Life on the Spectrum: A World Autism Awareness Week Special

Whilst I usually keep my posts on this blog themed around creative topics, I’ve decided to do something different this time. World Autism Awareness Week started last Saturday, but I’ve known about it for a good few months. So, I decided it would be time to open up about my High Functioning Autism.

I can guarantee a good half of my friends have no clue that I’m autistic, especially since it’s not something I talk about on a day-to-day basis with those I know. With that said, it’s definitely something that needs to be talked about, so here it goes. Here are the pros and cons of my autism.

Pro – It gives me my creative spark

I honestly think the biggest reason I have as much passion as I do for designing, and in turn have as many skills in being a designer, is because of my autism. Whilst most other boys when I was in school were are into things like sports, games and construction, I was far more engrossed in crafts and technology. I also knew from a very early age that I wanted to do something artistic when I grew up.

And why do I think my autism is the reason for this? Well, all of the autistic friend I have, both high and low functioning, are equally passionate about creative topics. Some are more into music, some are more into fashion, and some are more into storytelling. But all of them are creative, and I wouldn’t give up my creative spark for the world, especially if it also meant giving up these friends.

Con – It cripples my socialising skills

Easily the biggest problem my autism causes me is that it makes it extraordinarily difficult for me to socialise with people. For one thing, I am easily overcome with shyness when talking to someone, especially for the first time, and especially if they’re talking to someone else. Often, just saying “hello” to someone takes a lot of self-encouragement.

For another, I have an awful lot of difficulty making eye-contact with people. I have to really force myself to look someone in the eye, and even then, it only lasts for a split second. The only way I can describe the feeling of looking into people’s eyes is like looking into a pair of black holes, since the darkness of the pupils just never seems to end.

Pro – It makes me truly dedicated to things

Whilst I may not be into the same things as most other men, when I get passionate about something, I really get passionate about it. This includes my love for design, which can be evident in the 43 books I read for my Modernism/Postmodernism dissertation (excluding journals, websites, and the documentary film I watched).

Furthermore, if I’m given some kind of job to do, I try my hardest to not only do the job, but to do it either better, or do a lot more of it. I will spend every spare second examining every detail to see if there’s some way I can make an improvement, rarely ever telling myself that “It’ll do”. This, again, is a common trait for autistic folk, that when they have a goal they want to achieve, especially if it’s linked to something they feel strongly for, they go to the ends of the earth to achieve it.

Con – My parents had the hardest time raising me

Nowadays, I’m a quiet but friendly, calm and approachable person, which is a million miles away from the kind of child I was. Because I would easily be traumatised by change (more details regarding that to come), if anything I didn’t expect to happen happened, I would often begin screaming and try anything in my power to stop it happening, even if that meant me becoming physical.

Also, because I didn’t clearly understand the world around me, I would often do things which I never realised weren’t right, such as break something or take something from someone without their permission.

I’m none of these things today, but the only reason is because my parents, especially my mother, loved me regardless. Through their love, they raised me to be a better man, and I am forever thankful for that.

Pro – It makes me understand things others struggle with

Autistic people are neither smarter, not dimmer, than the average man. The difference is that our intelligence is focused on particular areas of our minds.

For example, being autistic, I’m especially good at systems and organisation. Not only do I plan my schedule and projects more effectively than many others do, but it means I only took half the time others did to comprehend both web-coding, and algebra.

It also allows me to have a more advanced mind for visualising things, since autistic folk like me tend to think in pictures. We can both visualise things which haven’t been created yet, and we can remember the look of something with more advanced details regular people. I can actually remember how everything looked from my earliest memory, when I was young enough to sleep in a cot.

Con – It made things you might consider ‘simple’ difficult

Whilst my autism does make me understand things others struggle to comprehend, it also has the adverse effect of making me struggle with things other people are used to, especially if there doesn’t seem to be a system involved. For example, regardless of my blog, I often struggle with reading and writing, particularly fictional material. Not only does fictional work vary more in tenses, sentence lengths and topics, but it’s also a lot less ‘matter of fact’ and uses more indirect, emotional methods of describing things (I.e. Metaphors).

Also, if there’s a change to the routine an autistic person is used to, this can often become increasingly stressful for the autistic person, since they end up becoming lost with no clear sign of where to go or what to do next. It’s like being diverted away from a road you’re used to driving on onto one you’ve never seen before. The destination might be the same, but it’s still confusing and stressful.

Let’s Talk About MMR

Yes, over 2 decades ago when the whole controversy about MMR vaccines and autism were a hot topic in the news, I was one of those children supposedly made autistic because of the vaccine (we even have before and after photographs).

Before anyone mentions them, I know the stats supposedly show no direct correlation between the two. With that said, think of it this way: some people have peanut-allergies, but we don’t go telling them that peanuts can’t cause allergic reactions since the rest of us can eat them without any side effects.

Furthermore, many of the things linked to MMR have been discovered to be potential causes of autism. Many scientists believe that autism can be a form of mercury poisoning (multiple-dose vaccines are preserved in Thiomersal, an organomercury compound), a long-term effect of contracting Rubella (what the ‘R’ in ‘MMR’ stands for), or even caused by early childhood trauma (I think having 3 diseases at once as a baby is a pretty traumatic experience).

I’m not claiming anything regarding the MMR-autism controversy. After all, I’m no scientist. All I’m saying is that we shouldn’t be so conclusive that MMR doesn’t cause autism, especially since we’re still so unsure as to what does. We’re still in very early days regarding this research, so let’s keep our minds open and let the future tell us whether or not the scientists of today were right.

