If you were to enter a pet store and travel through the isles, past the dogs and cats, past the birds possibly learning new words, and past the reptiles lazily looking out at their surroundings, you’d find me. You’d find me at the back of the store, along with all of the fish. No, I am not one of the store employees assigned to the fish section; I am one of those fish in the tank. I swim from side to side, corner to corner, front to back, and side to side. I am curious about the world outside my tank, and I want to join it. But the glass surrounding my tank hinders me from connecting with the outside world. It is the barrier between me and the rest of humanity.
I wrote that, or something similar, to that initial paragraph during my first year studying Digital Cinema at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology. I had written it for a project I was to commence work on to move on in the program. All students were to produce a mini ten-minute, non-fiction documentary on any subject choice; the only stipulation was to follow a list of Editorial Elements laid out by one of the program’s instructors.
The way I wanted to tell this story would change a multitude of times. The original project didn’t pan out the way I wanted. A later attempt at the project would result in a small video, but nothing more ever came of it. Looking back on the whole thing now, I remember being so devastated when it didn’t work out. But now, all these years later, I’m glad it never did.
At the age of twenty-one, I was finally diagnosed with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder). Mild, High Functioning, Autism Spectrum Disorder, the doctor assured. Mild Autism Spectrum Disorder with a dab of mild Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. In my case, my form of Autism was formerly known as Asperger’s Syndrome. That diagnosis was removed in 2013 from the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), placing it under the broader umbrella diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder.
When it came to Autism Spectrum Disorder, the process of trying to get those diagnostics had been a long one. I’d first received testing at the age of fourteen but not for Autism; instead, it had been Attention Deficit Disorder. Being like many modern-day individuals, I had begun to suspect I might have ADD based on some Googling I had been doing for the past few weeks. On the other hand, my dad suspected I’d had ASD, or as they were calling it then, Asperger’s Syndrome. Of course, I had to Google this as well to get the symptoms.
My dad would end up being correct, but at the time, only to a degree. Testing for ADD was negative but had resulted in an inconclusive ASD diagnosis. In the end, the tester said she “Believed” I had Asperger’s Syndrome, but further testing was needed to prove this. That testing never happened. That testing wouldn’t happen till the age of twenty-one. After the age of majority, when an individual becomes an adult in the eyes of the law. When an individual has more freedom, especially to make decisions regarding their lives.
Testing for Autism is a lengthy affair. My testing was over two days. They test your vocabulary and spatial recognition. They’ll show you shapes and ask you to demonstrate what they would look like unfolded and flat. They’ll play you recordings of voices saying things and then ask you to describe the emotion you’re hearing in that person’s voice. These are only some of the tests you will complete.
So what had been my life up to this point? A feeling of not belonging. I was that fish in the fishbowl attempting to connect to the outside world, constantly feeling there was a barrier in front of me, infringing upon that want. I lived a life obsessed with music, movies, airplanes, history, and more because I found comfort in them. This would cause weird looks from fellow peers or condescending questions like, “Why do you like that stuff so much?”
Explaining Autism to people was fruitless, for the internet and TV have made them more intelligent than me regarding Autism. “You don’t seem Autistic to me…” some would say, assuming that to be a compliment. It used to bother me, now, not so much. I now consider these attitudes or words to be a representation of that person’s intelligence. I may not always show my Autism blatantly. That took years and years of experience and learning to achieve. I had to learn how to speak to people, hold conversations, act like a “normal” person. I don’t resent anyone for having to learn that. As Temple Grandin said in her TED talk referring to manners, “You just gotta learn them.”
In the old days, I might have told people I had Autism to gain some understanding, perhaps a bit of sympathy. Not anymore. I tell them so I can work with them better. I tell them, so they know what to expect from me. I give them a run down. But ensure them that it will never affect my drive or ability to work hard. I will never use my Autism as an excuse when I mess up; I own my mistakes.
Owning my mistakes was only something I could only learn and truly appreciate from the military.
I’m fortunate my life worked out as well as it did. I went from being in the arts with no acceptance to the military with total acceptance. There was pain along the way; I had to grow up a bit. But in the military, there is no growth without a bit of pain, and if you can endure the pain, you’re rewarded with growth. I was given a career out of the Armed Forces. I was given a chance to serve the country I love dearly. A country with values I hold close to my heart and will continue to do so for the rest of my life. I was allowed to learn from those who came before and endured even more challenging struggles than I. I’m thankful to them for the mental resilience they’ve taught me.
My life had changed so much since the days when I wrote those initial words, comparing myself to a fish trapped in a fishbowl. If I’d known the person I was to become a mere few years later, I might have felt differently. If I’d known that, that feeling of not being able to connect with the world could benefit me, then I would have never written those words at all. When I wrote those words all of those years ago, I might have been looking for a bit of sympathy. No longer.
I enjoy having integrity and being loyal to those I care about, whether it’s an individual or business, even if that means I’ve been used in the past. I enjoy accepting others regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. I am happy that the only kind of person who bothers me is one with malice in their hearts. I enjoy being determined even when others have given up. I enjoy being able to look deeply and critically at something that others have ignored.
I enjoy having in-depth knowledge of the things that I love — the ability to weird someone out with random facts about songs playing. Or when I can name an actor (even if they’re an obscure one) on the screen while telling you other films they’ve been in. I enjoy that every time I am on a plane I’m amazed at humanity discovering the ability to fly and sharing random details about planes to friends next to me. I enjoy sharing historical knowledge and accounts with others hoping that we may all learn from them in the future.
I enjoy that I am not controlled by emotions but rather logic, facts, and reason. While others may allow their feelings to manage them, confirming their own biases when they don’t want to believe things, I’m glad to say that isn’t me. If it’s the right thing to do, I want to do it.
I may at times still be that fish trapped in a fishbowl, but the older I get, the more I enjoy it.