In eighth grade, I discovered a new word I didn’t know existed: ‘autism’.
Beforehand, I never knew what it meant, until I asked my parents about the definition one day. When I found out, my perspective on my childhood and the world around me shifted, rather than changed completely. Learning that word gave me a sense of clarity. It explained my prescription pills, the challenges I faced compared to other students, and why I couldn’t pay attention to my teacher in class.
For those unaware, autism is a neurological disorder currently found in 1 of 100 children. It is often categorized by an impairment of communication skills and difficulty in social interaction. While the severity of it is variable between patients, symptoms of autism include (but aren’t limited to) a delay in speech during early stages of childhood, anxiety in public spaces, repetitive behaviors/actions/movements, a poor ability of maintaining eye contact, heightened sensitivity and a lack of empathy. All of these symptoms are found on the autism spectrum, which catalogues a person’s autism spectrum disorder (ASD) on a high-functioning/low-functioning scale.
You might have heard of autism in Hollywood films such as Rain Man, Mozart & the Whale, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, or even TV shows such as The Good Doctor, where the autistic character is sometimes portrayed comedically as a socially-awkward yet talented savant. While there is some truth to savant syndrome and autism spectrum disorder being often linked, it is not the same for every person on the spectrum. Not every autistic person can be Dustin Hoffman and win every game of blackjack at a casino, or even find the bravery to break away from a planned schedule in their head. It is different for everyone, just as it was for me.
After my revelation, I became depressed. My entire world had been shattered, and I was convinced everyone considered me a freak, and I held this firm belief for a long time. Then I watched a wonderful film called Temple Grandin, a biographical movie about the life and career of Mary Temple Grandin (played by Claire Danes), a woman with autism who revolutionized the humane practices of livestock in slaughterhouses and ranches. Observing how Temple’s mother resisted having her autistic daughter institutionalized, encouraging her daughter to go to college and witnessing Temple become a spokesperson for autism inspired me. It made me believe I was more than a disorder, making me feel more hopeful for the future.
To this day, I’ve unfortunately haven’t had the opportunity to meet Temple Grandin herself, but my younger brother has. He’s attended one of her visiting talks and even requested that she sign a copy of her book Thinking in Pictures for me (Thanks again, Jacob!).
Believe it or not, I originally wanted to become a magician. I wanted to entertain people by pulling them into the wonder of an illusion, which is now the same goal I yearn to accomplish in each story I create. However, it wouldn’t be until tenth grade that I decided to try writing a short story for the very first time. It didn’t seem hard to me, considering I’d often spend my lunch hours in the high school library to escape. I had already devoured almost every book on the shelves, but I craved for more stories to read. There were more stories I wanted to experience, which is when I decided to write my own.
My early writing days are currently a blur, but what I remember the most revolved how to make a story believable. I experienced every symptom of an amateur writer trying to find their style; awkward grammar, complicated stories and writing too much exposition. Each story was harder to write, but each story grew bolder and better. At the same time, I opened myself further than I ever dreamed about. Over time, I slowly realized a writer cannot tell a story about life without experiencing it. If I wanted to make a conversation more believable, or an interaction in a crowd sound more real, in order for the reader to become more engrossed into the narrative, I needed to experience the same thing my characters would.
Creative writing requires patience and the will to let an idea flow to you naturally, which compelled me to practice my craft. At the same time, it compelled me to become more patient in anxious situations. Storytelling also requires making the fictional characters seem as real as you and me. The more I interacted socially, the more I could utilize the diction and mannerisms of a conversation into my dialogue, which in turn benefited my ability to recognize facial expressions and what they mean. Every leap into a conversation improved my writing style, and every interaction in a social setting allowed me to form lasting friendships over the years.
In some way, autism helped me become a better writer and a better friend. Granted, it doesn’t change the fact I still have autism. I become uncomfortable in loud places and sometimes need someone to tell me what they mean versus what they say, which can sometimes irritate my loved ones. Nevertheless, my family, friends and colleagues are very supportive of me as a writer and as someone with high-functioning autism. They gave me the determination to achieve.
In conclusion, I do not consider myself an autistic author, but an author with autism. Ever since my awkward days of high school, it was my dream to be published. Now that I’ve accomplished this goal, I hope to become a spokesman for the autism community. I want to prove to children with autism, Asperger’s or ADHD that the disorder never should define them. They can achieve important things, meet amazing minds and treasure friendships while finding a day of solitude as equally rewarding. Writing helped me overcome many of the obstacles of my condition, which can be the same for another person on the spectrum with their passionate hobby. If you’re a parent with an autistic child, my best advice for you is to encourage their interests and let them evolve into something beautiful.
To quote my hero, Dr. Temple Grandin, “If I could snap my fingers and be non-autistic, I would not. Autism is part of what I am.”
Nathan Hopp was born and raised in Green Bay, WI, and discovered his love for literature at a young age. He’s written countless short stories and flash fictions across several years, from vignettes submitted to magazines to short stories he posts online. His debut novel, “The Adventures of Peter Gray” was published in April 2018.