By Cheryl Vazquez-Cheatham
I learned I had autism shortly after my 24 birthday.
I had recently run into a high school crush whom I would stare at awkwardly from afar even though we were technically friends. I was well known as the odd one amongst my corillo, the group I hung out with in high school. We were the rockers, devil worshipers with black nails, or so everyone whispered behind our backs. But I wasn’t really a part of the group, I was just too “scary” to hang out with anyone else. I had just moved to Puerto Rico in 7th grade, but by 10th I had learned some Spanish and I was ready to conquer high school and be super popular. It started off alright, until a boy got a crush on me and began following me around constantly. He would compliment my hair and face and tell me I was the woman of his dreams. He asked me what I would do if he grabbed me and kissed me and I told him I would bite off his tongue. I did not talk much before then but high school was a whole other level of confusion and awkwardness, starting that first week with the guy who followed me around until he graduated. I became more confused by the day, knowing I was missing things, but not knowing what, being frustrated and getting into fights because I missed cues. I was really good at math and would rarely go to class, when I would I would get A’s and B’s. The other students claimed I had an affair with the teachers, but I didn’t learn that until I graduated. I learned about prom on the day of the dance.
This isn’t to say I was unpopular, because I wasn’t. I have two very sociable, attractive and popular younger brothers and I was pretty cute myself at the time, too. But most of my friends were really my brothers friends who talked to me and who came over often. I was very unhappy at that time. I knew I didn’t have friends like other people did and I sensed that my style of friend making was “wrong” somehow. I always said the wrong thing and I always seemed to be in a fight, except I didn’t know I was fighting and of course, I was always wrong. I remember my father telling me “you know you always seem to have these problems and you always say it’s not your fault but when everyone else says it is, I can’t help but wonder…” and I remember that high school was the first time I was asked if I had autism. I assumed the boy was mocking me and left, not knowing that my expressionless face, odd vocalizing style and “blank” staring was a dead give away. I graduated with the highest college entry exam scores in my school and headed off to college.
College was an unmitigated disaster. I could pass the classes with little effort but I would usually quit in the first few weeks. My previously favorite professor once called me “evil” in front of a class because I thought it was more rational to save a litter of kittens in a fire than a human child, if I could only save one. I made 2 friends the entire time I tried, neither of which I speak to now. But I became reacquainted with my high school crush who was then studying psychiatry. We talked once in a while but I was still a wide eyed quiet girl. Out of no where, my mother decided to leave Puerto Rico. Unlike my brothers I had no friends (which I discovered after being hit by a car and realizing I had no one to talk to) and no job to afford an apartment, so I was forced to move in with my father for a while. Around this time I rediscovered art and was accepted into a prestigious art school. I decided to make friends no matter what and moved in with some high school acquaintances and began volunteering at a children’s museum. The museum was where I really began to leave my shell.
So, around my 24th birthday I had decided to move back to the US. I hadn’t seen my old crush in years when I happened to run into him in the mall. I was so talkative he literally stared at me in shock with his mouth open. We talked for a while and began hanging out more often. I can not remember why but at some point we argued over the phone. I do remember he said “you sound autistic. I think you have autism.” and for the first time I wasn’t offended or felt mocked. I actually began to study autism and it was… everything. Every bit of me that I tried to hide because it was “bad” and other things that it had never occurred to me to think of because I assumed everyone else thought in the same ways. I studied autism like I had studied for tests and I prepared a battle plan. I learned the names of the things I did and why and I found ways to stop them. I had to be honest, their were sooo many things, like collecting papers, boxes and boxes of papers, and holding conversations in my head until I lost track of real conversations. All those things I had to redirect. But there were other things that I had learned on my own. My brother and mom helped me analyze for years. I would tell them conversations and act them out and describe expressions and they would tell me what they thought it meant. And I hated my face, how it looked the same in pictures so I kept taking pictures until my smile was right, day after day. Learning to regulate the sound of my voice was hardest and I don’t even know how I did that but it was good by the end of college. I got very good at mimicking, too. But learning was so much easer this time around, that I knew what to look for. I wasn’t struggling in the dark, not realizing I was struggling any more. I do remember crying on the phone with my mother when I found out. She thought I was sad but I was soooo happy. I kept saying “But I’m ok now, I’m really NOT crazy!”
Currently I live in New Mexico. I don’t have a ton of friends, but the ones I do have are wonderful. They really try to help me accomplish my dreams. I have an art mentor, Valery Milovic, who is also autistic and she is helping me learn my way around the gallery scene. I was also accepted into a film apprenticeship program, to learn set painting. I make a living as a freelance writer, working from home at my own pace, when and how I want to, instead of forcing myself to try to socialize with tons of people in a service job all day. I have room mates because I’m not good at socializing. Dating is one of the arenas I still have trouble in but I’ve had as many boyfriends and dates in the past two years as I have in all the rest of my life. Growing older is really amazing, it’s helped me feel more at ease with myself and understand the world better. I have a lot of projects, including a documentary I hope to produce in the next year about the legal side of autism and how politics and autism are interacting. I also have a blog on green living that you can find at http://sustainablegreenandme.com. I like the person I am and I’m glad other people are starting to like me too, it’s exciting.
Autism Women’s Network was one of the first facebook groups I joined after learning I had autism. It has also become my go-to page on rights issues involving autism and the first place I look for quality info regarding sexuality in autism. I have been fortunate enough to make friends with some of the creators of AWN as well as contributors, like Liane Holliday, whose book Pretending to be Normal was the first one I read about being a woman with autism. Both Sharon and Liane have given me wonderful advice for improving the impact of my own projects as well as supported many of the endeavors I am working.