This guest post is by Sarai Pahla, a medical translator and doctor living in Düsseldorf, Germany. She was diagnosed as an adult, and has chosen to become an autism self-advocate to increase awareness.
It’s that special time of year again.
When I think about the festive season, I always think about the flurry of festive photographs on social media. Each day brings new images of elderly grandparents and great-grandparents staring lovingly at their infant grandchildren playing with the latest toys and gadgets, with the occasional selfie including the parent behind the camera. There are always lots of lights, plenty of food, and warm and inviting environment. It makes it feel even more cold and lonely behind the computer screen.
I made the decision to emigrate to Germany in 2013, and by doing so, I obtained so many answers to questions that people around me always used to ask, and questions that I asked myself. I have managed to achieve amazing things, like having a stable and sustainable career as a freelance medical translator in a competitive European market, or giving a TEDx talk in Münster. Emigrating to Germany was one of the hardest things that I have ever done, and I always miss my immediate family during this time of year, but I have also found ways to make it special.
Parts of Germany turn into a winter wonderland, so I am able to take some amazing photographs, and it is a great time to use public transport, because everyone else is tucked away with their families. I love architecture photography, and I can get shots of buildings without leaves or people in the way. I treat myself to traditional Christmas meals, and I am sometimes the only person in the restaurant, which eliminates the fear of overstimulation. During a previous Christmas holiday, I downloaded engineering journal articles that explained how all the detectors at CERN work, and during another, I researched the second world war for days on end.
Instead of seeing this time as a gift, I used to complain about it and yearn for a more traditional Christmas. As I have grown older, however, I have realized that Christmas is a difficult period for most people with autism. Either you are bombarded by a series of seemingly meaningless interactions with a large number of people with whom you have nothing in common, or you are alone because, as I mentioned in my talk, the rest of the world kept waiting for you to figure this whole interpersonal interaction thing out.
Worse still, if you are desperate for some company during the festive season in particular, people tend to congregate in places that are loud, crowded, unpleasantly lit, and generally speaking, are a perfect recipe for overstimulation and meltdowns. Let’s not forget the added pressure to be merry and jolly during the entire season – if you show even the slightest hint of a negative reaction, you’re either scolded for bringing everyone else down, or worse, you are ushered out of the company of others because once again, just being yourself is somehow an inconvenience to everyone else. Thank goodness I can spend two weeks doing exactly what I want without all that chaos!
I won’t lie, I still dream of a Christmas when I will be snuggled under a blanket drinking a spicy hot chocolate while staring lovingly into someone’s eyes and telling them these stories – and having them plant a kiss on my forehead and tell me that they will never leave me alone for Christmas if they can help it. It just makes me feel ungrateful to think that. I am always more motivated to seek out new social contact after the festive season, and I always have something interesting to say, or something to show for it.
What changed my perspective was the fact that I chose to be open about my diagnosis. Since talking about it openly, I have received so many messages of support and understanding. I know that this opportunity is not available to everyone, but I can see how much of a difference it makes when I share my experience. It makes me feel less alone, and better yet, I get to know that there are people out there like me – going through the same things that I am going through, dealing with the same fears that I deal with. I am so grateful that I stopped seeing autism as something that I had to hide, and instead, as something that I could be proud of. So I wish you all a very merry Christmas, because just knowing that a post this open and honest will be received with sympathy is the best Christmas present that I could ever wish for.