Lee Passehl was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and was diagnosed with autism at age three. In 2008, he moved to Southern California to study Japanese at Irvine Valley College. Lee enjoys racing Radio Control cars in his spare time.
Two months ago, I reached a significant milestone in my life when I celebrated my 30th birthday. With Autism Awareness Month now upon us, I can not help but reflect on what my life has been like since I first became aware of my diagnosis nearly two decades ago.
It all started in October 1998 when my parents introduced me to a television program on autism. The story featured a three-year-old boy who spun in circles and struggled to maintain eye contact. The behavior was familiar to me as I exhibited similar mannerisms as I child. Following the program, I asked my mom if I had autism. That’s when she shared with me what she had known for a decade. The news hit me like a ton of bricks. I knew I was different, but this was a much scarier than I anticipated. Before my diagnosis, I considered myself to be pretty advanced for a young kid. I raced radio control cars and excelled at other activities. Now, I had this thing called autism and it made me feel less than normal.
As I grew into adolescence, my autism tantrums posed significant challenges. My academics also suffered. Things eventually improved, I received support for my tantrums and got an instructional aide. Upon graduation, I wanted to try technical school without additional support. This was a scary time because I had an instructional aid for most of my academic life, now I had to learn on my own. By this time, my neurotypical friends were attending four-year institutions which made me feel more broken. While I was able to take some online classes, I still felt less than normal.
Then, in January of 2008, I discovered the autism community message board, wrongplanet.net and my world changed. On this site, I learned of other people’s experiences and how they coped. I read many stories from Aspies around the world. Wrong Planet helped me accept myself and realize that there were people out there like me.
When I was young, I would often wish I never had autism. Now, thanks to Wrong Planet, my only question is what would life look like without autism? For instance, would I have been a better racer as a child or would it have taken away my laser-like focus? Would not having autism have made me a different person? That is something I don’t want to know. While it would be nice to get rid of the negative symptoms such as difficulty understanding directions, short attention span, difficulty processing information, hypersensitivity to noises, I am happy the way I am.
Autism is not a burden or some super-secret weapon. It’s simply part of one’s identity. It’s taken me 17 years to learn to accept myself and my diagnosis. Although I am not there yet, one day I will be able to truly accept my condition. It’s been a long, hard, road but I am thankful for the journey. Hopefully, one day, all people with autism will gain full acceptance in our society and not have feel alone in this world.