Since my childhood, people have noticed something very different about me. I have always felt out of place, being overly hyperactive and lacking understanding of my surroundings and behaviours. My parents decided I should see a psychiatrist to figure out my exact issues. As it turns out, I was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. On that day, my life changed forever. For those who don’t know, autism is a behavioural and cognitive disorder that impacts a person’s ability to understand regular social interactions and process certain information, and can give a person intense sensitivity or a lack of sensitivity to physical and/or emotional feelings. Autism is a very loosely defined diagnosis, with symptoms that can vary from individual to individual—the characteristics of some people with autism are tremendously different to those of others with the condition. If I were to define my own quirks, I would say they include being obsessive, resilient to change, unaware of my surroundings and unable to process certain information. I also have emotional and physical hypersensitivity. The physical manifestations of my condition include fidgeting, spinning objects in my hands and pacing.
“The road to success is always under construction.” – Lily Tomlin
A hard time in school
A lot of people who are diagnosed with autism are placed in special education for subjects such as reading, writing and arithmetic. In my school, the Special Ed Program also exempted students from taking French classes. As well intended as it was, I am still resentful that we were instead taught “study skills” to improve our test-prepping abilities. This quite frankly ruined my grade eight Quebec trip, when my friends were having fun with an entertaining street performer who I couldn’t understand. Thank goodness for those mimes, though, right?
Teachers treated me differently, and it took me years of learning about ableism to realize that this treatment was unfair and wrong. On the one hand some teachers would be dismissive of my disability, claiming it was an excuse for me to ask for extra time, or they would tell me to face more challenges in order to “overcome” my autism. On the other, some teachers “helped” too much by excluding me from various activities and subjects that I knew I had the capacity to undertake.
The ableism did not end in the classroom. As a person with autism, I naturally have obsessive tendencies. One of my biggest was rap/hip-hop music. In high school, I was bullied for my unusual appearance and not dressing or acting the part of a “gangsta” rapper. For a while, when preforming my raps, I would get so-called “fans” who were actually just making fun of me without me knowing. It turns out they found my raps hilarious because I was a passive, geeky white kid embracing hard hitting music, and that was unusual and out of place. I asked my student councillor what to do and, of course, since he’s out of the loop, he suggested dropping my public raps. I choose to take his advice, even though I shouldn’t have.
After I had graduated from high school and entered Centennial College, I was more accepted by both peers and teachers. I dropped my rap persona and, for once, became a so-called “normal kid.” That was until I met Sara, who later became my girlfriend. She, too, has a disability, although hers is physical. She was born with irritable hip syndrome, and lives with chronic pain and asthma. Sara shared her stories about the many struggles she has faced as a person with disabilities in an society orientated toward the able bodied. She taught me to be proud of who I am, and not to let people who think they are helping to stop me from achieving my dreams.
You know the old saying, “Sometimes the ones who try to help hurt the most”? It became apparent to me that many people who were trying to help were actually shielding me from my potential. Today, I’m working on my first recorded mixtape with the help of Sara, who believes that disability is not something people should be ashamed of. She taught me that I don’t need to exclude myself from things I want to do just because of my disability—that there’s no need to blame myself if I misinterpret something. She has got me to a place where I can now say I’m proud to be autistic, and I hope whoever is reading this feels the same way.
Gregory Ilyniak is a broadcasting and film graduate of Centennial College. He’s currently interning at the Canadian Abilities Foundation, putting his writing and video-editing skills to work.