I was recently asked by a 14-year-old who had just been diagnosed autistic what advice I had to give. This is what I said.
The thing that helped me most was understanding myself and talking to other autistic people, so you’re already well on that road.
The more you learn about yourself, the more you learn about how you *learn*… meaning that you can become better at teaching yourself to communicate with neurotypicals.
Remember though: The goal is to communicate. Blending in is secondary, or even irrelevant, depending on your priorities. If you can get your ideas from your brain to theirs, and understand what they’re saying, and live in the world peacefully without hurting anyone and without putting yourself in danger, then it does not matter how different you are or how differently you do things.
Autistic is not better and not worse than neurotypical; it’s simply different. Having a disability is a normal part of human life; it’s nothing to be proud of and nothing to be ashamed of. Disability doesn’t stop you from being talented or from becoming unusually skilled, especially with practice. Being different means that you see things from a different perspective, which means that as you grow and gain experience you will be able to provide solutions to problems that other people simply don’t see, to contribute skills that most people don’t have.
Learn to advocate for yourself. If you have an IEP, go to the meetings and ask questions about what help is available and what problems you have. When you are mistreated, go to someone you trust and ask for help; and if you can’t get help, protect yourself as best you can. Learn to stand up for yourself, to keep other people from taking advantage of you. Also learn to help other people stay safe.
Your best social connections now will be anyone who treats you with kindness. You can tell whether someone is kind by observing how they treat those they have power over when nobody, or nobody with much influence, is watching. You want people who are honest, or who only lie when they are trying to protect others’ feelings. Talk to these people; explain that you are not very good with social things and that you sometimes embarrass yourself or accidentally insult people, and that you would like them to tell you when you are doing something clumsy, offensive, confusing, or cringeworthy. Explain to these people that you would prefer to know about mistakes you are making, because if you are not told you will never be able to correct those mistakes.
Learn to apologize, and learn that an apology simply means, “I recognize I have made a mistake and shall work to correct it in the future.” An apology is not a sign of failure or an admission of inferiority. Sometimes an apology can even mean, “I have made a mistake that I could not control; if I had been able to control it, I would not have made the mistake.” Therefore, it is okay to apologize if you have simply made an honest mistake. The best apology includes an explanation of how you will fix your mistake or what you will change to keep it from happening in the future.
Learn not to apologize when you have done nothing wrong. Do not apologize for being different, for standing up for yourself or for other people, or for having an opinion others disagree with. You do not need to justify your existence. You should never give in to the pressure to say, “I am autistic, but that’s okay because I have this skill and that talent.” The correct statement is, “I am autistic, and that is okay.” You don’t need to do anything to be valuable. You just need to be human.
If someone uses you to fulfill their own desires but doesn’t give things back in return; if someone doesn’t care about your needs when you tell them; if someone can tell you are hurt and doesn’t care; then that is a person you cannot trust.
In general, you can expect your teen years to be harder than your young-adult years. As you grow and gain experience, you’ll gain skills and you’ll gather a library of techniques to help you navigate the social and sensory world, to help you deal with your emotions and with your relationships. You will never be perfect–but then, nobody is. What you’re aiming for is useful, functional skills, in whatever form they take, whether they are the typical way of doing things or not. As the saying goes: If it looks stupid but it works, it isn’t stupid.
Keep trying. Take good care of yourself. When you are tired, rest. Learn to push yourself to your limits, but not beyond; and learn where those limits are. When you are tired from something that would not tire a neurotypical, be unashamed about your need for down time. Learn to say “no” when you don’t want something, and learn to say “yes” when you want something but you are a little bit intimidated by it because it is new or complicated or unpredictable. Learn to accept failure and learn from it. Help others. Make your world better. Make your own way. Grow. Live.
You’ll be okay.