Knowledge is Power
What I thought I knew about autism some two decades ago could have fit on the head of a pin. Brief snippets of made-for-TV movies and a character on a favorite weekly series told me that autism was either something that could be “overcome” through countless hours of hard work and obsessive dedication on the part of the autistic child’s parents, or a lifelong, debilitating condition that doomed the sufferer to a world of non-communicative isolation. The one thing I did not know—the most important thing of all—was that my life was playing out on the autism spectrum. That fact was impacting every facet of my existence, every decision I made about my present and future, every choice in my past. Two decades ago, as I was making my way into the adult world, what I knew about autism and the transition to adulthood and beyond was exactly nothing.
But now, I know more about autism than I ever thought there was to know. With the diagnosis of my son in the late 1990s, and my daughter several years later, my knowledge base from the parent perspective grew by leaps and bounds. Along the way, I began to suspect that much of what we identified as my children’s strengths and struggles mirrored those of my own past—and present. But it was not until years later that I made the decision to “kinda” find out for sure if the ratio of Aspies to neurotypicals in my household was more like 3:1 than an even split. I sought out what I classified as an informal diagnosis and proceeded to test out different strategies that I knew had been successful with others and apply them to my own life. This approach gave me the strength I needed to come up with a plan to achieve career goals that had been all-but-forgotten. Suddenly (!) I find myself with a Master’s degree in Special Education, and am now enrolled in a doctoral program in the same discipline, while teaching adolescents and young adults with developmental disabilities in a Career Education program at a private school in Pennsylvania. Most recently, I made the decision to seek out definitive answers about what made me tick, and as suspected, the answer came back: Asperger’s Disorder. Truth be told, there was a time where I would not have minded the word “disorder” so much, but I have come too far, and learned to much, to feel comfortable using that word to describe how my brain is wired. As long as I can continue to find ways to use my Aspie powers for good instead of evil, there’s not too much disorder in my little world, after all!
Had I known some two decades ago what I know now—as a parent, as an educator, as a student, as an autistic person—I can only imagine what a difference it would have made in my own life, and the lives of the people who matter to me the most: my neurotypical husband (God bless him!) and my children. What I can hope for at this point is that it is not too late for them to share in the benefits of what I now know, and what I am learning still. I hope, through this column, to have the opportunity to talk about the ins and outs of becoming and living as an autistic adult. And because I am spending unending amounts of effort, energy and tuition on studying special education issues (my dissertation is going to be related to transition issues in some way, shape or form) and more than 35 hours a week as a teacher in Career Education, I hope to be able to provide, at the very least, an informed perspective. Because there is one thing I have learned since finding out that I’m autistic: Knowledge is power. All of a sudden, after a lifetime of knowing what I wanted for myself professionally and not having any idea of how to get there, I’m a teacher…and a writer.