When I was diagnosed with what used to be called Asperger’s Syndrome in the third grade back in 2002, autism was not well-known. My parents had noticed some quirks when I was a toddler, such as the very common autistic behavior called arm-flapping. When a person on the autism spectrum flaps their hands and arms, it means they are releasing energy from their overstimulated brains in response to sensory overload. After I was diagnosed, I was enrolled in Speech Therapy to learn the social skills that non-autistic people know innately.
I learned how to socialize out of an educational social skills book, because when it comes to people that are higher-functioning on the spectrum, they can learn the skills necessary to function in a communication-oriented society. It takes years of hard work, discipline and practice, depending on one’s diagnosis. I was in Speech Therapy from grades 3 to 12, and it was a long road to teach me the skills. My Speech Therapist would often remark to me that I would look at the ceiling behind her instead of at her, which goes along with the symptom of struggling with proper eye contact in a conversation. As far as the arm-flapping is concerned, it is sometimes considered an abnormal hand mannerism, so people on the spectrum are taught to self-control it and find a more socially acceptable way to release their energy. I have learned to self-control the arm-flapping over the years, having been suggested to do it in the privacy of my own home rather than in public.
My parents have told me that I have progressed through that issue, and other symptoms I showed for several years. One of those issues was only talking about myself and my specialized area of interest, one of the main symptoms people on the spectrum cope with, for years. My specialized area of interest is professional wrestling, which I could talk about for hours on end. I’ve been taught to talk about other topics too, which makes it easier for me to form friendships. To the non-autistic population, it is common knowledge that friendship is a two-way street and that back-and-forth conversations are vital to forming relationships. People on the spectrum have a harder time recognizing those aspects of social skills and putting them into practice, which is where it can be harder for them to form friendships.
At the beginning of high school, I was still dealing with self-esteem issues from being teased in junior high, so it was harder for me to see that my peers were attempting to get me out of my shell. That changed in the middle of my junior year when I was included in a nice stretch limousine for my Junior Prom. I went to this prom as a single with many couples, and I discovered that night that perhaps I had more friends than I initially realized. I was still in Special Education, but that did not stop my peers from befriending me. I graduated from high school to a loud ovation, which I appreciated because it showed me that I was well-liked after all. After high school, I attended a community college where I began making more friends and developing my self-esteem. I still had some social awareness issues, but they were not enough to deter my progress.
After graduating from a community college, I transferred to a four-year college as a resident student. After I moved into the dorm I lived in for my first semester, I met some guys that played for the college’s lacrosse team that changed my perception of myself as far as my social capabilities are concerned. I started realizing that I did not have to define nor label myself as just an autistic person. It is within me, but I can make it a positive if I present it that way. Over the next two years, I made it my mission to be social around campus to prove a point and get the chip off my shoulder; I may be on the autism spectrum and a little quirky, but why can’t I make friends anyway? I did make friends and I ended up earning the 2015-2016 “Resident of the Year” Award from this college. I graduated in 2017 with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication, which I am very humbled and honored to have accomplished.
I am very interested in representing people on the autism spectrum because I remember what it was like to be misjudged for a long time and feel as if I am inferior to non-autistic people. I know now that is far from the truth and I will be liked for who I am. There has yet to be a cure discovered for autism, so I have accepted that I will always be on the spectrum and that is okay with me. I think I should like myself the way I am.
Michael Westwood is a 25 year old college graduate from Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication. Independent of being a contributor to Step Up, he is looking to pursue a career in professional writing of some type. His hobbies include watching professional wrestling (e.g. WWE and other promotions) and watching select TV sitcoms from today's television (e.g. Big Bang Theory, The Goldbergs) and classic programs as well (e.g. Seinfeld, Frasier, Everybody Loves Raymond). He also has an ongoing online forum designed to inform people about the autism spectrum called "Ask Mike," which is part of an autism awareness group called All 4 Autism, which is based in Florence, South Carolina.