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What It’s Like to Have Autism Spectrum Disorder

Our Relay team member Chris Nelson shares his experience as part of our “Employee Stories” series.

Chris is a Data Imaging Operator on our Document Services team in Office Solutions. His personal story about his experience in work and in life as someone who has Autism Spectrum Disorder offers great insight, and we’re grateful to have the opportunity to share it here.

“I’m so proud of Chris for his willingness to speak about autism,” said his Manager Laura Castonguay. “That he felt empowered to speak about his experience impacted our team in so many positive ways. I’m hoping that the more we are able to talk about disability as a team, as a company and as a culture, the more people will feel empowered to speak about their own unique life experiences. It helps us grow.”

Here’s Chris’ story, in his own words:

First of all what is Autism? Autism Spectrum Disorder, often referred to as ASD, is a developmental disability that can cause challenges for communication, social norms or cues, emotions, and behavior. In modern media today, there are at least two famous cases of characters who have ASD:

• In The Good Doctor we have Shaun, the protagonist, who struggles with the stress of being a brilliant surgeon.

• In The Big Bang Theory we have Sheldon, a scientific genius with Asperger Syndrome-like tendencies.

This doesn't quite paint the whole picture, though. As is the job of fiction, we are given characters who are expected to portray a dramatized version of reality. In truth, everyone is unique, and through the portrayals of ASD in fiction, it more often creates stereotypes that typically ignore the wider range of characteristics that are on the spectrum.

One of the symptoms of ASD is having difficulty with social skills. This can include initiating conversation, understanding body language, or understanding another person’s perspective.

Some of the signs and symptoms that I have personally experienced include the following:

Difficulty managing conversations: It's sometimes difficult for me to even start conversations, or sometimes my brain is so overstimulated even among those closest to me that I start to stutter. Another example is that sometimes if something is bothering me, I tend to hold it in, and someone has to basically pry it out of me. Why? It's mostly because I just want to let it go.

Difficulty making or maintaining close friendships: I've experienced this one in particular - much of my life. One minute I feel like I have friends, the next we just seem to split apart. This applies to phone calls as well, because most often I'm not the one who ends up initiating the call.

Frequent Monologues on the same subject or subjects: My stories I like to tell often, for example.

Hypersensitivity to sounds or smells: More frequently it applies to the volume/tone of someone's voice.

Preference for solitary activities: I interpret this as most often than not being more comfortable being alone than in a big group of people. Granted, I can be social when I wish to be, or work on a team when necessary. But most often I prefer to work independently.

The need to arrange items in a specific order: For me most often than not this applies to my specific placement of work supplies at my desk or how books are arranged at home.

Strict consistency to daily routines; outbursts when changes occur: I will admit this happens as well. When something becomes a routine, I have a tendency to become reliant on it. Whether it's getting to work, waking up in the morning, to how my time is spent after I get home (though during the week this is out of necessity).

It is believed that in some ways, ADHD is linked with ASD in relation to how they seem to share symptoms. I interpret it as I experience at least one or two traits (although in relation to me, I call them quirks) related to it as well.

I can be easily distracted.

Sometimes when I'm talking to someone and I notice my reflection in a mirror, my attention gets drawn to my reflection. It's not vanity … it's a bit of fascination with how my face looks while I'm talking. I can't explain why.

A part of it is how my mind works.

I've described it as "a tornado or hurricane of thoughts and words with me standing in the eye of the storm.” A lot of thoughts are going through my head at any particular time, and with a combination of these thoughts and what someone is trying to tell me, it can become overwhelming.

I have lived with ASD my whole life, and even though I had an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) during that time (in school) I was never to be given what I call special treatment in an effort to ensure that I can be on more even footing with my peers.

As such I’m not asking to be treated differently, but to be treated with respect. If I must ask for anything, however, if it's at all possible is when I'm interacted with in any form (conversations, giving of instructions, etc.) please be patient with me.

A former supervisor described what I have as a Unique Operating System ... I'd say that is true of all of us. And the best we can do is never stop learning, and treat each other with respect.

We might think that because we have a disability we are "locked" into a certain role in society. However, I can tell you that is not the case. There have been many successful individuals in the past and present with ASD – Here's a few examples:

Dan Akroyd

Tim Burton

Sir Anthony Hopkins

Jerry Seinfeld

Stanly Kubrick

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Sir Isaac Newton

Albert Einstein

There are many more, but I hope the names I have provided are enough to prove that we can find success whether we have a disability or not.

I must impress this on you again the need to treat each other with respect ... One never knows what one can become. For all we know, the next person we randomly meet on the train could be the next grand composer like Mozart, or the next great scientist like Sir Isaac Newton. We just never know.

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