Autism Spectrum Disorder – A True Story
April is National Autism Awareness Month, a time to promote autism awareness, inclusion and self-determination for all. As we recognize this important month, it is important to understand the challenges that those with the disorder sometimes face.
Archie’s story is not one you hear every day; it is a story full of raw emotion and honesty of someone living with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
He came from an unusually loving, close-knit, and supportive family, with no history of trauma, or family dysfunction, abuse, or neglect, all the characteristics he had seen in other residents in treatment. The son of a university administrator and a professor of environmental sociology, academics were a constant staple in his environment. Surrounded at a young age by scholastically, high-achieving classmates and authority figures, who did book reports on the Mahabharata, memorized vast tracks of Roman history and started taking pre-calculus by the time they were 12; he did not have the same academic achievements as those around him.
He struggled early, as his aunt first noticed his abnormal developmental path and encourages his parents to have him evaluated with ASD. He was diagnosed with a mild form of autism at a few months old, and his early childhood proved difficult with social interaction and difficulty making friends. He also suffered from sensory issues and would wince at the sound of loud buzzers, and touches; he would also wander away from his parents. A scary time for his parents and they turned to early childhood intervention, which included speech and occupational therapy, and skills for helping him work through his challenges.
Despite his disorder, Archie had a happy and productive childhood. Aside from wasting copious amounts of time on video games, music, movies, and other juvenile pursuits, his formative years were fulfilling. He did notice a difference from others, and a lack of enthusiasm about the latest trends; honestly, he did not see the point. He was intellectually gifted, but socially not. Growing up in university towns and academics, he was regularly exposed to different cuisines, cultures, art, and language. He became fascinated with Asian history and even showed his language skills early on by learning enough Hebrew in four months to be Bar Mitzvah, many children need years of training to reach that point. By age 12 he began to struggle with material slightly below his grade level, and as adolescents approached, his mental state began to worsen, and suicidal thoughts crept into his world. He suffered from bouts of depression, low self-esteem, and a sensitive personality, and saw a psychiatrist and started anti-depressants.
High school was a new challenge for Archie. He had a contestant nagging habit of comparing himself to his classmates, peers, and even famous figures such as Michu Kaku, Temple Grandin, Ramanujan, and Philip Emeagwali, all people with unusually high IQs and are well-respected members of the community. As he had done earlier, he compared his childhood milestones to that of those figures and berated himself for not developing quickly, a pattern that continued to manifest itself while in treatment. Archie often had alternate views of reality and would struggle with anxiety and mood disorders. Success and those intellectual gifted were a constant presence, so, naturally, his autism and various learning disabilities made him feel odd. He could not understand why he struggled to keep up with his classmates and felt awkward in social situations. He had a desperate need to fit in somewhere on the social spectrum, whether it be the “dumb jock” or the MIT bound math geek; he felt as if his existence defied social categories.
To Archie’s parents, he was quite academically gifted, especially in languages, but he was socially incapable and emotionally unstable. He later confused social and emotional intelligence with academic intelligence and executive functioning skills. After high school, the world as Archie knew it disintegrated right in front of him and he had to learn new ways of coping in the world; a task for which he was unprepared. He remembers his father saying on the day of his high school graduation, “What do you do now?” A statement that was a premonition for the emotional, psychological, and intellectual deterioration that would soon ensue.
By age 19, Archie had emotionally regressed and began to act like a child. All intellect, everything, evaporated into thin air, as he became a shell of himself with little social interaction. Although in college, everything became a challenge; his darkest period was upon him. Wanting only for the world to disappear, he would pretend to be ill and eat, eventually leading to Type 2 diabetes. The downward spiral led to more than suicidal thoughts; it resulted in an attempt. Archie locked himself in his room and took prescription pills, not wanting to hurt himself physically, just a slow painful death. Thankfully he did not succeed and was admitted into a facility in Syracuse, New York.
He was very resistant to treatment, seeing himself as a lost cause. He remembers one of the psychiatrists telling him, “you’re very hard on yourself” and admonished for the pressure. His dad retorted, “Sir, you don’t understand, this is all him! He puts this pressure on himself.” He was academically motivated, especially in his teens, but his talents did not manifest themselves in the cookie-cutter fashion, so, he classified himself as an “imbecile,” with lots of all or nothing thinking.
Nothing the psychiatrists and therapists had said throughout his life had stuck. It was as if a negative ideation had coagulated in his frontal lobe and stuck there like glue. Throughout childhood and adolescence, it was as if on the outside his life was completely functional, but internally it seemed as if life drained from his body. All Archie ever wanted was to be a typical adolescent, occasionally rebelling, dating, getting his driver’s license, taking AP classes, or playing sports, but between the autism and other mental health issues, living up to either the valedictorian or teenage rebel wasn’t possible. He entertained this functioning façade until the summer of his senior year of college when he gradually succumbed to depression. As he put it, “It was as if Virgil from Dante was slow and deliberately walking me to the edge of the precipices of purgatory and then without warning plunged me into the depths of an emotional and psychological hell.”
