Discovering that you are autistic as an adult is not an easy thing. Some five years ago, through the process of conversation with our son's doctor and my wife, I had to stand up, look myself in the eye, and come to grips with the fact that yes, I am autistic. The doctor's words in my ears were not easy, but I can still hear them, and I am grateful that he took the direct approach and stated simply, "Let's do some simple math...."
It all makes sense. In many ways I have higher-than-average intelligence, and the ability to see things in creative, unusual ways, but at the same time my life has been spent riding the pendulum between being socially awkward, socially inept, and a social pariah. Simple conversation has always been a task for me, even with people I love, interaction has always been tortuous, and I'll spare you any other details. See, when I was a kid, they didn't have things like "the autistic spectrum" or "Asperger's Syndrome". There were autistic kids, who were rather severely limited in what we considered to be mental capacity (oh, how wrong we were!), and there was everyone else. The autistic kids were the ones who flailed about, shouted and screamed nonsensical noises, and were kinda scary because you didn't know what they were going to do next. Something was "wrong" with them as individuals, and while there was a level of concern and regard for their plight, they formed our picture of what it meant to be autistic, and if you didn't display the same outward signs, then it was plain and simple: you weren't autistic.
Oddly enough, the thing that carried me through my teenage years turned out to be a completely misguided thought. I had developed this concept that eventually I would grow out of this "existence", and as an adult, that I wouldn't face the same challenges, so I pushed on, day by day, and year by year, hoping for the time when the issue would pass. Someday I would be able to make eye contact that wasn't painful. Someday I'd go through the day without taking unnecessary "restroom breaks" to pound my fists into each other to rid myself of the "stimming" urge. Someday the moments of non-verbal silence would be replaced with the ability to use my voice to express myself. Someday the screaming in my head would be quieted. Someday....
It wasn't easy to create the masks to cover my traits. I developed the ability to express myself through writing, singing, playing guitar, songwriting, and other methods that channeled out pieces of me here and there. My social abilities formed under the guidance of a strong mentor who saw potential in me (thank you, Buck), and I was able to hide the bigger quirks and characteristics, but the older I got, the harder it became. I had so counted on age and maturity to be the way out of my struggles, but although the years came and went, it only became more and more taxing to create covers and form versions of myself to fit different situations. Without knowing it, I had only exacerbated the problem. The harder I tried to hide myself, the harder it was to find myself, and in my desperation to escape my autistic mind, I only found it more prominent all the time. Adulthood just meant the same prison in a bigger mind and body.
There was one person who knew, and just didn't seem to mind. Meeting someone who loved me unconditionally amazed and baffled me, so when I met Sandra and she didn't seem to mind my social ills, I wasn't about to let go. She's the gentle, but brilliant type, so she knew before I even had a clue, and she loved me anyways, and she never pushed it. She just loved me. She saw deep into my mind and heart, but she didn't let it dissuade her, and didn't push away as so many others had. She just loved me. She loved me for who I am, even though I didn't know who I was. She was right there through the worst of it, right there when the doctor uttered those words, and she was right there when it all became clear to me and I let myself believe what she already knew.
I am autistic.
It's not easy for a man in his thirties with a construction-related job, a family, and a "life" to realize these things, but through the process of having a son diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome and facing other family difficulties at the time pushed me to the point where I had to look myself solidly in the eye and come to grips with who I was. I am autistic. Perhaps I am weird as well, but I'm not just weird. Perhaps I'm naturally intelligent, but I'm not just intelligent. No longer a kid, it took me to the brink, and forced me to see myself as I have never seen myself before. So many things started to add up and make sense, and yet at the same time it troubled me deeply, and brought up a spirit of regret and resentment. I was faced with a decision that was as monumental as anything I had ever seen, and as I began to be aware that I could easily regress into a place of darkness, at the same time, it was opening up to me that I had conquered so much already in my ignorance. My choice was clear. I would overcome.
Nothing is easy about telling people you're autistic. It's probably a confusing thing to hear someone say, and I get that, but the responses you receive are so weird. It would be so much easier to hide this, and not hear replies like,
"That's just for kids. You must have grown out of it."
"I don't think you are. My nephew is autistic and he ____."
"That's so overdiagnosed. You probably just have a deficiency."
"Is that why you act so strange sometimes?"
