Punishing Kids for Symptoms: My Experience with Autism, Addiction & Anxiety
For as long as I can remember, I have been punished for things I cannot control.
It started in elementary school, when my parents gave the principal permission to hit me with a paddle any time I acted up. From what I remember, “acting up” meant spontaneous utterances I could not hold back and fidgety movements beyond my control. I lacked the ability to concentrate solely on whatever the person in charge was saying. Intrusive thoughts and unimportant questions would inevitably crowd my attention.
That’s what Asperger Syndrome is, and in large part, that’s what most autism is. When the rest of the class could ignore intrusive thoughts or nagging questions about what happened to Mr. Bunny after the storybook ended, I could not. When the teacher would ask the class how many marbles Susie had if Bill gave her 2 and Jim gave her 5, I would inevitably blurt out something everyone was thinking about, yet most seemed able to ignore: why are Bill and Jim giving Susie marbles? What is Susie going to do with them? What color are the marbles? Do you know Susie?
Any time my mouth or my body revealed what was going on inside my brain, I was punished: hit, shamed, and eventually locked in a prison cell to be tortured by the state.
I was floppy and awkward as a kid, fast to say something inappropriate no matter the setting. A doctor in the early 1990s may have diagnosed me with ADHD and prescribed a stimulant drug like Ritalin to help me focus. Or I might have been labeled anxious or depressed and offered after-school therapy. And depending on the day, my compulsive counting and memorization of odd cultural anchors (I once wrote out the entire script from The Princess Bride by memory) might have landed me an OCD diagnosis.
These symptoms are all normal for a kid on the spectrum. Researcher Yael Leitner has found that, “between 30 and 50% of individuals with [autism] manifest ADHD symptoms (particularly at pre-school age), and similarly, estimates suggest two-thirds of individuals with ADHD show features of [autism].”...
Both disorders [ADHD and Autism Spectrum] often include difficulties in attention, communication with peers, impulsivity, and various degrees of restlessness or hyperactivity. Both are more common in boys than in girls, and present, at least partially, at pre-school age. Both disorders have a known genetic pre-disposition, with comorbidity within the same individual and across family members, and both syndromes cause significant behavioral, academic, emotional, and adaptive problems in school, at home, and elsewhere.
My behavior was always seen by those in charge as deliberate and disruptive, so my treatments were always disciplinary, never therapeutic. By the time I became addicted to drugs, it felt normal to respond to punishment with a numbing agent. I learned early in life that punishment would always be a part of my life, that despite my best efforts I would never get this hulk of flesh under control. . . at least not the control required to avoid being disciplined by those around me. And once you realize punishment and pain are coming no matter what you do, the natural reaction is to seek out a poultice, a balm to sooth the permanently reopened wounds. That’s what addiction is—a resistance to punishment and a tendency to respond to it with more of the original (rewarding) behavior.
Asperger syndrome, now classified as part of the autism spectrum, has been described by author and fellow Aspie Maia Szalavitz as “…marked by problems with social connection, sensory differences, difficulty with change, repetitive behaviors like flapping hands or twirling hair, obsessive interests, and, often, excellent memory, with average or above average intelligence.” Like Maia, my earliest memories, are “of terror—or ecstasy. And without a diagnosis to make sense of them, my oddities were alternately explained to me as either ‘giftedness’ or ‘selfishness’.” The catch-22 is in the treatment available at the time (1990s), which involved separation from the larger social circle and “special education” in a separate space. I doubt these things would have helped me much, but some of the treatments available today would have provided valuable tools for navigating the overwhelming cacophony of conscious life. Eventually I discovered marijuana, and like many on the autism spectrum, I found such relief in it that I never looked back. And predictably, the War on Drugs made sure to extract its pound of flesh, labeling me a member of what Michelle Alexander later termed The New Jim Crow, a permanent underclass of convicted felons whom we are all allowed (required even) to discriminate against.
Today the treatments have changed, but the stigma has not. Those on the spectrum continue to struggle with the shame heaped upon us by our friends and family members. What else can they do? They don't know any other script.
Most of us have learned, wrongly, that autism is an underwiring of the brain, that it connotes a lack of intelligence, and that those of us who have it—who are it—stand little chance of leading normal lives. Our attitude about the diagnosis poison the beliefs even of those of us who live with it. We become convinced that we will struggle with it, or even suffer from it; seldom do we hear that we are gifted, blessed, or lucky to be wired up this way.
But we are lucky. The over-wiring and social confusion can certainly get us in trouble, but they also give us a perspective of the world which others seldom get. People on the spectrum can thrive, but only if we can avoid the shame, confusion, anxiety and stigma society wishes us to carry, and instead use our diagnosis as a roadmap for success.
I vividly remember the first time I was punched in the face: the taste of blood, the ringing of my ears, the adrenaline spike, all of it. I was in tenth grade and enrolled at a new school, which meant I had escaped my old reputation as a weird kid. I desperately wanted to avoid recreating the same identity which had followed me through every social setting I had encountered.
