I Don’t 'Have' Autism -- I Am Autistic

by Joe James
Courtesy of Joe James

Where do I begin? And where does my Autism end?

I was “diagnosed” seven years ago, at the ripe old age of 32. It was my wife, Sylvia, who first realized I might be Autistic. She was watching a TV show about Autistic children, and she said, “That little boy is just like you.” She could not have been more correct.

A year later, I had the answer to so many of my questions. It was a lightbulb moment that changed my life.

At the beginning, it was great. I had Autism, and decided to tell everyone. Not–as you may think–because I was proud, but because I could show people that there was a reason for all the things I did wrong.

I was so focused on making people feel guilty for doubting me, or making me feel bad, that I lost track of the reason I was assessed in the first place. Rather than having a moment of self-discovery moment, I just rubbed it in people’s faces. I wanted to show them that being annoying wasn’t my fault (which, ironically, was annoying in itself).

Courtesy of Joe James

Once all the people who had made me feel bad were duly informed of my “disability” (I had no idea how it made me disabled at the time, all I knew was it was called a disability), I finally started to focus on what being Autistic meant to me. This was a big problem, as I suddenly realized I didn’t know who I really was. All my life, I had thought I knew who I was. I was the cocky guy, the angry guy, the sensitive guy, the hard-working guy, the dad, the husband, the brother, and the son. But this thing that I was told I “have” threw a wrench in the works. Who was I?

If so many of the things I did were because of my Autism, then am I Joe or am I Autism?

This separation of myself from my neurodiversity (a word I was yet to learn) began to weigh heavy on my mind. It became my obsession, it dominated my thinking. “Did I do that because I’m Joe? Or did my Autism make me do that?” Over and over, I would analyze my every action, my every interaction, my every thought.

For years, this plagued me and led to some seriously dark moments. I hated my Autism one moment, then accepted it the next. One day I would want a pill to take it away, the next day I would have taken a pill to keep it forever. I was being torn in two because I had separated my Autism from my self.

In 2018, it all came to a head. I had made a mistake at work, and my Autism was apparently to blame. I didn’t think this was the case, but my boss told me that it must be. I accepted what he said, and promised myself that I would leave my Autism at home when I came to work.

Obviously, that was impossible. Trying to force this complete separation ended up with me having full-blown depression.

Then I started taking photos.

First on my phone, then on a DSLR Canon camera. I got good, very fast. For many weeks, I pondered how this happened. Then I thought about all the other things I got good at really quickly, and how they were possible. It became clear to me that my Autism was why, and also being Joe was why. My Autism helped me hyper-focus, intensely learn, and have the ability to emulate what I saw. Having that, alongside the determination and drive that came naturally to me, created the perfect combination for success.

So I decided that there was no Autism, there was no Joe. They were the same person, they were all part of me, and I am me because of my Autism and my uniqueness. I didn’t “have” Autism–I was Autistic. It was so freeing to accept this, and my mental health improved rapidly. Knowing who I really am made all the difference to me, and I have gone on to do so many amazing things I never dreamt possible. But I will never forget the pain I used to feel, when I believed I had something wrong with me and it was hurting me and others around me. My neurodiversity never hurt anyone: my trauma, my sadness and my anger at not knowing who I am hurt me and others around me.

This is my journey, it is my personal experience. Other people will have their own battles and their own journeys. I just hope that by sharing mine, it may help someone along theirs.