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ASPartOfMe
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30 May 2021, 7:26 am

’I felt like an alien abandoned in this world’: An autistic man’s quest to be ‘human’

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Through his childhood and adolescence, Eric Chen was sure he did not belong on Earth.

He had hoped for a spaceship to descend and take him back to his “home planet”. And he is hardly joking.

I felt like an alien abandoned in this world,” says Eric, now 38. “Unfortunately, there’s no radio I can call on for help. I’m basically stuck in this world to put up with all these weird, irrational people.”

Put up he did — until he was 18 years old and obtained a diagnosis. On the brink of adulthood, he finally put his finger on why he could not make sense of the world. He had an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

“I needed an answer so that all the bad things that had happened to me, I can (attribute) to autism,” he tells CNA Insider. Things like being unable to tie his shoelaces, understand instructions or make friends.

He looks up ever so slightly, as he does every time he finishes a thought. With 20 years of “work” done on himself since his diagnosis, making eye contact is less of a chore.

Before his “awakening” (and there were many more, he adds), Eric would have described himself as robotic.

Puzzled as to how the world worked, he shut himself off and was “driven by instructions” from his parents or teachers. On the outside, he was quiet and compliant. But on the inside, there were bizarre sensations he could not process, much less describe.

“Processing the meaning and interpretation of words, and finally a translation of the words into action, is a complicated process that people take for granted,” he said. “But autistic people often struggle with it.”

And so he always made mistakes. When his mother asked him to wipe the table, he would wipe the entire table, instead of the one spot of spilt water.

“My mother would say things to me like, ‘Your boss will fire you next time. I have to repeat myself so many times for you to know what you should and shouldn’t do. Just listen and follow instructions,’” he recalls. But to him, he was doing as he was told.

When his teachers gave him homework, he would be able to take down only half their instructions.

“There’s this strange thing. It’s like you’re listening in English and then suddenly the English becomes some foreign language. And whatever the teacher says doesn’t get written down,” he says.

No one seemed to stop to think about whether he had a disability — only that he was clumsy.

And that thing called feelings? It was a more ethereal concept than him being an alien.

Maybe not to all autistic people, but to those like myself who are disconnected, it feels like there’s an invisible parallel universe where there are things like emotions, where relationships exists, where people see things I can’t see,” he says.

“I may feel some emotions, but they’re quite vague … It’s like wearing thick gloves and trying to feel something, but you can’t feel it properly.”

When classmates picked on him, passing his schoolbag around and taunting him about it, he had no idea it was bullying. He had no idea he was feeling a rush of anger. He could only wait for it to “disappear into a black hole”.

Eric threw himself into books, chores and homework — notwithstanding his fumbling — or observed insects because the world was “aimless” and “disconnected”.

“I just wanted to focus on things that can bring coherence and order. And that would just be to do things,” he says.

Little did he know that reading was going to help him accept this “irrational” world, and his place in it.

At Secondary Three, a friend lent him The Einstein Factor, and it flicked the first of many switches in him.

“You don’t have to rely on others to make choices when you can choose your own future,” the book read, roughly paraphrased. “That insight changed everything,” he recalls.

“I suddenly could think for myself. So instead of freezing there and waiting for inputs, I could unfreeze myself and start solving problems.”

Just before he entered National Service in 2002, another book, Conversations with God, came along.

“It inspired me to look at the world in a different way,” he says. “I don’t see myself as serving a sentence where I have to suffer.”

Since Eric’s epiphany, a series of breakthroughs have happened for him.

While people “usually” think of emotions as “hindering them from being rational”, he wanted to “go the other way … to develop”. “(Being rational) was hindering me,” he says. “I had to be more emotional, more imperfect to become more human.

Then, some three years after his diagnosis, “the world came together” for him. He was at a bus stop crowded with people, and he suddenly felt as if he was “reading their minds — what the person might be thinking”.

He did not have to go through several steps in his head before understanding non-verbal cues. It came to him almost as second nature, but not completely. “It may still be limited,” he says.

“Because most (neurotypical people) were already used to (understanding non-verbal cues directly) when they were kids. They’re very familiar with it, but I only came upon it in the past few years. So I still need a lot of practice.”

