Teen Skepchick Interviews: Dana Howell
This post is part of the Teen Skepchick Interviews series, where TS writers talk with amazing women scientists and skeptics about life, the universe, and everything.
April is Autism Awareness Month, so in addition to posts about common autism-related myths and the latest in autism research, we are inviting autistic women to share their experiences and what teens (and adults) can better understand about the people in their lives who are on the spectrum.
Our first interview is with Dana Howell, who did not realize she had autism until her son was diagnosed. Dana shares her experiences growing up and as an adult with Asperger’s and helps clear up some common misconceptions about autism.
What were the signs in yourself that led you, as an adult, to recognize your autism?
This test. When I take it, I score off the chart. Also the book Emotional Intelligence [by Daniel Goleman]. I read it and realized I had none.
When you were growing up, not knowing you had autism, how did you explain these traits to yourself?
I thought it was part of being one of the smart ones. I did very well in school so I explained it to myself as “Small minds discuss people, average minds discuss events, great minds discuss ideas,” as Eleanor Roosevelt put it. My mother is a narcissist who would often hold forth on different topics with the theme being, “We’re better than other people because . . .” so this fit well with the worldview I had been given.
What was your social interaction like as a teenager?
We moved to Germany when I was 15. I was doing better socially before we moved than after since I was with long-term friends. Starting over in Germany was hard. I did eventually find people I enjoyed.
Were you content with your social life as a teenager or do you wish it had been different for you?
In Germany we lived very far from school, a 45-minute drive. So everyone I knew was far away. I would have loved to live closer to school so I could see friends and not spend so much time traveling every day.
Looking back on it, perhaps the distance was a convenient excuse. Once I got to college it became clear that I was no good at dealing with people.
Do you think your life would have been different had you known more about your autism growing up? If so, in what ways?
It would have been good if I could have had the sort of social instruction counseling we’ve gotten for my son. For much of my childhood my parents had no health insurance, though, so I don’t know if they would have been willing to pay.
What, if anything, would you have liked your peers to know about autism when you were growing up?
I don’t think advertising that label to peers would have helped anything. It might have made me a target. All teens are awkward in their own way.
What, if anything, would you have liked adults (teachers, family members, etc.) to know about autism when you were growing up?
I would have loved for my mother to understand that I am different. It’s not something I’m doing to be difficult, and it’s not that I’m not trying hard enough to be social. She would ask me rhetorical things like, “Do I have to spell everything out for you?” The answer is yes, but if I’d said that, she would have gone from angry to livid. Another was, “When are you going to get off the sidelines and participate?” referring to social things. Sorry, Mom, the sidelines is where I live.
Do you find a particular mode of communication easier than others (email, online chatting, social media, telephone, etc.)?
I like written communications because I can think about what I want to say.
Do you think your teen years would have been easier if you’d had the same Internet/social media access at that time as you have now?
Wouldn’t it have been easier for all of us? The relief from isolation and ability to find more of the people we like is great for anyone.
What misconceptions about you and/or about autism, if any, would you want to clear up in general?
There are so many degrees of autism. There’s a girl in our town who is severely autistic. She does not talk and her parents lead her around by a ribbon. They hold one end and she holds the other, fascinated by it like a cat. Compared to that it feels self-pitying to even use the label. It is hard to accept that a high-functioning person has as much right to the label as she does.
Everyone in my household has Asperger’s. We all love to spend time quietly pursuing our own interests. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Do you have any advice for teens who have autism about getting through the teen years or about being an adult who has autism?
The way the numbers are going, we will be a huge fraction of the population. So don’t get too down about it. You’ve got lots of company.
Do you have any advice for teens or adults about interacting with people (of any age) who have autism?
Don’t be too easily offended. We make social mistakes unwittingly all the time. Believe us when we say we have no idea what we did wrong. Don’t go looking for ulterior motives; there aren’t any. We don’t think that far ahead, and we’re not capable of anticipating responses enough to play that game anyway.
One of the biggest problems I know of for adults with autism is workplace bullying. I know people who have been bullied out of their jobs. These people have been forced to go on disability, not because they cannot work, but because others won’t let them. This has got to change. Autism spectrum disorders should be included in ADA.
For those with severe autism, our society has to figure out how these people will receive care after their parents pass on. It isn’t fair that these parents struggle without even respite care. I have a friend in the UK who has a severely autistic daughter, much like the girl I mentioned earlier. She goes to a residential school Monday through Friday. Also respite care is provided on a regular basis. All of this is paid for by the UK National Health Service. I realize the American system providing something like this is way too much to hope for, but it would be nice.
Another aspect of my autism is I don’t really imagine things. I have no dreams or goals for my life. I know of several things I wouldn’t want to happen. The interview question, “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” is a real stumper. Five years older?
This lack of imagination can also be more concrete. My mother sewed for me when I was growing up, so she would ask, “Would you like this dress in this fabric?” My answer was always, “I don’t know.” I don’t. I can’t imagine that. Of course, she wouldn’t want to invest the time and money to make it unless she already knew I would like it, but I needed to see the finished product before I could make that judgment.
I also have some sensory issues. I’ve had my hearing tested and it’s perfect, but I have trouble understanding the dialogue in TV and films the first time through. I do much better with captioning.
I love movies but the sound is usually so loud that I get overstimulated and just want to spend the rest of the day under my bed where it’s quiet. Not literally, of course. I’ve heard in larger cities there are special movie showings for special kids. They leave the lights on and turn the sound down, and it’s okay if the kids are moving around the whole time. I would be interested in the sound part of that but no such showings are offered in my little town.
What do you think about the whole concept of Autism Awareness Month?
I didn’t know there was one. As an autistic person, my interests are limited to my interests, and autism itself, oddly enough, is not one of them.
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Dana Howell grew up an Army brat. She lives in Alabama with her husband of 20 years, two sons, and five cats.