What if you lived your first 34 years knowing you were different but not knowing why? What if you couldn’t verbalize those differences to those around you? What if you learned at a young age how to hide who you really were because those who you were around seemed put off by your “personality?”
But, then, in one instance, you found that someone had peeked into your soul – your very being – and had written about it? How would you feel? Would you feel relief? Would you feel free?
This is my Autistic story:
November 4th, 2015 went like every other day had been going. Get up, take care of the kids, make dinner, take care of baths and showers, and then off to bed. Except this day would take a turn that I never expected.
My family, having liked Boy Meets World from the 1990’s, took to the new Disney channel show entitled, Girl Meets World – a spinoff of the hit 1990’s sitcom – with a feverish love. We excitedly sat down every week to watch this show. My daughter – who was four at the time – was especially smitten with the show and would request it when it was bedtime and she got to watch her “bedtime show.”
During that particular time period Girl Meets World had put out an episode entitled “Girl Meets Farkle.” My oldest was hooked and by the 5th time watching the show I could have told you word-for-word what the show was about. So, that evening, as she sat down to watch that episode again, I strolled through the living room and told my husband that I was going to take advantage of the silence and take a shower. But something stopped me. Instead of leaving the room, I found myself sitting down to watch the episode – again.
This episode dealt with the topic of Autism. I had heard about Autism quite a bit in recent years. Autism is highly debated in “mommy circles.” Moms from all over the world will discuss at great lengths about if Autism is caused by vaccines or by genetics or by some combination thereof. But no one had formally defined it for me. I would learn later that there was a reason for that. While most health issues can have their symptoms listed – put in a box so-to-speak – autism can’t. Autism is known as a spectrum disorder. The spectrum ranges from those who are “high-functioning,” to those who are “moderate,” and goes clear to those who are “severely autistic.” And while you might find two people who exist at the same point on the spectrum, their symptoms will most certainly differ.
As I sat there that night, comfortable in my chair, relaxed knowing my kids were safe, happy, and playing in front of me, I suddenly became overcome with curiosity. I wanted to know more about Autism. So I pulled up my phone and begin searching for information about Autism. As I read about Autism and the symptoms, I began to feel shaken to my core. What I was reading could have easily been something I had written. It was like someone had reached inside of me and wrote about my very essence. The parts of me that I had carefully kept hidden for my entire 34 years on this planet, were there, all in black and white.
I couldn’t even begin to process what I was reading. I sat completely paralyzed by the words that were jumping off of the screen and into my eyes. The night continued on around me like nothing had happened. Kids needed snacks, kids needed to be put to bed, the evening must continue. But there I sat – my whole world had just changed and I could barely process what I thought about it, let alone how I felt. And verbalizing it? Forget it!
Several hours passed and I found myself alone in the living room with my husband. He knew something was off with me, but had no idea as to what it was that had shaken me up. I started to tell him, then stopped, then started again, and then stopped again. It wasn’t so much that I was afraid to speak the words “I think I might have Autism.” It was more that I was in a state of shock that someone could have peeked underneath the layers I had built over time to see the “real me.”
Finally, I found myself in my husband’s arms – crying. Crying – not because I was afraid – but because I was relieved. Relieved to have found out that the “real me” was not someone I had to hide any longer. Unable to verbalize (a common Autistic trait) what I had read, I handed the phone to my husband for him to read the articles. The articles – that were for all intents and purposes – the truth of me.
During the course of the evening my husband found a test called the “AQ” test. It was a 50 question test that asked questions regarding how a person felt in certain situations, how they reacted to certain stimulation, etc. You were to answer anywhere from “Strongly Agree” to “Strongly Disagree.”
Once done I looked at my husband and stated that I was done. I then asked, “What does a score of 39 mean?”
“39?!?!?!” my husband nearly shouted. “I got a score of 15.” (This is normal, most people have a few autistic traits. It’s when they have more than a “few” that you begin to start talking about the autistic spectrum.) For the AQ test, 32 and higher marks the beginning of the Autism Spectrum. Scoring a 39 put me in the “highly functioning” to the “moderate” range.
As I allowed my husband – a man I had known for over 19 years and been with for nearly 17 years – to see how I answered the questions, I watched as he became more and more stunned. Finally, he stated, “I never knew this is how you really felt.” It was then that I knew that over the years of my life I had perfected the art of hiding who I really was and how I really felt.
