02 Apr Autism Awareness Day: My life with Autism
Our guest blogger Alex W lives with Autism and has been working for Uniting as an Operations Support Officer for just over two years. In his blog he shares his experience of growing up and living with Autism, and his passion for music.
I was born in Sydney in the 1970s. For the first few years of my life, my family noticed some symptoms of abnormality but they could not work out what the problem was. I could barely speak until the age of 4 or 5. I developed my own language so whenever I attempted to speak, no one would understand me. In frustration, I would throw a tantrum. I have a memory of a tantrum on a train. My mother avoided taking me out because of this and because the outside world seemed to frighten me. It was not until I was 10 that I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.
My mother took me to a speech therapist when I was about 4. She also helped me develop language as she was an English language teacher. I was in a special OL class from kindergarten until Year 2. I was then moved into mainstream school in year 2. Although my aural skills were not good, my visual skills were good and I learnt to read and write and to learn vocabulary through reading. My primary school also had Apple 2E computers for writing practice. My mother says that I had to also learn time and spatial skills that other children learn by osmosis. I helped in this and studied street directories, memorised suburbs, including their spelling, and when I found a place I wanted to visit, I would ask my Mum to drive me there which she did.
From primary until the end of high school, I was constantly teased and bullied, most likely due to my odd behaviour. I jumped up and down rhythmically, demonstrated flapping, air-guitar playing, etc. My parents bought me a trampoline which helped with this. In the early years of primary school, I was constantly reprimanded and humiliated by teachers for not paying attention, not following instructions and not understanding exercises. It was particularly humiliating participating in sporting activities as I did not understand the rules and had no interest in sport except for swimming because of difficulties with coordination. I remember one PE teacher telling me that I was ‘performing like a girl’ in primary school. I struggled with learning my maths timetables until I was in Year 6 when I had to figure out a way of remembering them. I could not tie my shoelaces until I was about 10 or 11. My short-term memory was poor but I made notes, later using my phone, to help me. My long-term memory was really good though and I helped my Mum date a lot of her photographs going back years.
Part of my “odd” behaviour was obsessions with things such as refrigerators and vents. I memorised the types of fridges of all of my Mum’s friends. Sometimes the noise of a fridge disturbed me as I had hyper-sensitive hearing. However, as I have perfect pitch, I could say what pitch the noise was in.
Before I went to preschool, I do not recall having any friends. I do recall having one friend outside of preschool and infants but eventually that fizzled out, not helped by my communication and social interaction problems. From primary school to high school, I did not really have any friends out of school. I only socialised with next-door neighbours, their kids and kids of mother’s friends. My older sister has always been a big help to me and I get on well with my older brother now but this was often not the case when we were younger.
I got my first pet dog at 10 years old. This was when mum found a stray dog which I called Ralph. Here I found a close friend for years to come. We used to swim together in our pool. Caring for a dog helped me a lot with companionship, relationships and management.
In order to maintain my social interactions, I regularly go to meetup events including anxiety meetups and bushwalks. I used to go to small gigs when I was younger, particularly punk gigs and goth nights.
I had my first girlfriend later than a lot of people. It had been a struggle for me trying to muster up the courage to ask somebody out. Not only that but learning to connect with people and initiate conversation was a struggle. Maintaining a relationship had its challenges as well for me.
I studied various courses at TAFE including completing my HSC, Information Technology, Contemporary Music and an Office Administration traineeship. The beauty of completing my HSC at TAFE was although I got teased there by other students, I was not constrained there like I was at school. I could leave the premises whenever I liked. One not so pleasant experience was when one horticulture teacher once asked if I ever had trouble following instructions at school as I was not fulfilling a practical exercise properly. What was a big achievement for me was completing my Office Traineeship as prior to that, I was working in warehouse environments and needed a career change. I have been working in administration ever since.
Throughout my working career, I have come across some employers who were accommodating and others who thought I was stupid. I particularly struggled with workplace environments where I was expected to learn very quickly and which were fast paced and high accuracy intensive at the same time. I did everything I could to hide my autism. There were a few times I disclosed my autism but the employers at the time did not seem to want to know anything about it. I do find it a challenge to learn a new task but once I get the hang of it, I excel in it. Taking notes and written instructions are useful for me when learning a new task. As a means of improving my auditory processing, I will take notes while watching a ‘Recipe’ instructions video on You Tube. Uniting was the first employer I actually felt comfortable disclosing my autism to.
I have written and recorded my own music since 1995 using synthesizers, computers, guitars and other equipment. I have released three cds and have done a few gigs as well. Music creation I find very therapeutic, inspiring and euphoric but I found cd production to be very costly and promotion and live performance to be very draining. I have made friends through my music.
I moved out of home late in my life and am currently living independently in my own apartment. This has been a big achievement and confidence booster for me.