Eric is now a freelance life coach, photographer, information technology consultant, psychometric testing consultant and full-time autism advocate.

He wants to help “autistics find their own way in life that allows them to thrive”. To this end, he co-founded the WhatsApp Autism Community, a one-stop resource where interested parties can join chat groups for support.

The groups’ discussions include general knowledge, investments, insurance, sports and autism advocacy. There are also carer-focused groups where participants can talk about schooling, NS and relationships, to name a few.

Eric runs the community with nine others, eight of whom are autistic. His hope is that more autistics like him will be engaged, as they “hold the key to helping those with low support needs”.

“There’s this vast pool of hidden resources: People who’ve managed to … adapt,” he cites. They have found a way to get jobs, have meaningful relationships or start a family, “doing things that (neurotypical people) would naturally do”.

“Lawyers, doctors, educators, fitness trainers — all these people from all walks of life write to me. They just don’t want to tell people they’re autistic,” he says.

“Why would they want to … be exposed to discrimination or have problems with their insurance applications?”

For his part, he would like to create change, even at “great personal cost to (himself)”. He says: “This is a calling for me — to find a way for autistic people who are ready to enter the neurotypical, non-autistic world.”

He knows his ideas are controversial.

Even as more autistics learn to advocate for themselves, some feel that they should not be measured by neurotypical standards in the first place. In the autism community, ableism — discrimination in favour of able-bodied people — is a cause for concern.

While Eric welcomes more support for ASD, like the Autism Enabling Masterplan launched this year, he is a little concerned.

This support has to be balanced, (so) that we don’t make it the expectation that autistic people can always count on support from the non-autistic world,” he says. “They should be inspired to break the limitations they have.”

For example, in the long run, autistic job coaches should, ideally, be the ones engaged to guide other autistics through the workplace environment, he cites.

“If you’re an autistic job coach, you understand based on your past experiences why your new autistic colleague would have trouble and how you can coach that person better.”

On the question of making exceptions for autistic individuals, he thinks it is “a chicken and egg issue”. He notes: “People have certain ideas (about autism) that are very deeply ingrained.”

For him, there is no time to waste waiting for the other side to change. In calling on autistics to enter the neurotypical world, he wants people to have options.

“For autistics with limited capacity to learn, don’t force them to change. They have needs that’ll be with them for the rest of their lives,” he says.

“But there should be support for people who’d choose to do what disability usually prevents them from doing … Yes, I’m proud of who I am (as an autistic person), but I know how I am doesn’t help me.

“The way I was interacting wasn’t helping. The way I communicate with people has to be improved … not because I want people to accept me, but because I want to work with other people to create change, to make the world better.”

What he wants is to connect autistic and neurotypical people. “Building that bridge allows me to see them, and maybe allows them to see me too,” he says.

What he wants is to be seen as an equal.

A lot to unpack. A “third way” between autism is a curse that needs to be cured and until that happens lessened as much as possible and be completely ourselves. I guess I am in a “third way” camp but don’t know if I am in or near Eric’s. I view learning NT skills not as an evil sellout but purely as a tool to get things. Eric seems to view getting along with NT’ as THE goal. I can not envision having the experience Eric had where one day I have an almost religious type revelation and start understanding NT’s. Whatever I have learned about NT’s has been through train and error, and error, and error. But maybe me and Eric are closer in viewing the world then I think at the moment. The differences maybe more about his wording, or the differences between Singapore and America the actual differences. Who can be against Eric’s setup of autistics coaching other autistics?


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Professionally Identified and joined WP August 26, 2013
DSM 5: Autism Spectrum Disorder, DSM IV: Aspergers Moderate Severity.

“My autism is not a superpower. It also isn’t some kind of god-forsaken, endless fountain of suffering inflicted on my family. It’s just part of who I am as a person”. - Sara Luterman


carlos55
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30 May 2021, 3:07 pm

ASPartOfMe wrote:
I view learning NT skills not as an evil sellout but purely as a tool to get things.


Yes that is true unless one wants to spend the rest of their lives living in a bubble relying on family for everything.

For others with fewer self living skills there is the internet as well of course but one day the older parent bill payer wont be around to pay the rent or bills, then its game over.