Nikki Erece shares her personal journey as a transfer student and Administration of Justice alumna, and how coming home to #UHHilo was one of the best decisions she ever made.
Through a Unique Pair of Eyes: My Experience with High Functioning Autism
By: Jacinda Angelsberg
Imagine what it would feel like to live in a world that seems “alien” where communication is a foreign language. This is what individuals with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) like myself experience on a daily basis as we ponder about the complexities of social interactions. From my experience with ASD and depression, I have developed immense gratitude for having the opportunity to attend psychology courses taught by wonderful professors at UH Hilo that have inspired me to become an advocate for the voiceless. Also, my mother’s positivity had contributed to me overcoming adversity by transforming some of my deficits into linguistic strengths. Finding my talent of perceiving the world with a uniquely compassionate pair of eyes has enabled me to embrace and find beauty in neurodiversity. Thus, I hope that my life-story will inspire you to focus on what you “can do” instead of what you “can’t do.” Do not speak badly to your mind. This is because the spiritual warrior within your soul can become lessened by these degrading words. For flowers of self-love to grow, you must clear out your mind’s weeds of negativity. Loving yourself is not about fixing or finding out what is “wrong” with you; it is about finding out what is “right” with you.
Before I was born, my mother dreamt of a little girl standing in front of her bookshelf filled with novels of all kinds. Upon being conceived as a premature infant who weighed merely 4.5 pounds, I screamed at the top of my lungs from the over-stimulating brightness of the hospital’s fluorescent lights and the umbilical cord being tightly wrapped around my feet. After loudly awaking the other newborns in the intensive care unit, the uncomfortable sensation of being held in the frustrated nurse’s arms as she briskly returned me back to my mother made me cry hysterically. Deep down inside, she sensed that something was “off.” However, rather than having the initial reaction of rejecting her baby simply because of her atypicality, she thought to herself, “I know that she is different. And, I will always love her for who she is.”
Ever since I came out of the womb, my mother has shown me undying patience, empathy, and nurturing. Shortly after I turned two, her premonition for my fascination with reading came true. She intuitively knew that it would aid in my cognitive development and fuel my penchant for writing. Tenaciously working long graveyard-shifts as an ultrasound technologist and a single-mother, she never forgot to read me books when she returned home. This would soothe my soul from all the sensory difficulties that I experienced each day. Reading to me made the chaotic, ear-splitting sounds of the outside environment, and the unbearable texture of my clothes that felt like knives penetrating my skin temporarily fade away.
Fast-forwarding to high school, I did not perform well on standardized tests due to my delayed processing and comprehension-challenges. Yet, this did not bring me down since my encouraging, wise Japanese teacher told me that I did not have a “standardized mind.” With great appreciation for my mother inspiring me to never give up, I read passages multiple times until I understood them, and I “rewired” my brain. This has ultimately led to me becoming a true bibliophile at heart and a poet. Now, my room is stacked with a vast array of psychology, shamanic, and botanical books.
At times, I may be wordless. My hands speak louder than my mouth, but I am not heard less. Through writing, I have found my voice. As you can see, we all have a profound purpose here on Earth: to find our gift and to give it away. Every human being possesses a remarkable talent. Therefore, we must search for it within ourselves since the soul has the answer.
Also, I have had significantly impaired fine-motor coordination from a young age. Still to this day, it is rather difficult for me to unlock doors with keys, use a knife and a fork at the same time while cutting food, unbuttoning clothing with finesse, opening the plastic grocery-store bags for produce, using a flat-iron, and many other daily activities that too many of us take for granted. Moving the part that puts a car’s transmission into “park” or “drive,” hyperfocusing on external distractions, and adjusting my seat with the lever are some challenges that impede me from driving. I was also unskilled in team-sports due to the complexity of understanding the rules and my lack of coordination. However, I became very skillful in mixed martial arts with practice. Starting boxing from an early age and learning balancing poses by practicing forms such as “statue of the crane” in karate has improved my balance and movement. Even though I cannot ride a bike, I am good at stand-up-paddle-boarding, long-boarding, and yoga. As I walk to the beat of my own drum, l embrace my clumsiness!
