Autism Awareness Month
Kristina Serrano, Author of The Post World Series
Happy April, everyone, also known as Autism Acceptance Month. I debated on how to approach this article, because I want to share a bit about my experiences as a creative autistic woman, but autism is a spectrum; no two neurodivergent individuals are alike. So I offer you a sample unique to my perspective.
I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember, but I didn’t fall deeply in love with it until I was fifteen, when I wrote my first full-length novel. As for reading, I don’t even remember learning how; I just always could, from my earliest memories as a toddler, and also started talking earlier than normal.
Academics have always been the easiest part of my life (math excluded; we don’t get along), so much so that I flew through college, making the Dean’s and Chancellor’s lists, and had my BFA in Creative Writing, Associates Degree in Arts, and Certificate in Publishing by the time I was twenty. People have called me smart my entire life.
I never thought intelligence and creativity and passion, three-valued traits in society, would then be held against me by that very society.
I’d already finished a few novels prior and had begun dozens of others (too many ideas in an overactive boundless galaxy of a brain) when I began writing Slow Echoes, the first book in the Post Worlds series, fresh out of college. Eventually, I was thrilled to find it a home with Sands Press, who have been endlessly kind, patient, professional, and empathetic. But, as most writers do, I also had a day job. Then another. Then another. Then eight. Then who’s counting.
For six years, I had no clue why I was breaking down crying both on and off my shifts at various jobs. I kept thinking, maybe this isn’t the one for me, I’ll try another, but no job was ever the one for me. No matter how many different places I worked, the result was always the same: I couldn’t handle it, and I didn’t know why. Sure, I’d always been socially awkward, so of course retail customer service was a challenge, but why couldn’t I handle computer work either when my statistics for each project were at the top of the room for speed and accuracy? Why was I still crying and breaking down when I kept getting promoted? When I was so “smart” and “capable” and had a proven track record of excelling in just about anything I tried?
When I was twenty-six, I was working customer service in one of my retail jobs, and had such a severe panic attack that I had to leave right in the middle of my shift. I was crying so hard, I don’t know how I managed to drive myself home. That night, I ended up in the E.R. for a mental breakdown, and I still had no clue why.
It wasn’t until I saw a therapist for the first time who, after learning a bit about my history, discovered who I’d been all along: autistic. After that, my whole life made sense. Writing romantic fiction was my special interest. That was why I’d excelled at college and failed at society, because college allowed me to polish my skills and explore my creativity to my heart’s content, while the workforce was actually just force, forcing myself to do things I hated hour after hour, shift after shift, day after day. The average person who hates their job is able to acknowledge it but still show up to work to pay the bills. For me, my brain just shuts down when it’s maxed out its tolerance capacity, no matter how hard I try to push it to keep going, not to mention the sensory challenges of heightened smell, taste, touch, hearing, and even visual overwhelm; bright sunlight, heat, and loud extemporaneous sounds are particularly agonizing.
Common stereotypes suggest that most of us lack imagination and empathy, but the opposite is true. Most of us overflow with creativity and feel things so deeply we can’t tolerate our own emotions, both negative and positive. Autistic women, especially, are overlooked because we are statistically more inclined to mask (pretend to be neurotypical, a non-neurodivergent person with a majority brain type). And even after being diagnosed, accommodations are difficult to come by, especially when an individual’s neurodivergence doesn’t check every box of stereotypical outdated diagnostic criteria.
Because of that intelligence, creativity, and passion I mentioned earlier, I’ve been pushed far beyond what my senses, emotions, and brain could tolerate my entire life, by well-meaning people as well as myself, leading me to OCD, anxiety, and depression, separate from autism but all with high odds of developing in an autistic person because of unmet sensory needs. Not to mention, neurodivergent people are often more easily traumatized and can develop PTSD/CPTSD without even being aware of it, or having it dismissed because an occurrence wasn’t considered severe enough to cause trauma.
Over the past five years since being diagnosed, from my own experience as a woman on the spectrum and from the non-stop research I’ve done on neurodivergence and mental health since, above all else, the most important thing I’ve learned is an unpopular opinion: tough love is never the answer, and, under no circumstance whatsoever, no one chooses to suffer. If I had a dime for how many times I’ve been told the latter and heard of others being told the same, that we’re choosing to suffer, that it’s our fault because our emotions are too much, that we can’t handle working a nine-to-five like a “normal,” person, that we gave up too soon after trying a dozen prescription medications that caused us unbearable side effects and pain with no results, well, I’d have a jar full of change and renewed sadness.
To whoever took the time to read this, thank you for listening, and whether you’re unfamiliar with autism, know someone on the spectrum, are on the spectrum yourself, or have just now realized you might be, please remember love and gentleness and compassion before pushing someone or yourself past the point of burnout, even if you don’t think enough effort has been made. If someone is crying, on the verge of tears, or silently tense with stress, please encourage them to take a break, neurotypical or neurodivergent alike, because, when someone’s mental health, well-being, and overall quality of life are at stake, then “enough” effort has been made regardless of what has actually been accomplished by society’s standards.
I’m still finding my place in the world, struggling to find a way to merge creativity with practicality, but I have hope for the future. Yet, I don’t have autism, because autism is not a disorder, even if psychology manuals state otherwise. It’s how I think and absorb and express existence unique to my individual coordinates on a marvelous, resplendent spectrum. It’s who I am, who I’ve always been, and who I always will be.