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ASD: Running on divergent hardware

Malcolm Streitfeld

Anchor Staff Writer

Image via Tara Winstead/Pexels

Disclaimer: Before I begin, I do want to clarify one thing. ASD, also known as Autism Spectrum Disorder, varies when it comes to the extent and severity in which it affects people. It is a broad spectrum ranging from “high-functioning,” those who are only slightly or moderately impaired by their autism to “low-functioning,”those who are significantly impaired mentally by their autism. As just one person with autism, more specifically someone who is “high-functioning,” my experiences do not reflect the experiences of all other people with ASD.

ASD is a developmental disability that restructures the brain, making it function differently. Those with ASD and/or similar disabilities like ADHD are “neurodivergent” because they struggle with understanding social interaction, etiquette and norms, as well as the mastery of tasks that require fine motor skills, more than “neurotypical” people do. Admittingly, I’m 22 years old and I still can’t tie my shoes properly. I often wear shoes without laces as a result.

One of the earliest signs of my autism manifesting itself that I can remember was around the time when I was in middle school. Like most kids, I did have an “imaginary friend” that I sometimes interacted with. Looking back on it, I may have been the only middle school student who still had one of those by the time the sixth grade began. I also didn’t think my imaginary friend was imaginary at all. You see, reading a book containing the myths and legends of local indigenous groups had put the idea of the “spirit animal” into my head, a guardian animal that guided me in life.

The problem was, I didn’t see this “spirit animal,” who was an otter, as merely a guide. I saw them as my best friend, and chatted with them out loud frequently in public as much as with anyone else – which was a lot, since I was a chatterbox back then. Maybe it’s because of this that I didn’t have many friends at school and was sort of an outcast.

During gym class, one of said friends and I stayed away from the other kids and engaged in imaginary roleplay adventures that involved the idea of “spirit animals.” We fought evildoers together, with one of us even playing the villain at times – it was mostly him, now that I think about it.

The most surreal thing about these adventures is how it was sometimes hard for me to tell if they were imaginary or not. Notice a pattern here? My friend and I became so engrossed in these games that sometimes it seemed to me like it was really happening, as if we actually “were” these characters. We weren’t pretending. I had such a vivid imagination that I sometimes couldn’t distinguish between what was real and what was just made up. During this time, I didn’t realize that either.

I mentioned earlier that the younger me was quite a talker. In fact, I talked so fast and so frequently to another person that I never gave them a chance to respond. This resulted in a lot of very one-sided conversations. It was hard for people to keep up with me. My parents took me to several doctors to try and figure out what was up with me, including the staff at Meeting Street, who knew how to teach those with special needs.

However, it wasn’t until a neurologist recommended the therapist Dr. Jessica Hopkins to us that the picture became far clearer to me and my parents. Hopkins specialized in working with autistic children. It’s thanks to her compassionate, easy-going and empathetic approach that I was able to understand myself far better than before. She also helped me get into contact with other autistic kids through her “hangout” parties that happened every so often.

I don’t think I’d ever want to live without my autism. As much as I’ve struggled because of it in the past, it has nonetheless come to define me as a person. It has given me the imagination that has helped me become a writer and a storyteller. It also brought me the gifts that I cherish, such as my buffalo hat named “Apple Crisp” and my Celtic Tree of Life necklace.

My hope is that my story will increase neurodivergent awareness and appreciation in the local community. That’s something not just Rhode Island, but all of the United States, really needs right now.


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