Life with Autism, Culinary Arts, Cats, and Candles

In yesterday’s post I dropped a metaphorical bombshell about the fact that I’m autistic. I thought I would elaborate on this in today’s post. While I am on the high performing autistic spectrum, I wasn’t clinically diagnosed with autism until I was 54. That was six years ago.

What is autism? Autism is a neurological disorder that’s characterized by issues with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication. According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in fifty-four people are autistic

My childhood was emotionally quite rough. To be fair to my parents, autism wasn’t even considered a diagnosis on the DSM until 1980 when I was already twenty years old. The DSM is the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual of Mental Disorders. This comprehensive reference book is used by mental health specialists to diagnose and treat disorders.

Although my parents knew that I was different, they didn’t know why I was the way I was. As a child I know in retrospect that I exhibited a lot of autistic symptoms. I didn’t make eye contact. I didn’t smile. I got upset over relatively minor things such as the time that dinner ran late and wasn’t served precisely at 6 PM.

My parents were socially conservative. They didn’t believe in psychology and never sought a clinical diagnosis for me. While they tolerated some of my eccentricities such as not smiling or making eye contact, they drew the line with what I now understand to be self-stimming. Self stimming involves repetitive behaviors or spoken words or phrases that people with ASD perform in an effort to calm themselves. Since most of us don’t like to be touched, self stimming is a way of eliciting the emotion a neurotypical (non-autistic person) might get from being hugged.

When I was a toddler, I self stimmed by flapping my hands or violently shaking my head. My parents didn’t like this and whenever I behaved this way, they’d ask me to stop. If I didn’t stop, Dad would pull off his belt or Mom would get her yardstick. One of them would then beat me until I stopped.

During the 60’s this was known as “tough parenting.” Today this would have been considered child abuse.

Since I had a reclusive and introverted personality, my parents arranged play dates for me when I was a toddler. When I was older they made me play outside instead of allowing me to hide in my room where I could escape from reality by reading science fiction novels by Andre Norton and Robert Heinlein.

My parents made me take swimming lessons. After I learned how to swim they made me take life guard training through the Red Cross. They made me learn to ride a horse. They also forced me to join the scouts.

Yours truly in the 4th grade

Pictured right is my school picture from when I was in the 4th grade. Since my father was a serving medical officer in the U.S. military who specialized in tropical medicine, I spent a good part of my childhood in Bangkok, Thailand where I attended the ISB, the International School of Bangkok.

During one particularly awkward summer after having completed the 4th grade, my mother enrolled me in a gymnastics class. I was the only boy in a class filled with girls in pink leotards. I am fortunate that the gymnastics teacher allowed me to wear shorts and a t-shirt instead of making me wear tights. I was doubly fortunate because I was able to talk my father into letting me drop out before the instructor put on a production of Swan Lake. As it is, I still wince at the sight of a dance studio or a ballerina.

Although I would have preferred to spend my childhood in my bedroom with my books and my N-scale train set, I understand in retrospect that the actions undertaken by my parents to make me socialize taught me valuable skills. In forcing me to interact with others, I learned how to work as part of a cooperative group. I learned how to listen, how to take turns, and how to behave in small group settings.

I had my first visit with a psychologist while I was in college. The psychologist diagnosed me with social anxiety disorder. In later years I was also diagnosed with depression.

While both diagnoses were technically correct, both were actually symptoms of a larger problem i.e. autism. Being socially awkward and suffering from anxiety in social situations are part and parcel with being autistic. It doesn’t help that I have facial blindness and that people of a similar ethnicity, age, and gender all look alike to me. I’m not good at understanding body language. Despite a lifetime of experience, I also have challenges in understanding when someone is being sarcastic. None of these deficiencies help with my ability to communicate. All of these problems add to my overall levels of stress whenever I have to interact with anyone.

My depression arose from the fact that I couldn’t figure out why I could never manage to fit in. When I was in my 20’s and 30’s, other people my age had lots of friends. They dated. They married. They started families.

In contrast I have never had many friends. The few relationships I’ve had have all invariably floundered. It was incredibly depressing not to understand why I was the way I was.

In terms of employment, I have spent most of my adult life as a teacher. I just finished my 31st year in the profession. I’m dual certified as an elementary teacher with 17 years on the job. This includes 8 years in which I taught abroad at international American schools in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. I’m also certified as a high school teacher and have now taught Culinary Arts for 14 years. I have an Associate’s in Culinary Arts, a Bachelor’s in Education, and a Master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction.

When I was 54 I received a new student in my Culinary Arts class. The student had an IEP (individual education plan) and in looking at his IEP, I noted that he was autistic.

Since I didn’t know what autism was, I googled it. As I scrolled through the symptoms, I found myself relating to everything I read.

Autistic symptoms included:

  • finding it hard to understand what others are thinking or feeling
  • getting very anxious about social situations
  • finding it hard to make friends or preferring to be on your own
  • seeming blunt, rude or not interested in others without meaning to
  • finding it hard to say how you feel
  • taking things very literally – for example, you may not understand sarcasm or phrases like “break a leg”
  • having the same routine every day and getting very anxious if it changes
  • avoiding eye contact
  • getting upset if someone touches or gets too close to you
  • noticing small details, patterns, smells, or sounds that others do not
  • having a keen interest in certain activities or subjects (such as Culinary Arts and food themed candle production)
  • liking to plan things carefully before doing them
  • not always understanding social conventions.