While I still felt shell shocked at what I had learned about myself – and still a little unbelieving – I took several more versions of the test – each time receiving the same “39” score. Two days later I sat in a Psychologist office showing him a copy of the test. I had seen this particular doctor before for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – something that I got due to an event that happened earlier in my life where I nearly lost my life.
That day as I watched the doctor read over the test and it’s results, I felt a strange sense of peace. A little bit later it was official – I was diagnosed with high-functioning to moderate autism. While I told a few close family and friends, I by and large kept the news to myself. I knew I had to come-to-terms with what this meant in my life before I could ever explain it to those around me.
One thing was clear, the relief I felt was enormous. I suddenly felt like my entire life made sense. Why I struggled with the social aspect of school while growing up (and as an adult). Why things that didn’t bother other people – noises, smells, and touch – bothered me greatly. Why I thought differently than those around me. Why I could hear a car door shut, through closed doors and windows in a highly-insulated house, when others in the home would hear nothing.
The experience was like being re-born. I suddenly felt a freedom that I had never allowed myself to feel before. I was free to explore the side of me that I had kept so carefully hidden away. Instead of being ashamed of who I was, I was finally able to be proud of who I was.
I was finally free.
How did my Autism get missed all these years? The answer is quite logical. Autism was largely unknown by the general community in the 1980’s and 1990’s – my “growing up” years. By the time Autism was known, I had already learned to hide it. I was tormented greatly by my peers for being “different” growing up. My logical thought process was that of “if this part of me is unacceptable – even scorned – by those around me, then it must be something bad that I must hide.” My sensory issues had to be carefully hidden as well. I had to learn to “deal” when I became overstimulated. So I did. While the Autism came as a shock to those who had known me the longest, these individuals quickly came to terms with it as they looked back over my life and saw some of the traits I couldn’t hide, or some times the traits that slipped through the iron-grip I had on my outward personality.
From the time of the diagnosis to now, I have learned a great deal about myself and how the diagnosis of Autism would change my life – for the better. I found a link between anxiety and Autism fairly quickly. As I would become over-stimulated (easy to do in a house with 3 children under the age of 5), I would begin to feel anxious. I would also learn to start leaving the situation and go to a quiet place. It took no time at all for me to realize that the two were interconnected. As I de-stimulated, I found my anxiety would greatly decrease – even to the point of becoming non-existent.
I’ve suffered from incurable insomnia for most of my adult life. My husband jokes that the doctors could give me an “elephant” tranquilizer and the elephant sitting beside me would fall asleep and I would be perfectly ready to tackle the world’s problems. I began to find a relationship between Autism and insomnia. It is hard to go to sleep if one is very over-stimulated. During the evening hours I go through a period of time where I work towards de-stimulating after the day’s events.
I’ve suffered from depression off and on for quite some time. Again, here, I found a link to Autism. In our society, there isn’t always a place for a square peg to fit, especially when you consider the world is a round “hole.” So, an autistic person, specifically one who is undiagnosed, will constantly feel that they are not good enough; that their differences are frowned upon. How would you feel if, as a kid, you were was always scorned by your peers just for being yourself? How would it effect your self-confidence? How would it affect your image of yourself?
Today is “World Autism Awareness” day. Today I am announcing to the world that I, Jennifer Lowenthal-Hershey, am a proud Autistic individual. What makes me proud of my Autism? It is a part of me – it is a part of who I am. I celebrate that I look at situations more through the lens of logic rather than that of emotion. I take pride in the fact that logic is how my mind works – after all, have you ever tried to argue with someone who uses logic? It can be a difficult endeavor for the one without logic on his/her side.
I respect the part of me that needs to de-stimulate on an occasion – again, after all – what mom doesn’t want a few minutes to herself every so often? I relish in the fact that I am able to “act” like a quote-un-quote “normal” person, but yet still be Autistic inside. Almost like living a double life really.
I am still learning about the benefits and the downsides of my Autism. But one thing I know with upmost certainty – I am unique. And for that I am thankful to God that he blessed me with seeing the world differently and in an unique manner. For I do not have a broken processing system – just one that works differently; one that works uniquely.
Thank you for reading my story.