To be honest, when I was diagnosed with Asperger’s (High-Functioning Autism) at age twelve, it didn’t have much of an impact on me. My parents, the therapist, and I sat on the couch as the good doctor took a few minutes to explain the particulars of my diagnosis while I listened politely. He asked if I had any questions. I didn’t. I remember thinking it was a funny word, but, at the time, I didn’t comprehend its full meaning. To me, it was just a word like any other.
And that was it. In fact, I soon forgot about the whole experience. The term didn’t surface again until I was fifteen when I found myself locked up in a residential treatment center for “at-risk” adolescents. There’s a rather interesting story behind how I ended up there.
Growing up, I was what many would have considered “a parent’s worst nightmare.” I was defiant and headstrong in the most extreme way imaginable. Nearly every day was punctuated by some kind of disagreement with my parents. And by disagreement, I mean two to four hours of all-out war where everyone is screaming, a window gets broken, I’m wrestled to the ground, the police get called, and eventually I grab my backpack and run away. My therapist would likely tell you that this happened because:
My Asperger’s + Emotional traumas early in life = Extreme need for control
Now that I’ve spent the last several years of my life studying psychology voraciously, both in and out of college, I’m inclined to agree with him.
I spent almost the entirety of my early life deep, deep in Defense Mode. I was so terrified and overwhelmed that the only way I knew how to feel somewhat okay was to assert control over everyone and everything around me. That kind of strong internal fire can be great if you’re an ambitious adult trying to build a life for yourself. However, it’s not so great when you’re a pre-teen who believes that parents (and other authority figures) are stupid.
My overwhelmed, stressed-out parents tried everything they could think of to get me to change. They took me to see countless therapists. They tried dozens of treatments and medications. They read parenting books. They tried talking softly. They tried talking loudly. They threatened, bribed, pleaded, and lectured. Nothing worked.
Finally, in desperation, they moved forward with what they considered their last-resort option: the residential treatment center. So I was awoken one morning by two very large, muscular men who took me to what would be my new home for the next year. It was eight hours a day of group and individual therapy. Seven days a week. For an entire freakin’ year. As you can imagine, I learned a lot of amazing life skills in there. I learned a lot about myself and about people in general. Finally, I graduated from the program and went home. I could hardly believe it. I was finally free!
For the first couple of months, life was amazing! My parents and I got along great. I even used my fancy new communication skills, and they worked! I felt confident that things were going to be different from now on. However, soon the “honeymoon” feeling wore off, and I was no longer the prodigal son who had finally come home. I was just part of the family again, and that meant that mom and dad tried to start parenting me again just like they used to. Despite my year of personal growth, it turned out that things at home hadn’t changed much at all. Soon, my old habits kicked in, my parents followed suit, and things got ugly really fast.
Faster than I would’ve thought possible, we were back to the same old pattern of fighting for control. My home was a war zone, and winning meant everything. The result was that, ultimately, everybody lost. After a few months of this, my parents decided that they had tried everything to help me, and that they had reached the end of their rope. It seemed their last-resort option, the treatment center, had failed.
Mom and Dad sat me down and informed me that they would be helping me to move out and find an apartment. I could either choose to stay in school with a part-time job, or I could choose to drop out and work full-time. In exchange, they would help me out with rent. I was seventeen years old.
Being thrown into the adult world at such a young age was simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating. On one hand, my greatest wish was finally fulfilled: I had nearly complete control of my life! On the other hand, I was a sheltered seventeen-year-old kid with Asperger's, ADHD, depression, and chronic anxiety who didn’t know the first thing about how to be successful in the “real world.” I was going to have to learn fast.
I distinctly remember that the day I became an “adult” was the day everything started to shift inside me. Honestly, there were very few “Eureka!” moments where a lightbulb went on, lightning struck, or the Earth shook. Most of the time, the change was gradual, like a sunrise. It starts out cold and dark with only the faint moonlight and stars overhead, but soon a little grey light peeks over the horizon. It gets brighter so gradually that it’s almost imperceptible, until suddenly you look around and realize that the world is now colorful, vivid, and radiant.
Over time, the more safe and in-control I felt the more I started to relax and come out of Defense Mode. I started to have little revelations here and there, and my perspective started to shift. For example, I realized that my parents weren’t around anymore, so, logically, I couldn’t blame them for my happiness and success (or lack thereof). I realized that those were my responsibility. From there, I realized that success wasn’t some arcane, mysterious thing. It was composed of particular skills that could all be learned. That singular epiphany started me down a road of learning and self-discovery that would completely change my life.
Years later now, I’m still growing and learning, but I have come a long way from those early days of raging meltdowns and failed relationships. Now, as a part of the Asperger Experts team, I get the amazing opportunity to work with individuals on the spectrum and their parents in order to help them overcome the same issues I struggled with so long ago. Honestly, it’s my dream job.
The journey of growth is never over. I still have sensory issues. I still go into Defense Mode sometimes. I still have moments of intense anxiety and social awkwardness. I still have bouts of depression that knock me flat on my back. The difference is that now I know how to handle those challenges effectively. I’ve realized that through knowledge, practice, and skill, things can truly, permanently change for the better.