Years ago, a friend recommended I watch a movie called Temple Grandin. After reading the description, I wasn’t interested. A story about a woman with autism, even with a Ph.D. and accomplishments that made her worth over $1 million, reminded me too much of what I was trying to hide from the world: I was also on the spectrum. While I didn’t watch the movie, I did read Dr. Grandin’s book Thinking in Pictures. It was then that I decided, I would never hide who I am again.
As Dr. Grandin puts it, in her book, Thinking in Pictures, those with autism are, “different, not less than.” Our brains function differently because we have circuits that aren’t as well connected as others. It’s a neurological thing, not a psychological thing. Being autistic isn’t the exact same thing as having Aspergers; which is what I have. “Aspies” tend to be high-functioning people who have a rough time making friends. We are often very independent thinkers who have no trouble learning how to manage the non-social side of life. We can understand maps, directions, and structures really well, but developing BFFs is not exactly our forte.
Our social relatability or, in my case, lack thereof, is tied to how we think, which is often in “black and white” terms, or a logical understanding of the world. For example, when I was a kid and my mom would feel sad over someone’s death, I couldn’t connect to why she was sad, I just knew the person was no longer with us. Whether or not they were with God, wasn’t of interest to me then. (Says the person who’s hoping to earn her Master’s of Theological Studies from Harvard, but more on that later.) Of course now, my ability to empathize is more nuanced and I understand the emotional tides of grief. Basically, I went from The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon-Cooper-level-of-clueless to a bit less clueless.
How did I go from a strictly logical thinker, to understanding the nuances of emotions? Trust me, it wasn’t easy, and I often got bullied. Despite that, I learned the social graces of our society. Like Grandin, I think “in pictures.” My brain remembers things once I have formed a photorealistic image of what I’m seeing and hearing.
I learned my social skills through observation and I also underwent extensive educational programs. When I saw how other kids acted, I took mental-video notes of their social skills and placed it in a file in my brain so that I could later dissect it, understand it, and then apply it.
Speaking of skills, I was recently watching an interview with Grandin where she discusses the necessity of those with autism/aspergers to learn work skills. Such skills provide a work ethic and those who learn them begin to feel pride in what they do. They can see the value of their contributions to society. When I was 13, I began walking dogs (Occasionally, I still walk dogs for pay, and you can find my latest client Scooby on Instagram @scoobycherry.)
For those on the spectrum, Grandin also mentions that work connections made through word of mouth can be vital. In my experience, every single job I ever had, has been achieved this way.
Now after all these years, and hard work, ironically the toughest part of my diagnosis is living with something that no one believes is really me. I’ve passed for “normal” so long, I don’t really know where I belong. Do I belong with the social butterflies? On occasion. Do I belong with the aspies? I want to say I do, but the real truth for all of us is, we belong, period.
I’ve written this column to show the nuance of the continuum that is autism, and my experiences with it. We are all different, and we all have differing experiences with life. This article is for anyone who knows they’re different, and might feel less than. Despite my differences, nothing has stopped me from following my dreams and achieving my goals, one of which is to attend Harvard Divinity School so I can get my Masters of Theological Studies enhancing my B.A. at Loyola Marymount University, in Theological Studies and Peace Studies, which brings me to the title of this article. It was inspired by a line in the Prayer of Saint Francis. I chose the title to reflect not only the truths of my experiences with aspergers, but also my deep theological belief, that only through understanding can we be at peace with our differences. I firmly believe that letting go of what divides us, will be the path to what unites us.
Darya Jones, Santa Monica