Chapter 3: Me + AUTISM

Okay! So, now you know what my situation has been like in recent years. But now…I’m going to take you back to how it all started. This whole journey of being diagnosed with autism has been full of bumps and bruises, ups and downs, rights and lefts…well, you get the point.

But despite my recent years being the most exciting and, some would say, the craziest, it was my childhood years that I think really defined me as a person when it comes to my autism.

As I mentioned in Chapter 1, I was diagnosed at the age of five. Before this time, however, no one even suspected I was autistic, mostly because the term during my childhood was still fairly new to a lot of people; so, my family had no idea what the characteristics of autism were. 

It was not until the beginning of kindergarten which was when my parents began to see the signs. They saw repetitive behavioral movements, which included me flapping my arms and hands around the house, running back and forth in my living room or bedroom, and making loud, repetitive noises all the time. My mom and dad knew that I was just being a goofy little kid, but they knew something seemed off…they knew something seemed different. They didn’t think anything was wrong, in case you assumed that; they just knew my behaviors were unlike other kids my age.

I really showed these behaviors in my kindergarten class, especially when I was trying to make friends with my peers. From what I can best remember, after a few months of being in kindergarten, my parents had a private meeting with my teacher, since they both recognized signs of a possible disability in which I needed more accommodations.

Now, don’t take my word on this entirely since this was a long time ago, but what I think happened was my teacher recommended to my parents that I see a disabilities expert who specializes in professionally diagnosing and treating individuals with autism and other disabilities. Several weeks later, my parents booked me an appointment to see an autism expert, who then diagnosed me with autism shortly thereafter.

When I first became diagnosed, my parents were both happy, but I think also unsure of what to do. At the time, autism to them was a term they knew from movies like Rain Man and Forrest Gump, but they didn’t have any knowledge about what it really was, and, more importantly, what it would mean for me.

And keep in mind, this was all the way back in 2005, when autistic individuals were not as well-known to the public as they are now. As a matter of fact, there were far less kids diagnosed with the disability during this time compared to now. In 2005, roughly 1 out of every 160 kids were diagnosed, compared to today, which is roughly 1 in every 50.

My mom and dad started to do extensive research on autism and other developmental disabilities, such as ADHD and Down syndrome. But to really understand the autism spectrum instead of doing research on a computer, they just started watching me every day. They observed me, and with each passing day, they began to understand my behavior and mannerisms associated with my autism.

Despite the challenges that I experienced when I was little, being autistic comes with some pretty neat perks. For example, I have a very strong, detailed memory. So if I was a part of a conversation several years ago, for instance, then I would go years with remembering every small detail of it, from the start to the end of the conversation. My parents gradually recognized this trait over time, and even to this day, my mom and dad are just baffled by how I remember a conversation we all had 15 years ago down to every minute detail.

Another trait I have is how neat and accurate I am at writing lists down on a piece of paper. For the past 12 years, for example, I have been recording on blank sheets of paper lists of different episodes of TV shows, organizing each list by season, then by the episodes in each season. I would continue a list until I wrote down the very last season of episodes of a certain show. Over time, I have decided to organize my lists into different folders and documents in my room (and as a matter of fact, those documents are just right behind me). 

Even just recently, my boss at the TV station I work at has taken notice of this. He said to me a few weeks ago that I’m glad I hardly make any mistakes while writing news stories, and said he can expect every time I produce a newscast for him to anchor that I will have no mistakes in my grammar, if not one minor error that comes up once every blue moon.

But overall, I think that the struggles that came with having autism far outweighed the benefits. Again, I struggled for years to even make friends with my peers, whether it would be in class, or during recess. Because I was diagnosed in the middle of Kindergarten, my parents gave me a teacher’s aide starting in first grade to help me stay focused, since I did have many issues concentrating and listening in class. I had so many different aides during first grade, but beginning in second grade and lasting until fifth grade, I had one teacher’s aide that was consistently at my side Monday through Friday. Her name was Ms. Saunders. I’m not sure what she is doing now, because I haven’t seen her in 10 years. But if she’s reading this, I hope she is doing well and is happy.

But back to my story…she was an aid that typically helped students who had developmental disabilities like me. Whenever I would take my eyes off class and start goofing off, she would politely yet sternly tell me to get back on track. All the teacher’s aides I had were very great at their jobs and very nice to me. But Ms. Saunders stood out from the rest of them. She would always explain things in a way that I could understand them. Even when I did have a temper tantrum or meltdown in class from time to time, she would always be very calm, but with a firm tone of voice that got my attention, but made me realize my actions, or whatever I did, were wrong.

During my first couple of years with a teacher’s aide, I would get bullied by some of my classmates, because they thought I was stupid or dumb for having someone at my side to help me with my assignments. It really hurt my feelings to know that people were laughing at me in my face, but I learned how to ignore it and tune them out. 

