Things happen for a reason. This may come especially harsh and bitter for those with a late diagnosis of autism. We all have regrets. I believe regrets are a part of life to make us a better person but some regrets are preventable if I had known I was autistic and if I had been taught to accept my true self instead of judging myself by some arbitrary norms and standards that society deemed ‘normal’. For me, things happen one way but not the other because I didn’t know about my autism. This is why I want to raise awareness and it’s not just about autism, which I talk about a lot because I happen to be on the spectrum but what I’m actually talking about is raising self-awareness by challenging traditional societal norms that people take for granted. An example I have in mind is the difference between introverts and extroverts.
I set myself out for failure/challenge at an early age when I told people my ambition was to become a lawyer. In their eyes, I was too quiet and shy for the profession but that didn’t stop me from wanting to become one. Underneath that meek and soft-spoken personality, I was stubborn and defiant. My quietness was taken as a sign of weakness and people took advantage of it. I was bittered and hurt, I build up defense mechanisms to protect myself. Back then, I loved courtroom dramas. I dreamt of becoming that person who upholds justice and stand up against bullies. In my imagination, I would grow up to become that strong, righteous and smart advocate. I knew I didn’t match up to that image, I wasn’t confident and I wasn’t sociable but I honestly (naively) believe I could ‘train’ myself to become one. I was in reality a fool for not recognising my limitation and my inner calling, I was simply too unaware to admit that I was put off by the social aspects of the profession and I was driven more by vindication as opposed to passion.
My wish to study law brought me to the UK when I was 16. I got my parents to enrol me in an international college and I am forever grateful to them for that. In addition to law, the other two subjects I chose were maths and psychology. I hated maths but I chose it because it was my dad’s favourite subject, so it was more of a compromise (not surprisingly, it was the subject I performed worst). Psychology was another subject of my interest, I’ve always been fascinated with human behaviour. In hindsight, it is no surprising why I was interested in the study of human mind. These were the three subjects I studied for my college, which I now see as representing three different states of mind: the one that is expected to conform (maths), the one pretending to be normal (law), and the one that always felt she was somehow different (psychology). When it was time to apply for universities, it was either law or psychology. I chose law in the end because I thought it would bring better career prospects. I also chose a university in London because I wanted a taste of the big city life and nothing beats the capital city of England. What was it like to live in the capital city? I lived there for 3 years and I could only name a few places I visited (nope, Buckingham Palace wasn’t one of them, neither have I been to Notting Hill). Other than the campus and libraries, I spent most of my time in my rented apartment. I was already a hermit back then, but I didn’t recognise it.
Growing up, I never like crowds, but time and again, I put myself in a crowded situation. In fact, I don’t really have a choice. I grew up in a small populated city. There are always people around me, everywhere. The land is so flat, there are no hills to explore. Everyone congregated during weekends in busy malls and cinemas. I’ll even admit that I love shopping but I lose my patience easily, many shopping experiences were ruined because I lose my temper all of a sudden, I didn’t even know why. If I did, or have I known that it might be due to my limited tolerance to the sensory environment, I would have paid more attention to avoid the trigger. But I didn’t know then, and ultimately, this is the price I paid.
I love my parents but it was tough to live with them, especially with our relatives close by, they were always comparing over meaningless stuff they can turn everything into a competition and I could never live up to their standards, we were always arguing. I wanted to be out of sight but nowhere in tiny Singapore was far enough. Nevertheless, I didn’t want to be so far away from them that it would be difficult for us to meet, that would be too cruel to them. Given the circumstances, I thought Hong Kong, which was just a 3 hour flight away was the perfect place to move to. There were other practical consideration such as the similarities of our legal system.
And so you see, the small and big decisions I’ve made so far were all based on this idea of conforming to society standards and this unrealistic image I painted of myself. The moment I became aware of what it means to be autistic at the age of 32, I knew what the implications were, I have to leave this city at the earliest opportunity. However, by the time I was aware and ready to accept myself for who I am, I was already burn out and consumed by exhaustion, all my energy has been expended in staying alive, I have no more energy left to pursue anything else, let alone my dream. For this reason, knowing I was autistic brought little relief to me, in fact, it sounded more like a death sentence because there is no way the environment can change, I have condemned myself to an overpopulated city and I’m currently living on death row.
My take home message can be neatly summed up in the words of Dr. Luke Beardon, in his book, “Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Adults”.
“It is crucial, therefore, that all autistic individuals have a clear understanding of their own sensory profile in order to understand what environment is best suited to them.”
“Without a good understanding of self, it is highly unlikely that individuals with autism will be effective at making choices that are beneficial to them. This relates very much to an understanding of how autism affects the way in which one lives one’s life, and what needs to be taken into account in order to achieve one’s goals. Essentially, making good choices depends very much on how well one understands oneself – and if you didn’t realize you were autistic then a whole new understanding of yourself might need to be acquired somehow. If an autistic person does not know that he or she is autistic (or, if she knows she is but does not understand what this actually means), then that person will often ‘judge’ herself against criteria that are not applicable to her.”