In the summer of 2012, shortly after my wedding to my fabulous wife, someone involved with the Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism blog heard from a teenager who’d been newly diagnosed as Autistic. Learning that she was Autistic had devastated this young woman; because the mainstream discourse about autism is so negative and stigmatizing, she thought that it meant she was permanently “doomed” to a wretched life of being “broken.” She felt so hopeless that she was seriously considering suicide.

Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism reached out to several adult Autistics and asked them: if you were in this sort of crisis, what words of advice and support would you want to hear? The answers were posted on the Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism blog, for the benefit of the young woman from whom they’d heard, and for the benefit of any other young Autistic people who might be going through similar crises.

I was one of the Autistics who contributed words of advice. I typed up my contribution while on my honeymoon, and Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism published it on July 6, 2012. It is reprinted below, with some of the wording revised and improved (I had more time to think about the wording this time around, now that I’m home from the honeymoon).


Advice to Young Autistics: Stick Around and Be Awesome

So you’re a young Autistic person, and maybe you think you’re broken; maybe you think you’re doomed to a life of misery. You’re in pain, maybe depressed, maybe angry. Maybe you’re even considering suicide.

Sorry you’re going through that. I’ve been there myself, and it sucks.

But I survived. And although it took some time and involved some major struggles, and although there are still plenty of struggles, I eventually ended up becoming a happy adult with an awesome life where I spend much of my time doing things that I love - a life full of good friendships, good community, and those simple moments of joy, grace, kindness, and connection that make a life worthwhile. I’m glad I stuck around long enough to get this far. The hard parts were worth it.

And if I managed to create a good life for myself, so can you. In fact, you’ve got a significant advantage that I didn’t have: these days, there is a large, thriving, supportive Autistic community, ready to accept you with open arms. Most of us in the Autistic community have faced (or are still facing) challenges similar to your own, and those of us who’ve found ways to deal with those challenges are happy to share our insights (just like I’m doing right now) so that you can benefit from our experience instead of having to figure it all out for yourself like us old folks did.

So here are some things I’ve learned from my own experience, that might be of use to you…

First of all, if your life sucks so bad that you’re considering ending it, then you might as well try making your life better first, because you’ve got nothing to lose.

Here are my two rules about suicide:

Rule Number One: Do something else. Try anything and everything else that might possibly make your life better. “Trying” doesn’t mean “thinking about it,” trying means actually doing it, and doing it with real commitment. For instance, training in a martial art can make your life better (it did for me), but going to one or two classes isn’t “trying.” Going to classes only until it gets really challenging and frustrating isn’t “trying.” “Trying” is practicing day after day, week after week, no matter how hard it gets, for at least a couple of years. The human survival instinct is strong, so if you actually have the willpower to kill yourself, then you also have the willpower to persist in the project of changing your life for the better.

Rule Number Two: If you can’t think of anything else to try that might improve your life, think bigger and bolder. Think about what you’d most like to be, and no matter how far away and unattainable it might seem, find a step you can take in that direction. Remember, if you’re thinking of killing yourself anyway, you have nothing to lose, so there’s no reason to “play it safe” or to rule out any option, no matter how much of a long shot it might seem.

Here’s what I didn’t do to end up a happy person with an awesome life: I didn’t stop being Autistic, I didn’t become less autistic, and I never considered either of those things to be desirable goals.

I did learn to navigate the neurotypical social world. But I didn’t approach that task with the intention of trying to change myself in order to “fit in.” I approached it as an adventure in learning my way around an exotic foreign culture. Any “fitting in” I did, I thought of as an exciting exercise in role-playing and infiltration. I still do. And in my everyday life, I’m openly Autistic and gleefully eccentric, and I get away with it.

Here’s the secret: it’s all about confidence. Not the bluster of bullies, which covers up desperate insecurities, but the deep confidence that comes from a strong sense of self. And a strong sense of self is something that one earns and develops, over time, through commitment to paths of action that push one’s edges and tap into one’s depths.

The best way to get there that I know of is to set out to master something. Something real and meaningful, that will move you toward being a person you’ll be proud to be - mastering computer games doesn’t count. Martial arts and theatre are good starting points that I highly recommend to all young (and not-so-young) Autistic people, though of course there are plenty of other good starting points. Just make sure it’s something you’re not naturally good at, because a strong, positive sense of self comes from long-term perseverance in the face of challenges.