I took an on-line autistic test and found that I was likely to be autistic. The information that was provided with the test results advised me to seek a clinical diagnosis.

This was easier said than done for several reasons.

  1. Most clinicians only work with children. Children are apparently a lot easier to diagnose than adults.
  2. My health insurance provider wouldn’t cover the cost of a diagnosis. They argued that since I had already spent all of my adult life working, I had a “pre-existing” condition which didn’t warrant the expense of a diagnosis. I had to pay for my own diagnosis. This cost $1300.

The evaluation took about 5 hours to complete with a one hour break for lunch. Some of the tests were administered in person by the clinical diagnostician. Others were taken on-line. In addition to personality tests and IQ tests were tests for short term memory and problem solving. The evaluation was concluded with an interview.

“I’m a bit behind in my paperwork,” observed the doctor when she finished. “I’ll have your evaluation completed within two months.”

The idea of having to wait for two months just to find out if I was autistic seemed dreadful. “Could you at least give me the bottom line?” I asked. “Am I autistic?”

The clinician nodded. “Oh yes. You’re definitely on the spectrum.” These words came as a huge relief. As you might imagine, I had a great many ah-hah moments as I reflected upon the course of my life and understood why I had made the personal and career choices that I had. After learning that I was autistic, my depression went pfftt and utterly disappeared. Now that I know why I am the way I am, there was no longer any reason to be depressed. Six years have now passed and at 60 years of age, I remain free of depression.

After learning that I was autistic, I immediately undertook changes in my life to reduce my overall levels of stress.

  1. I transferred within my school district from an overcrowded affluent suburban high school (where my smallest class had 45 students and my largest class had 54) to a small rural school that was literally 1/10th the size of my previous campus. Although class sizes vary from one year to the next, my smallest class has had only 2 students. My largest class has had 24.
  2. My building administrator and colleagues know that I’m autistic. I’ve filed a copy of my diagnosis with my school district’s office for accommodations and diversity. As someone who is technically disabled, I am accorded rights for reasonable workplace accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act. My accommodations include not having to attend faculty meetings in-person. I am allowed to attend them virtually. While other teachers are expected to attend home games, to volunteer to man the concession stand or to sell tickets, no such expectations apply to me. I am also excused from attending pep rallies, assemblies, and proms.
  3. I used the move as an excuse to end the one friendship that I had. Although I am on a cordial basis with most of my colleagues, I have made no effort to make new friends at my current location.
  4. The time not spent with friends (or dating) provides extra time for puttering about in the kitchen. Prior to having my doctor put me on a keto diet, I enjoyed testing out new recipes at home. Pictured above are a composed cucumber salad and Poulet Sauté Chasseur (Hunter’s Chicken). Now that I’m on a carbohydrate restricted diet, I spend most of my time in my home kitchen making candles that look and smell like real food. Pictured below are some of my recent candles. From top left going clockwise, these candles include: Brownie a la mode, garlic toast topped with BBQ pork, sweet potato, macaroni and cheese, grilled steak topped with mushrooms and bacon, beef with shrimp, and orange chicken with shrimp.

While there are people on the autistic spectrum who aspire to have busy social lives, to get married, and to raise a family; I’ve never been interested in any of these things. Prior to being diagnosed with autism, I had a handful of friends and pursued relationships because social convention and norm expectations said that this was what I was supposed to do.

It wasn’t until I learned that I was autistic that I found myself embracing a new path. Whenever I’m not at work, I’m usually at home. Outside of work I have become a reclusive introvert. I used to socialize via Reddit but no longer do this after having run afoul of some internet trolls.

Since I have four cats, I’m not precisely alone. Strangely enough, while I don’t enjoy being touched (let alone embraced) by people, I don’t mind this with cats. Pictured below are all of my fur babies.

My favorite place in my home (outside of the kitchen and my candle making workshop) is the den. When I’m not making candles, I enjoy relaxing in my lazy boy recliner while either reading an e-book or watching TV. Whenever I’m on my recliner I often have one or more cats as company. They enjoy lying on my lap, throwing their paws over my shoulder in the occasional hug, or relaxing beside me on one of the wide arm rests. They are pleasant companions and they provide all of the companionship that I want or need.

If you have read this far, please don’t feel sorry for me. I have a good life and am able to live independently on my own terms. Here are some sobering statistics about autism that may help with putting the quality of my life into perspective.

  • 85% of people with ASD who are in their 20’s have lived or continue to live with their parents.
  • 42% of autistic people in their 20’s are unemployed.
  • 80% of those who are employed are working for low wages in what are often part-time jobs.
  • In 2018, 85% of autistic college graduates were unemployed compared to the national unemployment rate of 4.5%.
  • Overall employment rates for people with ASD continue to lag significantly behind people with other disabilities.

To quote Dr. Temple Grandin who is arguably the oldest autism advocate in the country, “I am different but not less.”

While I will never understand the allure of an interpersonal relationship or why anyone would ever want to start a family, my life is productive and full. My only regret is that I wish I had known that I was autistic much earlier in life. If I had know that I was autistic, I might have made some different career choices that would have allowed me to comfortably retire after turning 60. As it is, I will likely have to continue working until I’m in my 70’s in order to qualify for a 20 year pension with my current school district.

If my candle making business proves successful, it’s possible that I could retire from education at an earlier date while still working to produce food themed candles. It will be interesting to see how all of this plays out.

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