I, Arlene Taylor, am a 26 year old woman on the Autism Spectrum. Diagnosed in my intern year after completing medical school, I have faced misunderstanding, misdiagnosis, mistreatment and more; but more importantly, I have experienced acceptance and triumph following my receipt of a correct diagnosis and finally receiving the appropriate assistance to help me make my own autistic talents shine. I wouldn’t change who I am for anything, and I wouldn’t change my journey either.
Autism is a word a never thought I would become associated with. While I had quite pronounced social difficulties in school, it wasn’t anything that the teachers worried might be due to something other than my general intelligence and geek like persona; I openly enjoyed studying and learning and had little time for the social aspects of attending school. I’m sure most people would have thought my neglect of socialising was because I wanted to spend more time on academics. Few people realised then, or even now, that my general lack of involvement with social events is more to do with the inordinate amount of energy these occasions drain from me. The social world has always been this prickly, unpredictable, chaotic vortex that I felt be best left alone. It certainly feels safer to avoid too many social encounters when so many that you try to engage in don’t work out due to your own inability to read the other people and the situation.
Maths, science and music have been a refuge for me for more than two decades. Graduating in the top ten of my state at the end of high school I went on to complete a medical degree, and postgraduate qualifications in clinical toxicology, at university. I got through the medical course, but not completely unscathed. My lack of social understanding and ability to read people landed me in some sizable pickles where I was left explaining to senior faculty staff that I simply hadn’t meant to be offensive, inappropriate or just down-right weird. My fondness for the people in my own profession dwindled over my seven years in the medical school as I discovered that the youth of my profession obtain their ‘standing’ through social graces, not intellect and natural talent. The gap between my social understanding and age widened, and therefore so did the gap between myself and my colleagues.
Once I started work as I doctor I noticed few, if any, problems in terms of actually doing my job and caring for my patients. My own experiences as a patient provided me with the necessary training a doctor on the autism spectrum might require to empathise well with their patients. Unfortunately, the social gap with my colleagues was a chasm. Not only was my ability to integrate socially with my medical peers grossly absent, but those same peers and seniors held expectations that my social abilities would line up with my intelligence: A failure of these abilities to present as on par lead to assumptions of character flaws, and worse… My own recognition of these social difficulties and my inability to fit in took me down the dark road with depression. About the only thing that kept me going was the enjoyment I got from doing my job and helping patients.
Finally, more than half-way through my intern year, I came across my diagnosis. The relief was substantial when I discovered there was something that explained how my social intelligence and academic talents could be so far removed from each other. There was even more relief in discovering that I was not alone in this experience, and I was not simply a bad or difficult person; better still, there were resources I could use to learn new skills that I hadn’t mastered on my own. Since being diagnosed just over a year ago my involvement with our State’s Autism Association has grown quite strong. I have found friends who accept parts of me I never thought would be accepted. I have learnt communication and coping skills that I never thought I would have. But best of all, I have learnt to appreciate the parts of me that were hidden due to fear of social ridicule and misunderstanding prior to my diagnosis.
Now, I am thankful for my friends who share this developmental difference, and I wouldn’t trade in my own differences for the world. Each week I participate in the Company @ Autistic Theatre group, believed to be the only all autistic theatre company in the world. Each fortnight I am blessed to be able to attend our women’s social group, for ladies with Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome. I have a wonderful housemate, who is also on the spectrum. No longer do I hide my pursuits of special interests simply to fit in, and I am so much happier for being open about these interests. Relationships with my friends and family have grown much closer and stronger as those around have learnt about autism, how it affects me and how we can manage different aspects of it. I am happily doing research in pharmacology (one of my obsessions) with supervisors and colleagues who appreciate and understand my differences. I no longer beat myself up when I don’t get everything right. I embrace my place on the autism spectrum, and the positives that come with that. Best of all, I am happy!