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A Complete Memoir of Autism (Abridged) by Emily Armstrong

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Did I think she was a doctor? Probably not. I was seven years old and knew almost nothing about doctors, and besides, my mom hadn’t called her a doctor. Mom called her a “psychologist.” The visit left me with few memories save one: Even eleven years later, I can still remember the space shuttle she let me play with, and how excited I was that she had one – we were studying space in Mrs. Burk’s class.

It was another three years before I learned the reason for that visit. And it wasn’t to play with a space shuttle.

There’s really no point in me telling you what exactly the visit was for – unless you’ve completely skipped over the title, you’ve probably already guessed – so let’s just get down to brass tacks:

Yes, I am autistic.

That psychologist-lady diagnosed me with Asperger’s syndrome, a mild autistic spectrum disorder. For those readers not in the medical field, that means that although I did not experience any delay in language or cognition (as most people with autism do), I struggle learning certain subjects (-cough- math), I have a lower-than-normal empathy level (i.e., I don’t relate to other people’s feelings very well), the finer points of social interaction go over my head, and I display behaviors characteristic of  the autistic spectrum, such as fixated interests, a lack of eye contact, having certain senses constantly on overdrive, physical clumsiness, extreme literalness, a positive response to physical pressure, a reliance on routine and predictability, and having repetitive, self-stimulating behaviors known as “tics.” I had the majority of these problems as a child, and even with treatment I still had many of them by the time I started high school.

Any senior will tell you that high school is little more than a rat race riddled with monotony, filled with stress, and bereft of personal satisfaction (or something along those lines). I’m inclined to agree with them – as a senior myself I have had ample time to observe the absurdity of the whole institution – but because I have a mental illness (a learning disorder, no less), I’ve had other frustrations added on. I work slower than most people, I have crappy handwriting, I don’t like working in groups, and, Rain Man be damned, I hate math and have no talent for it. Compounded on top of this was the constant pressure to succeed (from both the school and my parents), which exacerbated my perfectionistic tendencies, and despite my IEP (Individualized Education Plan) I sometimes struggled to keep up. As if that wasn’t enough, I had an unpredictable and unstable home life that lasted till last November, which only added to the stress. The lack of predictability made me prone to anxiety, depression, mood swings and meltdowns – yet another condition of my Asperger’s.

I want to make something clear: I didn’t write this article to complain about my Asperger’s. There are plenty of subjects that I would happily complain about, but Asperger’s isn’t one of them. It’s not like anyone had any control over whether or not I got it; it’s just something that happened to be in the fine print of a non-negotiable contract that I don’t remember signing, even though I apparently did. It’s a condition of my existence that I’ve long since accepted and learned to live with. No, this article wasn’t written for the sake of complaint, but education.

Even in this enlightened era of “It’s a Brain Thing” stickers, guidance counselors and organizations such as NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), the progress towards de-stigmatizing mental illness has been minimal. Health classes only brush over mental illnesses, usually touching only on schizophrenia, depression, and maybe a few others – and the textbook explanations of the these illnesses tend to make mentally ill people sound either insane or pitiful. History classes go into great detail about how the U.S. discriminated against people of different races and against women, but never about how the mentally ill were discriminated against unless it’s a brief footnote referring to the Nazis. Why, I wonder, don’t they ditch the empty platitudes and just give us high schoolers a frank, informed talk about mental illness? Why don’t we let our mentally ill student population reveal what life is like for them? It wouldn’t hurt anything; indeed, it would help. It would be an important step towards removing mental illness from the shadowy stigma that now overpowers it.

*This article was originally published in the Helena High Nugget and reprinted here with the express permission of the author, Emily Armstrong, and her mother.

PAIMI Advisory Council Meeting

The PAIMI Advisory Council will hold its quarterly meeting on Thursday, July 24, 2014, from 10:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m. at the Disability Rights Montana office at 1022 Chestnut Street in Helena. The public is welcome. If you plan to attend the meeting and need an accommodation, please call Disability Rights Montana prior to the meeting.

Board of Directors Meeting

The Disability Rights Montana Board of Directors will hold its quarterly meeting on Friday, July 25, 2014, from 9:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m. at the Disability Rights Montana office at 1022 Chestnut Street in Helena. The public is welcome. If you plan to attend the meeting and need an accommodation, please call Disability Rights Montana prior to the meeting.

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