New research from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine shows, that with in their sample group of 38 participants, that 8% of their participants grew out of autism. The study suggests possible variation in autistic traits. The study resonated with me because I have noticed some variation in my autistic traits over my life.
I wasn’t diagnosed until I was 35 years old, but I always knew I was different. The people around me often made it painfully obvious I was different and they made sure I was punished for that difference. I also remember variation in how much I sought out and engaged in socialization throughout my life. All of this combined allows me to look back and see variation in my own autistic traits and my own reaction to the world around me at various stages of my life. Based on my own experience, I think it might lend some validation to the findings in the research linked above.
When I was in elementary school, I struggled a great deal with socialization. I was often bullied and often times found myself playing alone at recess. I did desire to play the games other kids were playing, but I didn’t have a particularly strong desire to connect with other kids. In most cases where I made any effort to “fit in” it was mostly so I wouldn’t be treated badly. Most of my interaction with kids outside of school was an interest in engaging in a particular activity. I never really hung out with anyone just to hangout with someone. I could be fond of a another person and feel more comfortable around them, but I was also never heartbroken once they were gone. I moved a lot as a kid, and I was never upset that I lost friends.
In Jr. High I still continued to be bullied and I still didn’t have many friends. The few I had were as unpopular as I was. Even with those few friends in school, I really only spent a notable amount of time with two. As close as I was with those two friends, I never felt a major loss when I moved away. I was fond of them and comfortable with them, and I did make some minor effort to stay in contact after I moved. I only moved seven miles away, but it put me in another school district. When I moved, I did want to see my friends again, but didn’t really apply much effort. My other interests and activities were more important to me. This was a change from elementary school, where once I moved I essentially forgot about people and moved on.
In High School, I did much better socially, but I also went to a much bigger school. I wasn’t bullied and people were more receptive to me. I made more friends, and forged some of the closest friendships I have ever had. I am still friends with those people today. I drifted through High School as barely a blip on most people’s radar, which was just fine with me. Not being tormented and not being bothered by a ton of people was exactly where I wanted to be. One marked difference in High School was that I did actually seek out social interaction. I was still awkward and weird about it, but I did seek it out. I actually looked forward to interacting with people more often. I wanted deeper and more meaningful friendships. I was also less anxious about social interaction, though the anxiety was still there.
I did find some of the social activity of High Schoolers annoying or nonsensical. I had no desire to date in High School. I had a few short lived girlfriends in Jr. High, but I did that more because of curiosity about dating and the girls seemed nice enough. In High School, I just saw dating as pointless and too much effort. Based on my experience in Jr. High, I clearly didn’t posses the skills to keep a long term relationship going. I didn’t see how that would have changed in High School. I also saw no future with in anyone I would date. It seemed that it was very likely that a High School relationship wouldn’t last beyond graduation. I really had no desire to put energy into something, and someone, for it just to very likely end in failure.
I did date someone senior year, though I did so on a bet of principle. A good acquaintance of mine went on and on about love being the greatest thing ever and that I was missing out. According to him it was something I needed to experience. I agreed to give it shot based on his argument about the experience. I thought it might be worth trying now that I was older. I did date a girl for about 8 months and I did have feelings for her. I did end up being right though. The relationship ended badly, I was heart broken, I had given up time with good friends to spend with a girl who didn’t like my friends, and it was tremendously emotionally devastating for me. That relationship did more damage than good. I won the bet of principle.
The trend of not possessing the skills for a lasting romantic relationship would continue through much of my twenties. Though I did actively seek out romantic relationships. At the same time I was slowly withdrawing more from making friends by my mid twenties. The height of my socialization was in my early twenties, when I partied a lot and went to clubs and bars. At that point, I could tolerate the assault of my senses.
In my thirties I finally got to a place where I could make better choices in my romantic partners and possessed the skills to carry on a healthy romantic relationship, but I also started having a hard time making friends and my desire to make friends drastically decreased. I did make some friends but it was a very slow process. Now, in my late thirties, I have to make an effort to find and maintain friendships. This is something I do for two reasons, occasionally I find people who are interesting and fun, and I need to interact with people so I don’t get out of practice. I’m in college and could almost entirely avoid interacting with people if I choose to, and I often choose to.
I no longer live near my friends from High School, but I think about them often. I make a strong effort to see them when I go back home and still consider them an important part of my life. Yet, I don’t feel a deep sense of loss that they aren’t in my life more frequently. I haven’t replaced them, and consider them irreplaceable, I just don’t require interaction for interactions sake. I would rather my interaction with them be meaningful as opposed to going through the motions.
So, looking back I can see variation in how my autism effected my relationships, ability to socialize, my thoughts and feelings about socialization, and other traits I haven’t discussed. It seems to me that it’s not static. I would also argue that something similar happens to most non-autistics and should really be no surprise that it happens to autistics too. Perhaps those on the cusp of autism could very well move out of autism as they get older.
One of my criticisms of the study, is that it doesn’t chart autism over a longer life. Those children might have developed to a point that they no longer meet the DSM’s criteria for autism, but it may not mean they aren’t autistic anymore. They may very well begin to see those traits return in intensity later in life. It would also be great to consider the external factors in the autistics life that may contribute to variation. For most of my life, I could be a social butterfly with people I was comfortable with, but a wall flower at group events. I also had many factors in my childhood that could inflame autistic traits. Many autistics can relate to how certain conditions can make autistic traits more or less severe. Either way, the study is interesting and it’s worth tracking where the findings could lead.