This bullying even carried on outside of the classroom. Whenever my parents would drop me off to school early, I would try to go and play with some of the students who were at the playground area. This one time, in third grade, I tried playing with a group of kids who were playing basketball. They weren’t too serious about how many players were on each team, so I just joined a team in the middle of the game, and tried to play with them. Every time I was open or tried to get involved in the game, they wouldn’t pass me the ball. Fifteen minutes after joining the game, they still wouldn’t pass me it. I knew for a fact that they were weary of passing it to me because they didn’t understand me, and just didn’t know what I was going to do with the ball once I had it. For your information, I was just going to try to make a basket with it, just as ANYONE would do when they have the ball. But again, because I was autistic and they didn’t understand me, they just decided not to include me in the game at all.

At this point, I could have made the choice to get really angry and yell at all of them. But I knew that wouldn’t do men any good either, and would make me look bad. So, I decided to bite my lip, and just keep playing. Eventually, I noticed my third grade teacher, who was watching the students play the whole time, very disgruntled over the fact that no one would pass me the ball. She then blew the whistle that was in her hand, which got everyone’s attention. She then yelled, “C’MON GUYS!!! THIS IS RIDICULOUS! LET G.W. HAVE THE BALL FOR A LITTLE BIT!!!!”

After she did this, many of the students sighed in annoyance, but then listened to her. We continued to play, and they then fed me the ball on every single play after that. And while I missed all the shots I attempted, I didn’t care. I was just happy that I never gave up, and was finally listened to. Even though I could tell they were just passing me the ball because they didn’t want to get in trouble by any of the teachers, all I knew was that this was an important first step in possibly building friendships with my peers.

As time went on, these same peers I was in class with during my seven years in grade school began to understand me, and therefore, accept me, not because I was autistic, but because I was uniquely different, or, as I like to say, differently unique.

But these were not the first friendships I made in grade school. My very first best friend was Jacob Dutton. We started hanging out during the fourth grade. We knew each other since first grade, but didn’t hang out during that time. We officially met and started talking in a single-file line on our way to recess one day, and then we instantly became best friends, and started hanging out at each other’s houses almost every weekend.

For a while, he was the only close friend that I had who I could count on. There were times when we would get into our spats and arguments, but we would always have each other’s backs, no matter what. He’s literally like a brother to me; he knows my family very well, and I know his family very well also. Even as we have mostly gone our separate ways the past couple of years, we still remain best friends, and always try to call each other every once in a while, especially on our birthdays, which are only a week apart.

While Jacob doesn’t have autism like I do, I think he still understood me because he had gone through a couple of his personal challenges and experiences throughout grade school, too. While I won’t give out these details out of respect for my best friend, all you need to know is that I understood him, and he understood me.

During this time, I also started attending occupational and music therapy sessions once a week. These sessions were recommended by my parents because they thought it would help me to better socialize and interact with other students in my class. And I gotta say that despite the bullying and exclusion I received in grade school, these therapy sessions acted as huge escapism from all those problems.

I loved going to these sessions every week, and I would sometimes be so mad when they ended and I had to go to school, because they would just be so much fun. I got to draw, play games, play some music on the keyboard, and do crossword puzzles. But it was not these activities that helped me socialize with others. It was being in the room doing these activities with other kids my age who were developmentally disabled. Because most of these kids were also on the autism spectrum, I could relate to them really well. And with that, we were all able to learn together on how to socialize with our peers in class. It took some time, and believe me, there were some hard days at these sessions, but by the beginning of sixth grade, I was able to socialize with other kids in class, and MAKE A LOT OF FRIENDS!

Around this time, I stopped attending occupational and music therapy, because I outgrew it, and didn’t need it anymore. When I graduated from grade school, it felt like a whole new world for me since I started Kindergarten. Almost every kid in my class who didn’t understand me slowly began to like me and accept me, and we all turned out to be good friends up to our graduation. IT FELT LIKE THE PERFECT ENDING TO A MOVIE OR TV SHOW!

I think my parents were the most proud, though, because they had witnessed all the challenges I faced being autistic, but kept fighting to give me the best childhood I could have. There were still many concerns my parents had, which included worries of how I was going to make it as an adult in the real world, but as my dad has always said, “An answer always presents itself.”

Both junior high and high school posed brand new challenges to me. I mean, after seven years of growing into a better, more mature person at the same exact school, all of a sudden, I was going to a new school. I didn’t have a clue of what was going to happen. My dad just told me on my first day of junior high, though, to just “roll with the punches.”

And that’s what I did! I applied everything I learned from grade school to that moment I walked onto my junior high campus. I tried to loosen up more and be more open-minded to new things. By that age, everyone in my friend group had a phone, including myself, so I started getting numbers from students in my class, asking if they wanted to hang out during the weekend. I still had my socializing issues here and there, but they greatly improved. 

But other issues got in the way of these changes I was trying to make. The junior high I went to that year was extremely challenging. Most of the material they taught was so close to college-level, and every day, I would come home doing homework until after midnight. Let me be clear: no kid who is 12 years old should be doing homework until 12 in the morning. That is not only demanding on a young person that age, but that is just plain wrong! Long story short, this struggle hampered my confidence in making friends, and it also affected my life outside of school. 

