Friday, July 6, 2012

Advice to Young Autistics: Stick Around and Become Awesome

Nick Walker
aikiarts.com
walkersensei.com

This post is part of our ongoing effort to reach out to young autistics in crisis. Future posts will include strategies for connecting with peers, mentors, and community -- because they're there, even if you haven't found them yet.

So you’re a young Autistic person, and maybe you think you’re broken; maybe you think you’re doomed to a life of misery. You’re in pain, maybe depressed, maybe angry. Maybe you’re even considering suicide.

Sorry you’re going through that. I’ve been there myself, and it sucks.

But I survived. And although it took some time and involved some major struggles, I eventually ended up becoming a very happy adult with an awesome life where I spend much of my time doing things that I love -- a life full of good friendships, good community, and those simple moments of joy, grace, kindness, and connection that make a life worthwhile. I’m glad I stuck around long enough to get here. The hard parts were worth it.

And if I made it, so can you. In fact, you’ve got a significant advantage that I didn’t have: these days, there is a large, thriving, wonderfully supportive Autistic community, ready to accept you with open arms. Most of us in the Autistic community have faced (or are still facing) challenges similar to your own, and those of us who’ve found ways to deal with those challenges are happy to share our insights (just like I’m doing right now) so that you can benefit from our experience instead of having to figure it all out for yourself like us old folks did.

So here are some insights that might be of use to you…

First of all, if your life sucks so much that you’re considering ending it, then you might as well try making your life better first, because you’ve got nothing to lose. Here are my two rules about suicide:
  1. Do something else. Try everything else that might possibly make your life better. “Trying” doesn’t mean “thinking about it,” trying means actually doing it, and doing it with real commitment. For instance, training in a martial art can make your life better (it did for me), but going to one or two classes isn’t “trying.” Going to classes only until it gets really challenging and frustrating isn’t “trying.” “Trying” is practicing day after day, week after week, no matter how hard it gets, for at least a couple of years. The human survival instinct is strong, so if you have the willpower to off yourself, then you also have the willpower to persist in the project of changing your life for the better.
  2. If you can’t think of anything else to try that might improve your life, think bigger and bolder. Think about what you’d most like to be, and no matter how far away and unattainable it might seem, find a step you can take in that direction. Remember, if you’re thinking of killing yourself anyway, you have nothing to lose, so there’s no reason to “play it safe” or to rule out any option, no matter how much of a long shot it might seem.
Here’s what I didn’t do to end up a happy person with an awesome life: I didn’t stop being Autistic, I didn’t become less autistic, and I never considered either of those things to be desirable goals.

I did learn to navigate the neurotypical social world. But I didn’t approach it as trying to change myself in order to “fit in.” I approached it as an adventure in learning my way around an exotic foreign culture. Any “fitting in” I did, I thought of as an exciting exercise in role-playing and infiltration. I still do. And in my everyday life, I’m openly Autistic and gleefully eccentric, and I get away with it.

Here’s the secret: it’s all about confidence. Not the bluster of bullies, that covers up desperate insecurities, but the deep confidence that comes from a strong sense of self. And a strong sense of self is something that one earns and develops, over time, through commitment to paths of action that push one’s edges and tap into one’s depths. Set out to master something, and I don’t mean a computer game. Martial arts and theatre are good starting points that I highly recommend to all young (and not-so-young) Autistic people, though of course there are plenty of other good starting points. Just make sure it’s something you’re not naturally good at, because a strong, positive sense of self comes from long-term perseverance in the face of challenges.

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If you are having suicidal thoughts: that is an emergency, and you need to get to a safe place. If you do not feel comfortable reaching out to the people in your life, resources such as Samaritans (samaritanshope.org) have hotlines for teens contemplating suicide for any reason. You can also call the National Suicide Hotline: www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

You are worth that call. You are not alone.