In music class, I was unable to use multiple fingers at once to play the piano. Also, I could not accomplish the basic hand-motions of beating taiko drums while thinking of the music notes at the same time. I cannot sense traditional tempo or orchestral rhythm. As time progressed, I realized that I have a great ear for the music of Mother Earth. I find immense solace in the sound of the trees swaying in the breeze, croaking coqui frogs, and identifying the different chirps of Hawaiian birds hidden in the foliage as I venture in the forest. The heartbeat of Nature is a sacred sound that I can hear.
As an artsy, right-brained thinker, I possess very few logical skills due to my neurodevelopmental disorder. For example, I am often reminded to not go hiking in dangerous weather conditions or to not wear sandals on stormy days. Additionally, I have an impaired short-term and working memory that results in me doing steps of daily tasks in an out-of-order-sequence such as applying soap before the water when washing my hands or remembering to turn on the patio-light before I open the patio-door at night, not afterwards.
Outside of these closed doors, the struggles behind my high functioning autism are nearly invisible. Thus, I hope to someday make mental health awareness visible.
Despite being very amiable and sweet, I somewhat have difficulty with getting along well with just about anyone. The origin of this challenge dwells in not knowing how to maintain long-lasting friendships with peers of my age and the stigma that I have endured. After being discriminately referred to as “stupid,” “retarded,” “a shame,” “a burden,” “loner,” and an “outcast” from passersby, I withdrew. Taking each degrading word too close to my heart, I became a solitary hermit and retreated into my inner-utopia.
Once I obtained the courage to stand up for myself, I was surrounded by positive influences. I learned that having a mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, but stigma is a shame. Coping with the afflictions of autism is a burden, but I am not a burden. It is only a burden to those who are not yet enlightened. I send them my conscious-raising blessings. Now, I have no fear of being rejected and aspire to educate others about the importance of right speech – to value all sentient beings as who they are, not what they are.
Even though I feel introverted when it comes to day-to-day conversations and interpreting indirect social cues, I am an empath within. Despite this polarity, I radiate kindness towards every individual in need of help who comes my way. It is my calling to give people who are suffering words of guidance. Every morning, I motivate myself to go on a quest to make someone else’s day better, whether it be mysteriously placing food and a warm blanket beside a sleeping man without a home, taking the time to keenly listen to another’s feelings, or giving a sad person a smile.
Throughout the early years of my life, I felt as if I did not belong to the planet that I inherited. Yet, my mother’s instillment of self-esteem and loving words of encouragement made me realize that this was untrue over time. Like other individuals on the spectrum, I learned that I was not meant to fit in this world because I was born to help create a new one – a world of compassion and tolerance. In turn, I have gained immense sympathy and unconditional positive regard for others with my condition, as well as, every suffering person who walks the Earth. Although certain areas in my brain over-compensated for the underdeveloped aspects that have been impaired from my high functioning autism, I have learned to stand strong in the face of stigma and to see the “able” instead of the “label” as I continue on my endless journey of progress. This has enabled me to accept being “differently wired” and to humbly find the profound “ability” in “disability.”
Please peruse my poem that can teach you to embrace being different:
Different Is Beautiful
Conformity is a societal deformity
In sameness lies the imperfection
Of blindly following the majority
Uniqueness is indeed true perfection
Beautiful is the gothic one
Who visits a burial ground
To have a picnic with none
But a spirit’s silent sound
Beautiful is the unconventional lady
Who wears heavenly white at funerals
Instead of conventionally gloomy dresses as shady
Gray as a grave’s engraved numerals
Beautiful is the lonesome girl
Who sits all alone
With individuality shining like a pearl
Proud to never be another clone.
Beautiful is the outcast
Who resembles a warrior fearless
Of being cast out
And fiercely peerless
Beautiful is the clairvoyant-
Artist who paints God’s visions
Wearing a red beret so flamboyant
As she foretells thy future decisions
Beautiful is the woman who ceases to be labeled
By those solely viewing her as disabled
For she has a remarkable mind unconfined
Beautiful is the witchy crone
Like her forgotten spell cast away
To the heavens where virtuous magic shone
Brightly over the world’s scorn of a misunderstood castaway
To be eccentric
Is to be free
Crowds lacking glee
Resist to exist in superficiality
Like a bold nail persisting
To never let the herd-mentality
Smash it with a hammer insisting
That it should surrender to being pounded
Painfully into the wood of compliance
For it shall stick out unbounded
To normalcy and stand tall in defiance