Tuesday, 10 September 2013


A few months ago I got an email from somebody who'd read my blog, discussing some of the issues that I'd brought up in my 'To The Moon' post. We've exchanged emails since then, and have since become pen-pals and friends. We mainly talk about things relating to Asperger Syndrome, how it's affected us and the people we know, and about others' reactions and our own thoughts about ourselves. One of the things we've discussed is how our behaviours have changed as we've grown up, and how we've had to learn to act more typically. I've written before about how I wonder what I'd be like if I'd not been encouraged to develop more typical behaviours and to hide my Aspie traits, and my conflicts over whether Aspie-behaviour-Catherine or learned-behaviour-Catherine is the real me. I decided a while ago that I wouldn't worry about this anymore.

Anyway, when my penpal brought up the Autism  Spectrum Quotient, I wondered if we'd have scored more highly when we were younger and hadn't yet learned to mask our Asperger traits:

"It’s interesting to see when doing the AS quotient test how much I’ve changed, and I wonder if things would’ve been different if I’d been diagnosed in childhood or early adolescence rather than as a 20 year old. Maybe if I’d had a diagnosis to fall back on, I wouldn’t have tried as hard to be ‘normal’, then again would I have had more support and consequently had fewer emotional problems? I wonder if there’s a trade-off with autism and mental health – feel okay and be atypical, or learn to be typical and feel low about it at times."

In 'To The Moon' (spoilers ahead), one character talks about how she struggles with herself, having had to mask her Asperger traits from an early age. When I was diagnosed with depression aged 19, I thought that while things had certainly gotten worse during that period, I'd suffered from persistent low mood for years before that. Much of my depression (when it flares up) involves my inner voice telling me harsh things about myself, including my social failings and how I've failed at being normal. I've had episodes where an overwhelming social situation has left me feeling down about my inability to cope, and I've sometimes tipped over into depression if the negative thoughts get strong enough.

My question is, what if I'd been raised to believe that it's okay to have and to show my traits? I'd have been more Aspie, most likely, but would I have avoided low self-worth and feeling mentally unable to cope? After diagnosis I did act more Aspie, and ended up using it as an excuse when I knew that I could've tried harder to act normally - while I did feel less upset when I failed socially, I then had the added burden of guilt when I knew that I hadn't tried my best, which ended up with me beating myself up about it. Would I have been happier then, if I'd earlier accepted it as okay to be my Aspie self? Or would I have retained my childhood wish of wanting to fit in with other people?

I'm now thinking of when I worked with a 4 year old with autism. I was trained to work with him in Applied Behavioural Analysis, in short rewarding him for typical behaviours and ignoring the more autistic ones. It broke my heart to see him so happy in his own little world, knowing that he'd be wrenched out of it and given therapy to become more 'normal'. Why shouldn't he be allowed to hold playdough instead of making it into shapes? Why must he have his trains go in and out of the station, rather than line them up? In the end I was asked to leave since my heart just wasn't in the therapy. A year has passed since then, he's probably progressed a lot and acts more typically. His older sister probably enjoys having a brother who plays with her rather than one who ignores her or pushes her out of the way. I wonder if he's still happy, and if he'll grow to be happy with who he is, or if he'll feel that he's trying to be someone he's naturally not at ease with.

The character in To The Moon who was diagnosed in childhood is uncomfortable with herself, having had to learn to act typically, however she appears fairly normal to the player. The character diagnosed in young adulthood shows more traits, but it's unclear whether or not she's happy with being herself. One of the other characters mentions that maybe she wants to fit in just like everyone else, and from some of the dialogue toward the end of the game it is strongly suggested that she felt lonely and different as a child.

Maybe I'm creating an issue where there isn't one - just because I feel that my mental illness is linked to not feeling okay with my Aspie self, maybe I'm assuming that people who have grown up taught to repress their autism feel unhappy or anxious because of it. If there is a trade-off though, what's the best thing to do to have mentally healthy people who function well socially in society?

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