I am different, I am autistic, I am neurodivergent

2 July 2024
Apoorva Ravi Written by Apoorva Ravi
Apoorva Ravi

Apoorva Ravi

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As a first-person essay, this doesn’t require verification by our team of expert reviewers. Please note that these views are of the author’s alone. Personal experiences are as valid as peer-reviewed journals. 

Hello. I am different, and many times, I have been called different and have struggled to fit into societal norms. But in a world that mainly only diagnoses children, especially male children, as autistic, it is tough for girls to get diagnosed with autism, even if the traits are visible. Yes, even if they are visible, they are often missed, and it is no one’s fault because the available literature and diagnostic tools for autism are primarily for children. There is very little available literature on autistic adults.

Masking, which is primarily used to curb your natural behavior to meet expected standards, is done more by women. Autistic girls and women carry out more socially acceptable behaviors than their male counterparts, according to studies.

So, why do I identify as autistic?

Right from a young age, I was uncomfortable in social gatherings. I used to dislike going to functions, where I would struggle to enter a room full of people, as I would be very self-conscious. Also, looking at people when I enter a room would be difficult. These are signs of autism that were missed.

 When I was in my pre-nursery, I didn’t go inside the classroom for one whole year and was very comfortable only with one ayah in school with whom I would play. This is also a typical autistic trait: a person is comfortable with only a few people. I was not comfortable with my peers.

In the following year, in lower kindergarten, I went inside the classroom but was close to only one teacher, and when she was not there, I would cry.

Also, I would never like the idea of standing on the bench as punishment, even if it was given to the entire class.

‘Sit down, don’t cry,’ the other teachers would tell me when I started crying when others were punished.

Nevertheless, gradually, I was trying to fit in at school. But In the third year of school, I got an epileptic attack with a high fever, which is also an overlooked autistic trait, that caused me to fall unconscious for a day. I was admitted to the hospital, which led me to miss school for many days, and school became alien again.

 With anti-epileptic medication that had to be given every day, I even started feeling sleepy. As I re-entered school during the first standard, seated at the last bench, owing to my height, I struggled to make friends. I would even feel sleepy in class, which caused me to be teased by friends. The day’s only highlight was when my mother brought lunch during the lunch break. We both used to sit under a tree, and she used to feed me. The other children felt that funny, too, which made me the odd one out.

So, here I am, having a close relationship with my mother, ayah, and a teacher in the school setting. As I would get ready for school, I would find the socks prickly and would not like to wear them. Also, I would not get ready on time for school, causing me to be late to classes, and then I would enter the class with all eyes on me while I struggled to make eye contact.

At home, time spent with two cousins was good, as we used to play and watch cartoons together. As I progressed to higher standards, I got good at mono-acting. I loved playing multiple characters from plays of Shakespeare, like Merchant of Venice, King Lear, and Macbeth. I also liked Indian characters like Kaikey and Manthara from Ramayana. My mother taught me to act, and I loved performing on stage.

So, I loved performing rather than socializing and talking to friends with whom it took a lot of work to converse, and I was often teased. I used to be a sweaty, nervous student, struggling to converse with friends, having academic performance, and winning competitions as my only strength.

Later, during my teenage years, I experienced body changes that further pushed me to be an introvert. I even developed body image issues leading to eating problems during the tenth standard.

A common thread I carried from school to pre-university and later engineering was my inability to make close friends, being dominated by friends, and even sitting alone for a complete year during my 2nd-year pre-university and coming back home to story books, which were my best friends. I even focused heavily on my studies all through college and got good grades, which had become a very important goal, and getting lower grades or failing was something I was never accustomed to.

The experience of being lonely and struggling to be a part of the group continued during my Media Studies Master’s program. I developed an attachment, which I now realize was my autistic fixation towards a teacher who was trying to help me overcome my anxiousness, which was looked upon as a ‘crush’ by friends, and I started feeling guilty. And since I was an adult by then, the fixation progressed into a compulsive behavior.

The guilt that I had a crush on my teacher, which was perhaps true as well, coupled with the stress of performing academically, led to burnout during the master’s second semester and caused a nervous breakdown during the examinations. It was then, under extreme duress, that I heard conflicting voices, including the voices of my teacher, friends laughing, and my mother scolding.

I was then forcefully taken to a psychiatrist and given antipsychotics and antidepressants by my parents, my uncle, who was a doctor, and my aunt, who is a clinical psychologist. They suspected psychosis because my grandmother had undiagnosed schizophrenia. But, even if hearing voices was psychosis, it was under extreme overwhelm and burnout and for a very short duration.

Additionally, the psychiatrist did not explain anything to me and just said the medicine would make me better. I felt confused, cheated (as medicines were initially given without permission), and disabled as I started feeling sleepy in the classroom, and my handwriting deteriorated heavily.

‘You hear voices, you get hallucinations, you have psychosis, it’s a serious mental illness that needs medication,’ the doctor told me. And I was made to believe that medicine was my only hope.

Little did I realize that my situation was reversible. Slowly, with therapy, I understood that mental illness is not something that has a cause-and-effect relationship with medicines. Medication, I realized, is a temporary solution that may or may not work on the symptoms that are seen extrinsically.

I realize now that I am neurodivergent, partially because I identified with the lived experiences of many autistic adults. Even when I was working, I struggled to socialize with colleagues. I worked as a lecturer because I wanted to be just like my master’s teacher, towards whom I was fixated and with whom I retained contact. I used to perform as a teacher during classes and would later escape to the library, where I used to go even when I studied.

But the 2020 pandemic hit, and I was happy that I didn’t have to go to college and was unmasked at home. Later, I couldn’t handle the pressure of being a coordinator and a teacher. So, I quit my job, and it was then, while I struggled with my first long-term relationship, that I started therapy. Some things were working, and some were not, and I also quit my PhD, which was very difficult to continue because I struggled with interpretative, in-depth writing, and it would overwhelm me a lot.

But now, after much trial and error, I have a flexible remote job where I can work by being myself. I can unmask happily and don’t have to wear fitting clothes (at home, I wear loose nighties). I can take a 10-minute break and dance and move however I want. I can write on my mobile and later edit on the laptop, so this job fits me well.

However, even now, when I am in public spaces where I have to talk to people and interact with them physically rather than virtually, I struggle. In the Bangalore Writers Workshop I joined, I struggled to make regular eye contact with people. I either stared too much or looked away, and I was self-conscious for all three hours, which made me exhausted.

But now, with group therapy and art therapy – I can work on my inner self. I have seen a shift in my mindset and feel more confident about my traits. I have understood that as part of my autistic experience, I may feel anxious and uncomfortable in social settings, and I may find it difficult to handle change, but it is alright. And I do not go out as much as others.

I am happy the way I am with my two cats, my parents, and my dog. I have stopped comparing myself with others, as there are no standards, and I accept myself as I am. And the acceptance that it’s alright is a gift I have given myself.

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