My Summary

I’ve met autistic people who see it as a gift, giving them skills the average human being could only dream of having. I’ve also met autistic people who see it as a hindrance, making it hard for them to fit in with society and be mocked because of it. What do I think of my autism…? Meh…

Truth be told, I don’t really think of it as a blessing, and I don’t think of it as a curse; I just think of it as the way I am. If you asked me to describe myself with a single word, I’d probably choose ‘autistic’, since I think it says just about everything you’d want to know about me in one breath.

I do think, however, that it’s something people should at least be aware of. Autism, for better or worse, is a condition that will stick with me until the day I die, and the more that people understand it, the easier life can be for all of us. You might not think that you need to know about it, but knowing how many of my own friends never knew I was autistic, it wouldn’t surprise me if you knew many more people on the spectrum without realising it. It’s not impossible for someone with High Functioning Autism, or Aspergers Syndrome, to be undiagnosed, so keep your wits about you if you spot the signs.

So, what do you all think of autism? Do you think it’s a good thing, a bad thing, or somewhere in between? I’m interested in your opinions of it, so comment below with your thoughts regarding autism.

Why Do We Lose Our Creativity As We Grow Up (And How We Can Prevent It)?

During a presentation held by a highly enthusiastic Dan Spain at my nearest meet-up, he talked about a 2006 survey held by Sir Ken Robinson. In the survey, 1,600 children were tested to see how many of them were ‘highly creative’ (or more specifically, how many could think in “divergent or non-linear ways”) at various stages of their life.

Frighteningly, he discovered that despite 98% of them being highly creative aged 5, that dropped to just 2% by the time those same children were 25.

(AUTHORS NOTE: I’ve since been corrected that it was in fact George land who did the survey, not Ken Robinson. Thanks a lot, Google!)

As I left that night, I asked myself why we drastically lose our creativity as we get older. What I came up with were a variety of factors and a variety of ways we, as grown ups, can get around it.

We’re Not Looking After Our Bodies As Well As We Should.

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We privileged westerners often end up living unhealthy lifestyles, which can include too few vegetables in our stomachs, and too many un-earnt pints at the local pub. And, there’s plenty of evidence to prove that having an unhealthy body can lead to having an unhealthy mind.

Furthermore, graphic designers can spend long, long hours sat in front of the computer, staring at bright screens with square eyes, and eating way more carbohydrates than one can burn.

This is why looking after your body is important. You don’t have to be a health-fanatic by any means, but little things like keeping an eye on what you eat, exercising, quitting bad habits, and only treating oneself in moderation, can make a big difference. Keeping your body and mind healthy will allow you to hold onto its creative juices the longer you live.

We Have a Dumb Idea of What Makes Someone ‘Smart’.

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Whilst I’m probably more respectful for our education system than most of my friends are, mainly because I’m just glad it’s compulsory, I do think it can do with some patching up.

Partially to blame on society, it tends to be overly dependant on revision and memory, when rationality and innovation are greatly underrated aspects to ones intelligence. One of my ongoing clients explains this astonishingly in one of his articles (and if having a grizzly-bear alter-ego isn’t a creative outlet, I don’t know what is).

Slowly but surely, our society needs to change the way we classify ‘intelligence’, and see that there’s more than one way someone can be smart. It’s not all about remembering the facts, it’s also about experimentation, discovery, defensive skills, and determination.

Computers Have Made It Too Easy to Find Answers.

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One of the biggest faults of the Digital Age is that, quite literally, we can Google any question for almost any answer. Problem-solving is a vital part of divergent thinking, so the fact that we live in an a time where programs solve the problems for us means we’re not exercising our brains for finding the answers ourselves. Some professions require problem-solving skills as standard, but that’s a rarity.

It might sound like a no-brainer, but if your job doesn’t require those skills as much as others do, brain-teasers and puzzles are a good way of entertainingly training your head (Sudoku is a favourite of mine). Or, rock-climbing and orienteering can challenge your brain whilst giving you a breath of fresh air.

Whatever it is you’re doing, make sure you exercise your mind to avoid taking everything at point blanc.

We’ve Put Our Lust for Money Before Our True Passions.

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If you ask me, society has wildly over-glamorised money. From what I see, most high-paying jobs are extraordinarily stressful, and people in these positions barely have the time or energy to enjoy the things they buy. Furthermore, it’s not helped when those in higher positions disregard creative roles as ‘proper careers’.

So for one thing, let’s realise that the creative industry is perhaps more valuable than one may have first thought. To put it bluntly, it’s worth £71billion in the U.K., and $698billion (approx. £453billion) in the U.S.A.

Secondly, perhaps we should start measuring wealth by how much life one has lived. You really don’t need to buy 1,000 things you’ll never use! If you have a creative job you genuinely enjoy, so long as you can earn enough to survive, you’re better off using the rest of your energy living the short life you have with your friends and family.

After all, if I can survive with just Nokia 130 and without the latest iPhone, I think you can too.

We’re Scared of Trying (and Understanding) Anything New.

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I have come to discover that even the most open-minded people, despite good intentions, can struggle to look at creations which aren’t ‘standard’, and realise that it might have been beneficial to break an unwritten rule to two.

A fantastic example of this is ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. Extraordinary and unconventional, it originally received mixed reviews, and a comment from Elton John saying “you’ll never get that on the radio”. 40 years on, it’s one of the greatest pop-songs of all time, as well as one of the most played ones on British radio.

This might be challenging, but if you see/hear a piece you don’t like, don’t just give it a thumbs down. Take a moment to question why other people enjoy things you don’t like, and not only will it allow you to see understand from a different point of view, but it might even turn that thumbs down upside-down.