As someone diagnosed with autism, I have always had “intense” or “obsessive” interests in different subject areas. As someone who is also diagnosed with several severe learning disabilities, to say I’ve struggled academically would be an understatement.
When I was a kid, I used to say “I wish I was obsessed with math instead of birds. If I were obsessed with math, I’d be really smart.”
Being logical and methodical about everything all the time can make getting along with others unnecessarily complicated. I don’t enjoy many of the things that people traditionally do to connect with each other. This causes me to feel as though I am outside of many social interactions. I can’t help but pick apart the social behaviors I witness. Since adolescence, I feel I’ve spent far more time dissecting the human experience than having one myself.
Speaking of the “human” experience, did you know that chimps in the zoo are said to get pleasure out of observing humans? Much the same as zoogoers who’ve paid the price of admission to be able to observe the chimp. While the chimp might enjoy watching the humans and have occasional moments of connection through the glass in the form of a glance or pressing a hand against the window, chimps also require enrichment to feel complete. As every zookeeper knows, fascination and curiosity about one’s environment are not the same as engaging with it in meaningful ways.
As I entered adolescence, I soon realized it wasn’t my lack of performance in academics that seemed to prevent me from having friendships. I got a better understanding of my autism diagnosis and grew to accept it. And maybe it started with the stereotype of autistic people having savant abilities, or the fact that I never did experience academic success. But I couldn’t ever shake the desire to be “smart”.
Fast forward several years, and I’m a Registered Behavior Technician now. But I’m not just any RBT, I am arguably the most competent RBT at my level that I or anyone I’ve encountered has met. When people become competent the way I am, they get their master’s degrees and move up. But I never did get to be obsessed with math. And for that reason among others, a degree is simply not an option for me.
Fast forward again. I’ve appeared on Love On The Spectrum, done countless interviews, and produced several viral videos on social media. From easily consumable definitions of medical conditions and behavioral concepts to first-hand accounts of being autistic and everyday tips and tricks including practical advice, I’ve encountered success, finally. And the overwhelming consensus from literally MILLIONS of people is….
”wow, you’re so smart.”
Humans should pursue their strengths, whether that be for personal gain or just for fulfillment. I have strengths in writing and expressive language. I am able to break down large concepts and ideas into bite-size pieces that go easy on the stomach. I was graciously given time and space to pursue these strengths. For the first time ever, I felt smart. Even in the face of interrogation about my education (or lack thereof) and the doubt about my abilities, I finally feel smart because I’ve realized my strengths and been given time to further develop them.
But what good is a talent if you don’t continue to grow? And almost anyone with any amount of experience in personal development could tell you that growth isn’t without a little pain. As a child, I remember being called “tough” because I wasn’t particularly rattled by the emotional state of others. When I’d encounter something I didn’t want to do, they’d say “do it, be tough”. And so I did because after all, I am tough, so the pains of personal and professional development won’t be enough to stop me.
They say the things you run from have a way of catching up to you. And maybe it doesn’t matter if you run from something that COULD be resolved if you’d just face it or, some disabling condition that could NOT be resolved. If you try to escape, your captor will eventually take notice and catch up to you.
I did think being smart would equate to things being easier, but in actuality, it sometimes just makes for a larger workload. And I can carry it, that is until my learning disabilities catch up to me. Preying on the fact that hungry internet consumers are never satisfied with the amount of content you produce, my learning disabilities are there while I struggle to plan short and long-term goals.
Newly acquired, important information seems to float in my brain for a couple of hours, never finding a place to land. The task in front of me seems to laugh as I frantically search for information I just had. Once I grab the information, I begrudgingly drag it back to the task, only to find that the original task has now floated away too. And to start again on a new task would certainly require environmental inspiration that cannot be found in an office setting, no matter how hard you look at your computer screen. Few people have found success with being creative at will, and I’m not one of them.
So where does that put me exactly? Struggling to tread water in my own pool. A pool I dug the hole for. I filled it with water. I insisted everyone come watch me swim, or better yet, come watch me do the high dive, only to be struggling to tread water when everyone arrives.
“Help!” I shout.
“Didn’t you want this pool, I thought you could swim?” They reply.
“I can”,” I answer, but it’s just that. –
They cut me off, “why don’t you try floating.”
“I can swim, I promise,” I said. I’m smart, I promise.
I leave the pool each day, increasingly more disappointed in myself. Maybe it’s conceded to say, but somewhere inside, even as a child, I always knew I was smart. In fact, I often feel superior to others. Which may be a bold choice for someone diagnosed with LITERAL learning and memory disabilities. But it’s true. And because academia is unwelcoming of difference and unaccommodating of disability, I’ve had to find nontraditional ways to prove my intellect to the humans on the outside of my enclosure.
Nontraditional measures of intellect are not forgiving of shortcomings. If you’re missing any of the necessary components, you will likely be passed up on for opportunity, especially if you aren’t able to gather those components independently.
But like every good disability narrative will tell you, giving up isn’t an option. Historically, many disabled people have no choice but to both literally and figuratively make their own path to success.
Why should I be any different? Like other disability advocates who came before me, I will continue working towards finding impactful ways to advocate for autistic people.
My name is Kaelynn Partlow. I live in Greenville, South Carolina. I work full time at a fabulous nonprofit organization teaching kids on the autism spectrum. I love my job and my family! I am also passionate about dog training, and work with service dogs in my free time.