I haven’t mentioned this yet, but I was in karate for almost ten years, starting at age seven. My mom signed me up for karate because she thought it would teach me self-discipline and focus as an autistic. I immediately fell in love with it, and had a strong passion for it up until I was about 12 years old. This is when the midnight homework comes in. UGH! Because I was staying up until 12am every night, desperately trying to get an assignment completed before it was due the next day, my mom would have to sometimes call my sensei at the karate dojo, telling me I couldn’t make it to a karate session I was normally supposed to go to that day. 

While my sensei was at first understanding of this debacle, it eventually got excessive to the point where I was calling out almost every week. It got to the point in which during the days I was able to come in for karate practice, I forgot many of my forms and techniques, because my skills became rusty for not showing up to class as much. I mostly credit the stressful school I was at for making me lose passion for karate. I eventually quit the following summer, just one degree shy of getting my First Degree Black Belt.

Don’t worry, though! Skipping over briefly in this story, the good news is I was able to come back to karate training during my sophomore year of high school, and I got my Black Belt a few months later. I stayed in karate for another year, before leaving again.

But back to where we left off, during the fourth quarter of seventh grade, I would go to the nurses’ office frequently, almost every day. It was usually for the same reasons, including an upset stomach, a sore throat, or a really bad headache. Then, on a day that I will never forget, I went to the nurses’ office for the final time that year, and threw up. I was telling myself not to, because that night was the final school dance of the year, and I was really looking forward to it.

My dad came to pick me up after what happened, but before we left, the nurse informed my dad of my frequent visits. She then strongly recommended to him that I should not attend the school dance that night, which my dad agreed with. As my dad was driving me home, I was crying the whole time in the car. My dad said the reason why I was frequently sick was because of the stress I was enduring from constant homework assignments. He then went on to tell me the hard but honest truth: I was unhappy. I denied this, and kept shouting in the car that I was happy with my life and stress-free. He then reached across the car, pulled down the car mirror in front of me, put my head up so I could look at my red, tearful eyes, and he asked me, “Does this look like a happy, stress-free kid?” As I continued to deny this truth, my dad kept putting my head up to the mirror so I could keep looking at myself. I then accepted the fact that he was right.

I was stressed.

I was unhappy.

I was not myself anymore.

And the more I said it, the more I knew, deep inside, I needed a change.

My parents pulled me out of that stressful school, and moved me to an easier one, where most of my friends from elementary school actually were. Although I was at that school just for eighth grade, I felt like I found my way again…after losing it for a while. I started hanging out with friends more, and passed all my classes, something I struggled greatly with at that difficult school.

I then went on to attend my older brother and sisters’ high school alma mater. Freshman and sophomore years, I got into theater arts, because I originally wanted to be an actor. But after sophomore year, I felt that theater just wasn’t my thing. As I had mentioned in the previous chapter, I got interested in a Radio Broadcasting program, and took it during my junior and senior years. 

I knew instantly that I had found my niche. I won’t get into too much detail about attending this program, as I touched on it in my previous chapter. But I learned so much in that program that I fell in love with Broadcast News in general. I learned how to network with people, produce my own radio show, being the DJ on my own student-run show, among other things.

I attended this program from 2016 to 2018, and while other students in the class did not seem to care about the program that much, I really cared. I cared so much that I would sometimes stay late after class was over to work on production for my two Radio teachers. 

My dad always told me that as an autistic, my work is like my play. In other words, any time I found something that I was passionate about, I would be dedicated to it as if I was playing a fun video game, making me laser-focused on it. This was very prevalent when I was a student radio DJ and producer. I couldn’t keep my hands off all the buttons!

The best part about this all was that I made a lifelong friend who was my co-DJ on my show. And get this…SHE, TOO, HAS AUTISM! So, you can say that we understood each other really well while DJing our show.. To me, it’s fun to even think about it: the fact that there are two autistic DJs running their own radio show is incredible. 

At the end of my senior year, I was nominated for Student of the Year for my work in the Radio program. And even though I did not win the award at graduation…HEY, I WAS A NOMINEE WHO OVERCAME A LOT AND WORKED TIRELESSLY, SO TO ME, THAT IS A WIN!!! 

After receiving my high school diploma, while hugging my family and my best friend Jacob afterwards, I looked back at all the obstacles and roadblocks I faced when I was a little grade schooler with autism who only wanted to fit in with everyone else. I was working against research that whole time, too. In 2005, the year I was diagnosed, most research said people with autism would show little to no success as adults.

But at that point, I knew I was proving that research wrong. Research doesn’t decide your outcome. You, yourself…as an individual…decides your outcome!

But I don’t want to say I achieved this feat without any help. My family, including my parents and my older siblings, were all supportive, and assisted me along the way (yes, you guys can crack on me for being the youngest). My best friend Jacob supported me as well, along with all the other friends I made throughout elementary school, junior high, and high school.

So, at this point of the story, you obviously know what I did next…went to college, started a business…YADA YADA!!! Trust me, we’re not going to go through that again. But now…we’re going to get into my current life next. Where am I now? What am I currently doing? What’s life like as an autistic individual today? While I’m still learning the answer to the last question the most, let’s just say that my journey is EXPANDING!