Stick with it. And in the words of Jonathan Richman, “Someday we’ll be dignified and old together.”

 

NeuroFly

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I’ve been teaching aikido for more than three decades. As far as I know, I’m the most advanced Autistic aikidoka (aikido practitioner) in the world. There are few enough people at my level in the art that if there were another Autistic close to this level, I’d almost certainly have heard about them by now – especially since I’ve actively looked around for other advanced Autistic aikidoka.

While I don’t know of any who are close to my level, I have been hearing from a lot of fellow Autistic aikidoka these days. Most of those I hear from are still in their first few years of practice – there seem to be more and more of us beginning practice, which pleases me immensely.

Unfortunately, we live in a society where, from very early in their lives, Autistics are pathologized and taught to self-pathologize, where they’re oppressed and shamed until that oppression and shame and sense of being deficient or defective becomes internalized.

This self-pathologization and internalized shame can make it easy to become discouraged in the face of challenge and frustration. And this can pose a serious obstacle on the long path to mastery of aikido, especially in the early years – because, as anyone who’s tried it knows, there are few activities in life that offer more opportunity to experience challenge and frustration than being a beginning aikido student.

This week I got an email from a beginning Autistic aikidoka (one with whom I’d had no previous contact) who was grappling with this issue. I replied at length, and I decided to post my reply here for anyone else who might benefit from it.

I hope that my words will be of some use not only to fellow Autistics and fellow aikidoka, but to anyone, Autistic or otherwise, who might be encountering difficulty, frustration, or discouragement in in any path of long-term practice and mastery.

Here are the relevant portions of the email I received:

I am a relatively new student to Aikido. I absolutely LOVE the principles, and I understand them fairly well on a cerebral level, but in application I suck… at least i think I do. I got extremely frustrated with the dojo I was practicing at, because it seemed that my aspergers was causing me to not blend with [my training partners]… like, ever. [...] I stopped going to the dojo for a while to gain perspective on things [...] Do you have any thoughts on what is going on?

This was my reply:

Something I’ve learned from many years of practicing and teaching aikido is that the only way to make any progress in the art is to keep training and training, especially when it’s difficult.

People who stop training when it’s difficult and frustrating never get anywhere in the art.

People who patiently persist in their training no matter what, eventually start to get good.

Something I’ve learned from many years of being Autistic and being involved in Autistic community is that it’s not helpful to speak of “my autism” or “my aspergers,” as if it were somehow separate or separable from oneself, like a medical condition. If you’re Autistic (or “Aspie,” “Aspergers,” or however you choose to identify), then that’s integral to who you are, an integral aspect of the mind and body with which you practice aikido.

Sure, being Autistic can make aikido training more challenging at first. Autism comes with particularly complex sensory experience and with particularly complex and chaotic neuromuscular feedback processes that can pose all sorts of challenges to coordination. But that’s what you have to work with. Your vehicle for doing aikido – and for existing in the world – is your self, and your self is an Autistic self. It’s the only self you’ve got, so you’ve got to accept it and work with it if you’re going to get anywhere. You can only work with what you’ve got to work with, and you can only start from where you are.

Instead of “My aspergers is causing me to have difficulty in my aikido practice,” try thinking and speaking of it as, “I have difficulty in my aikido practice.” That seems to me to be a much more productive way of thinking, because everyone has difficulty in their aikido practice, except for the people who aren’t practicing at all. And the solution to difficulty in one’s aikido practice is to increase one’s commitment to one’s practice, and keep at it.

Difficulties such as the ones you’re encountering can be frustrating in the early years of your training, but they’re trivial in the long run. When it comes to the difference between success and failure in the aikidoka’s journey of mastery, long-term persistence and commitment in one’s training outweighs all other factors.

Persistence trumps talent. Compare two people in their first year of aikido training, and one of them might be far more coordinated and a far quicker learner than the other. But compare them both 30 years later, and if they both kept practicing and practicing, the differences in skill between them by that point are likely to be negligible. If only one of those two students kept practicing for 30 years, then that’s the one who will be good at aikido.

Seems to me that the real obstacle to your practice isn’t your natural neurological wiring, but your negative self-judgment and how easily you’ve allowed yourself to become discouraged.

Stop doing that. Do not allow your aikido training to be derailed by challenges, and certainly not by anything as transient and unreliable as the self-judgments or emotional reactions that arise in the face of those challenges.

Get back to the dojo right away, and practice, practice, practice. 

 

NeuroFly

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