Honestly, one of the most empowering responses I've ever heard came from a friend who just said, "I know!" No one knew what to do with the information, and it made some very awkward conversations! Nevertheless, I was not going to let the workings of my mind hold me in bondage anymore, and I began to be honest with people about it. It wasn't going to be an excuse, but if I was ever going to triumph, it would start with honesty, and so I made up my mind that I would simply speak the truth about it, own it, quite hiding, and be the person I was created to be.
That's why, at 37 years of age, with no ink anywhere to be found on my body, I decided to get a tattoo. I had been toying with the idea for quite some time, but it wasn't something to take lightly or decide on quickly. I wanted something on me - in me! - that represented my identity, reflected my story, and would serve an an encouragement to others. One thing I found was that as I began to open up about who I am, it empowered other people to overcome the issues that they faced. I'm in a minority as an autistic adult, but far from it when it comes to being a person with issues. Everyone has something they face on a day to day basis, and the idea of overcoming is, or should be, universal to all of us. It starts with the concept of self-awareness and acknowledging what holds us back, and isn't fully conquered until we use the lessons we have learned to help others. I wanted a permanent piece of that as a part of me, and one day as I mindlessly sketched some thoughts on a piece of scrap paper, it all came together, and I formed what would be my art.
* The puzzle piece is clear enough. It is the universal symbol of autism, exemplary of the cryptic, mysterious nature of the syndrome. No one really knows where it comes from, and no one really understands how it works. It is all an enigma, and the pieces do not fit.
* The heart is a reminder that I am loved. Nothing is more important to me than to know that I am loved, even though I can convince myself otherwise in an instant. I can never forget now, though, and it is a reminder to me to love others the way I am loved. Unconditionally. Fully.
* The word "overcome" is my way of encouraging others to face their fears and conquer them. It's also for me. Don't think that I have convinced myself I've arrived. It's all a work in progress.
Getting this tattoo is one of the most difficult things I've ever done. Needles are a phobia of mine, and my pain tolerance is incredibly low. No, lower than that, even. This process scared me to death, and I'm still somewhat in shock that I was able to go through with it. In fact, this process was all about facing fears of so many types for me, and it became all the more real for me as I headed to my appointment realizing that it would just be me and the tattoo artist who was essentially a stranger to me. I would be staring these fears down completely alone, and being alone terrifies me.
God must have sent the perfect person to do this job, because Mandy at Mona Lisa Tattoo in Nampa seemed to understand all along the way. It was uncomfortable to approach her with this unusual (for me) idea, but she "got it" from the start, took my sketch, and adapted it to a skin-oriented piece of work that combined meaningfulness with artistry. This was one of the most important things because I didn't just want a tattoo -- I wanted this tattoo for a very specific reason, and it took someone with understanding to pull it off correctly. It was a great relief to be able to honestly explain my idea and the reasoning, and have someone be able to carry out what I had in my mind. There was no judgment for my timidity or mockery of my fear. Gently and compassionately, she walked me through the process, showed me her idea for the final piece, and it was time to begin.
Hurt? Heck yes, it hurt. Voluntary pain is not something I am accustomed to, and the fact that I signed up for this became that much stranger as the needles began their work. At one point, I was almost ready to ask her to wrap it up, when Tom Petty's classic "Won't Back Down" came on the radio, and reminded me of why I was there. It wasn't less painful, but it pulled my attention away from my discomfort and back to the purpose. This wasn't just for decoration or fun. This was for a reason. This wasn't just for me. This was for everyone who has mountains to climb.
The result? I couldn't be happier. As Mandy began to clean up and give final instructions, I started to become a bit emotional, realizing that I had just done something so incomprehensibly difficult, but found the courage and did it. I constantly tell my students to "do hard things" because the rewards are so great, so as I came to grips with what I had just surmounted, and heard the words, "I'm proud of you", it overwhelmed me.
Do I recommend getting a tattoo? Not necessarily. I wouldn't do it again without an extremely good reason. It's painful as heck, permanent, and carries a stigma with some, including some people I love. It was incredibly unpleasant, and totally unromantic. Oh, and I'm so glad I did it.
People want to know the story behind every tattoo, and this is one that needs to be told. It isn't an easy story. This must be the most uncomfortable thing I've ever written, but it bears being told because there is a world that needs encouragement to overcome their obstacles, and the love that will help carry them through. Whatever your story is, I hope that hearing mine will help you honestly face your burdens, use the beautiful gifts that God has given you, and by His grace to overcome them. Don't stop there, though, because as we work through this process called life, we will be surrounded by those who need our help to overcome as well. Reach out a hand to them, because maybe they're just reaching for one, and yours will be the only one they find.
I'm overcoming. You can too.