I am autistic. Unless you’re a trained professional or are autistic yourself, you would never know it.
And yet I am classified in the same group of people as Dustin Hoffman’s Raymond Babbitt character in “Rainman,” Jim Parson’s Sheldon Cooper in “The Big Bang Theory,” Freddie Highmore’s Dr. Shaun Murphy’s character in “The Good Doctor,” and non-communicative children who need tremendous support to function.
This is what most people think of when they think of autism, but this does not accurately reflect me or millions of other autistic people.
I’ve been married for 34 years to my wife, Amy. We have three successful and happy adult children. I earned a BA in Journalism from Penn State University and an MS in Organizational Dynamics from the University of Pennsylvania. I’ve held marketing and communication leadership roles for large companies, including GE, Prudential, and Lincoln Financial Group. I’ve had my own business as an executive coach and consultant since 2007.
I was diagnosed as autistic at age 60. I, my family, friends, and business colleagues did not know that I was autistic. Like me, there are multitudes of high-performing autistic people worldwide who are making amazing contributions to society.
So what is autism? Unfortunately, the Centers for Disease Control, following the mainstream of current psychiatric thinking, stereotypes autism:
“Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts, as manifested by” things such as “deficits in social-emotional reciprocity,” “deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviors used for social interaction,” and “deficits in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships…”
This view of autism is myopic, focusing on a limited subset of autistic people – specifically children and primarily boys whose autism indicates more visible challenges. These descriptors do not accurately describe me or many autistic people – especially women. Many of us have muddled through years of our lives undiagnosed and not knowing why we have felt so different. We masked, which means we hid our true selves to fit in, often causing tremendous internal stress and conflict.
Autism is complex and beyond superficial understanding. It is a spectrum condition, meaning that there are many autistic traits with varying degrees of intensity. Along with the challenges that autistic people experience, we can have many tremendous abilities. I have struggled with anxiety in social situations, disguised certain tics known as stims, and felt oddly alien in a world that seems normal to others. On the positive side, I have exceptional language skills, often recognize patterns that others do not see, observe and understand social dynamics extremely well, and have superior problem-solving and strategic planning abilities.
We can find many examples of successful autistic people, including Dan Ackroyd, Elon Musk, Daryl Hannah, Temple Grandin, Anthony Hopkins, and Susan Boyle. Many more people are believed to be autistic but have not publicly acknowledged that. In addition, while it cannot be proven, many great minds in history are thought to be autistic as well. Personally, I count dozens of autistic people in my orbit who are wonderfully successful.
And this brings us to a point that troubles many autistic people today. There are some individuals, including Robert F Kennedy Jr., who was recently a guest on the Smerconish program, that perceive autism as a phenomenon induced by external elements such as vaccines and medications. Kennedy has said that Ronald Reagan opened the pathway for big pharma to create more vaccines faster, which has led to an increase in autism. I would argue that there has been a tremendous increase in awareness and diagnosis of autism.
World-renowned Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia puts it succinctly:
“Two studies have been cited by those claiming that the MMR vaccine causes autism. Both studies are critically flawed.”
It is not without irony that the Eunice Kennedy Shriver Institute of Child Health and Development at the National Institute of Health lists genetics as the first cause of autism. It mentions many other factors that can be linked to autism but does NOT call out vaccines as a cause. It’s not vaccines!
Whether non-autistic people want to accept it or not, we are living with autistics among us. We, autistic people, deserve to be understood, accepted, and celebrated for who we are. Please don’t stereotype us, alienate us, or diminish us. And for God’s sake, please don’t try to cure or eliminate us. We are talented people doing great things.