Riddled with anxiety, Archie dropped out of school and began working at his mom’s office. Deep down he just wanted to be left alone, as it was the loneliest time in his life. He did not care about himself. It was the same routine, doctors, medication, and nothing was working. Archie attempted suicide again. Wanting to be alone, he went for a long walk, only wanting to die either be drowning in the river or killing himself in a secluded area. Growing more anxious, his parents asked for help to find him. Helicopters searched the area, and news crews jumped on the story. Found safe, he was again admitted for treatment.
He went to a world-class center, but Archie’s condition perplexed the doctors. They told his parents their treatment program had a 96% success rate, but they could not help Archie. Left untreated, and diagnosed with the worst case of depression they had seen, he was discharged, and his parents were at a dead end.
That is where Pasadena Villa came into his life. Feeling as if he were a lost cause, he says, “I felt too stupid to go on living on this earth and that I was a burden to my highly successful and achieving parents.” These thoughts continued to affect his self-esteem as he entered Pasadena Villa, often saying to himself “how could someone who effectively won life’s lottery in so many aspects be so emotionally plagued and internally troubled to the extent of eventually being institutionalized.”
When he arrived at Pasadena Villa, he immediately started participating in group therapy and resident activities, and remembers the staff and residents liking him; something he was unaccustomed to before. He began at the most intensive level of care and gradually worked his way to case management. The relatively relaxed, easy going and socially nurturing atmosphere at Pasadena Villa helped Archie become more receptive to the treatment. For the first time since he plunged deep into the despair of depression, he opened his mind up to the possibility of fully recovering his mental and emotional faculties, which at the time was even more important than personal happiness.
Pasadena Villa gave Archie the ability to attend school and therapy sessions, all while maintaining his confidentiality. As he slowly regained his once frail self-confidence, he eventually got his associates degree in general studies, followed by a bachelor’s degree in international relations. Through these achievements, he was able to revive his interests in social science and explore new paths for the future. He continued to make new friends, and broaden his horizons, and started volunteering at the historical society.
Pasadena Villa’s Social Integration ModelTM was a vital part of Archie’s treatment and recovery. From day one, he engaged in social situations, navigated with the help of his therapists, supportive staff, and other residents. Throughout his time at Pasadena Villa, his therapists found creative and nuanced ways for him to engage with the central Florida community and meet new people. He says, “Looking back; I needed the appropriate psychiatric, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to help alleviate the mental fog and to counteract the learned helplessness that plagued my psyche before entering into treatment.” Once all his acute symptoms started to dissipate, he learned new coping strategies to navigate the nuances of the adult world.
In addition to his outpatient therapy with his clinician from Pasadena Villa, he works with a life coach, renowned autism authority, Dr. David Holmes, to continue fine-tuning his basic executive functioning, time management, and emotional regulation skills. In addition to teaching him coping strategies, Pasadena Villa showed Archie how to advocate for the needs of others who have autism. He recently gave a presentation at the Autism Society of America’s annual conference and applied to Autism Society advisory board.
He now works full-time at a real estate company and is the process of applying to MSW programs with an emphasis on adolescents and adults with autism spectrum disorders. He continues to set his sights high, as he wants to contribute a greater understanding of neurodiversity and ASD on a global level by potentially becoming a UN and WHO ambassador for the rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
He tries to enter the next phase of life, by learning occupational skills, such as interview techniques, resume writing, and conducting interviews with licensed clinical social workers and social work students to find out more about the field and see if it would be a right field. Archie wants to use his skills and talents to give back to the community and believes that everyone has the potential to contribute and he is no exception.
Archie says, “I would use a quote from one of my favorite Brandy songs, to sum up, my place in life now, “Finally I walked away, never would have seen this day, giving up on those things that hurt me, made me who I am today.” Relating this to his life experiences and his time at Pasadena Villa, he says one of the most valuable things he learned while there was to let go of outdated and maladaptive cognition and coping skills and focus on the possibilities of the world outside of his limited cognitive framework. He learned that his value and self-worth is not confined to his academic and vocational achievements, “I had to learn to unconditionally love myself and embrace my identity as a person on the Autism spectrum,” he said. Ten years ago, he never would have imagined himself at a residential treatment facility, and does not regret his time at Pasadena Villa. He made enduring friendships and learned skills that have put him on a successful path. Pasadena Villa and the social integration model afforded him an experience beyond his learned helplessness and friendships that will last a lifetime.
Archie says his advice to others is simple, “Truthfully nobody is excited about entering treatment, but the ones who respond the best to the therapy make the most out of the experience and take their recovery seriously.”
At Pasadena Villa, we can help you in treating Autism Spectrum Disorder, and other mental health disorders. You do not have to face this challenge alone. If you or a loved one have questions, call us at 877-845-5235 or complete our contact form to help with the next steps of treatment. Pasadena Villa Network of Psychiatric Services currently offers treatment at two residential locations in both Orlando, Florida and Knoxville, Tennessee, and outpatient services in Raleigh, North Carolina.