

When I was a child and had yet to learn the ways of the adulthood, I would have to leave my island and venture on the uncharted continent of Real World. In this continent, there were many cities. Each with its own set of rules of society. One city was called Elementary School; another was called the Boy Scouts; another was called Church. Some of these cities were simple in structure and intent, while others were weirder than Wonderland.

Whether we like it not, everyone, autistic or not, has to come out of their happy place and face the Real World and it harsh demands. These day-to-day quests were like daily adventures to me. Each day, a new challenge, a new possibility, a chance to gain or lose. Each day was my Journey with Autism.

My journey began in the quaint town of Elementary School.

The Beginning

            While in Elementary School, I had a lot of the same interests as my peers: Pokémon, Legos, and the like. But, there was still plenty that I didn’t understand. Like the reason behind some of the actions of my peers and what was taught at Elementary School.

As a child I was curious and had many questions. Because of my autism, I couldn’t always materialize them, but in my head I was constantly asking questions. Not questions like: Where do babies come from? Or, What does this big red button do? I asked questions that involve WHY. Why do I need to eat with my mouth shut? Why do I need to look at the person talking to me when I listen with my ears? Why do I need to get up and go to school when it is still dark outside? Why can’t I solve my problems with slapstick humor like they do on TV?

Every day I felt like I was participating in a game called Society and everyone but me knew the rules of this game. Every day I was constantly asking myself, “Am I playing this game the right way?” Because no one had bothered to explain the rules to me all at once, I often made mistakes of what to do in certain situations. Such as the time I was trying to practice sharing in my churches’ cry room.

At the time I thought that the term ‘sharing’ meant distributing and assigning toys to the other children and then reassigning the toys after a time. That way everyone in the cry room got a turn with the toys. Eventually, my misunderstanding got me kicked out of the cry room.

I do make mistakes. I admit it! Some of my mistakes are more forgivable than others. Some mistakes could have been prevented if I commutated towards others more often. Others were committed out of ignorance. Regardless of circumstances or excuses, I’m not perfect and I don’t try to be. But my autism is not solely to blame for every little misstep that I make. I know plenty of people who are not autistic, but they make mistakes that are as lousy as mine. I learn better from firsthand experience and I make mistakes like a human so I can learn how to be a person.

I needed a role model, a template, a guideline, anything to help me get a bead on what is the proper reaction in a peaceful situation. So where does an 8-year old turn to for inspiration? Television, of course. Even as an 8-year old I wasn’t completely gullible. I knew just by walking outside my house that monster attacks, talking trains, and intelligent animals weren’t part of everyday life.

However, there was this one show that seemed remotely plausible. It was animated sitcom-like show about an ordinary high school student in an ordinary world called Doug. True, the charters were colored a bit differently than in our world (blue, pink, green…), but it was about a regular kid having regular problems, kind of like mine. In the first few days of realizing this, I tried comparing my life to the main character’s step-by-step. I soon saw that my life was not nearly so…dramatic compared to the show and that there was a fine line between picking up on Meta-messages vs mimicking step-for-step, that there was a big difference between reality and fantasy, and that I needed the wisdom from more than one role model.

Finding out the why behind socializing as a person was only half of my problems at Elementary School. I also had trouble understanding the why behind my academic studies.

Math and science I could comprehend without fail, because it was sensible and had a recurring pattern. It was the other courses that confound and confused me. Social studies, language arts, history, and the most loathsome of all: spelling. None of these followed any logic that I liked. That is to say: there was no logic at all.

-English: was filled to the brim with exceptions and counter rules.

-History: was riddled with chaos and illogical dead guys.

-Social Studies: there was no pattern to human behavior.

My parents tried desperately to squeeze any academic accommodations or educational helpers from the managers of my current school. However, the sad fact of the matter was that the school didn’t have the resources I needed to carry me to the next level. As such, we began looking for a new school city to help me with my unique needs.

“Seek and ye shall find”, they say. I didn’t know what I was looking for when searching for a new school. I had assumed that all schools were built the same and the only differences between any of them were the team mascots. If there were any special schools, surely they couldn’t exist near me. Thankfully, I was proven wrong.

After much persistence on my parent’s part, a solution was found. A special needs school. The school was specifically designed to help non-copy-and-paste students, which is exactly what I was now.

This school’s method of organizing classes was greatly different than that of my previous school. Unlike regular schools whose practice is the equivalent of one-method-fits-all, this facility functioned on a personal spectrum. The classes were structured into grade levels in accordance with an individual’s academic proficiency, instructional level, and social maturity. While in these specialized classes, the teachers were trained to hone in on the student’s individual strengths and weaknesses and break down the content of the classes into more manageable portions at the individual’s own speed.

After taking the tour of this school, my parents and I were sold and agreed that this school would benefit me greatly. We made immediate arrangements for my transfer to this new school.

After the first day of class, I felt more at ease than I ever had in a long time in any school. Life at this academy was much less anxiety provoking than it was at the previous school and for the first time, I was at peace with my schoolwork and I was eager to get to class. The class work was easier to understand, the homework loads were more manageable, and I was able to forge a stable social relationship with my peers. The school was very expensive; however, according to my parents, it was the best investment they have ever made.

This was also a time where I was given a new device to help me with my studies. During my elementary school period, it was discovered that I had trouble remaining on task when it came to reading anything for an extended period of time. The problem wasn’t that I didn’t like to read; it was that I had trouble concentrating. The symptoms at the time were that my eyes would grow strained and tired much too quickly and I could no longer look at the pages without feeling discomfort to my eyes. Along with a unique learning approach, Autism can also bring heightened sensory temperaments (smell, touch, sight, etc.). In my case, the light from the reflective white pages of my text was causing strain on my sensitive eyes. To this day I wear darkened lens. At first my parents tried medication to improve my concentration, but only to find it only partially effective.

After some research about concentration techniques, we ran across an article about Irlen Lens. We decided to take a chance with a special eye doctor that crafts these unique lens glasses to filter certain light spectrums that would cause discomfort to sensitive eyes. These glasses ended up being the solution to my attention problem.