During the first week of classes, the school held an assembly. I was terrified. Large groups of people always make me uncomfortable—this is common with folks on the spectrum. High school is a stewing pot of teen angst and bully culture even for people who are considered neuro typical.
Lucky for me, I saw one of my friends as we walked into the gymnasium, and sitting next to him made me feel safe. Someone here knew me, and they had my back. Maybe things would be okay after all.
It started like it always does, with a misunderstanding, a missed social cue, a mistaken look or a confusing gesture. I wasn’t sure how to respond when the kid behind me said, “shut the fuck up, dipshits,” so I responded like a shocked, overwhelmed, terrified child. I looked back at him with my mouth agape and my eyes wide—like a cartoon jokester. He clearly thought I was mocking him, so he punched me in the nose. Had it not been for my friend sitting next to me, he probably would have kept hitting me, because my response to his violence was no less out of place than my response to his command to shut up; I made another face. I didn’t know what else to do.
My autism presents in many ways which can get in the way of my success . . . that is, if I don’t work to develop successful methods for avoiding negative consequences. For example, a lot of us have panic attacks; that is just part of being on the spectrum. Things can be incredibly overwhelming, and because of that, it is hard to read social situations. We can’t turn off the background noise.
When you enter a party, you probably take a wide-angle glance around the place, then focus in on where you want to go or who you want to find. You can have conversations in the middle of loud music because you can tune it out, along with the other conversations around you, and pay attention to just your friend. Those of us on the spectrum often struggle to pull that trick off. We might be able to hold down a conversation with our friend, but we are also always hearing and noticing everything else around us. And that means it is much more difficult to recognize a change in emotional response or an emphasized word, because our bandwidth is reduced from all the side traffic. It is overwhelming.
Autism is not associated with lowered IQ, and in fact, it can be associated with high IQ, with learning impaired only in certain domains. Additionally, as in my case, learning disorders can often be largely “outgrown,” and regions of the brain can effectively come online, maybe later than in normal development, but eventually nonetheless. In the meantime, depending on where one grows up and what kind of protections one is privileged to have from repercussions, we might get ourselves into a lot of trouble. I did not have as many of those protections as others in my situation, and it ultimately cost me my freedom, and almost my life.
I somehow survived high school, which is a difficult space for even the most solidly anchored kid, and a nightmare for many of us on the autism spectrum. But it didn’t have to be that way. Everything I was told about autism and developmental disabilities (learning disorders) shaped my reaction whenever a therapist or a counselor would suggest it to me as a possible diagnosis. I thought being on the spectrum meant I was broken or disabled, that I needed special help to do the same things as everyone else. How dare some cut-rate therapist claim that I had Asperger’s. I wasn’t one of those people.
My attitude is what we now call ableism: a belief that people who don’t fit some magical definition of “normal” are somehow less capable, and as such, that they deserve less opportunity than everyone else. I have been taught my entire life—from television, from books, from my friends, from my family, from my church, from my government, from my teachers and pastors—what autism meant. I had heard all the dirty words used to put those folks in their place, and even though I might not have used them very often myself, they still shaped my attitudes about autism and those on the spectrum. Now I know better. Far from a disability, my autism presents in wonderful and invigorating ways. I love who I am; I wouldn’t change it for the world.
That is the point of this short article. Autism isn’t a disability, despite its current diagnosis as ASD, or autism spectrum disorder. While I understand that all autism presents differently, and some cases are more difficult to navigate than others, the culture in which we live—and the planet for that matter—is designed to make sure people on the spectrum, or people who use wheelchairs, or those who struggle with mental illness or physical disability of any sort have a harder time navigating both physical spaces and hierarchical organizations than those considered “able-bodied.” Even the corporate ladder is designed for the able-bodied.
My autism brings to mind all sorts of connections and ideas that others might not find themselves able to conjure up in the moment. It is kind of like being on half a dose of magic mushrooms all the time. My spectrum diagnosis also comes with a strong desire to understand systems which I encounter, probably in an effort to feel less threatened by the unknown. Where many people can just ignore the things they don’t understand and carry on without digging into why something works the way it does, I get hung up and have to take it apart to figure it out. When harnessed, these gifts (and the various others that come with autism) allowed me to be incredibly successful in academia, but only once I learned how to recognize and direct them.
One of those traits-turned-"gifts" is my ability to reduce my anxiety by learning about the things I don't understand until I feel like I can explain them to others. I found a great tool here for reducing the confusion I frequently experienced early in life. I realized that if I could just explain the thing I was thinking about--the thing I was stuck on--I could feel like I understood it enough to move on with my day. But if I couldn’t explain it, I was stuck.
When Asperger first defined the condition later named after him, he noted this trait, referring to effected children as, “little professors.” When I explained things to others, I found anchors of comprehension upon which to base my identity.
My behavior problems stemmed from my atypicality, plus my gender (boy) and able-bodidness played a role in how my behavior was understood by those around me, including those in power. I doubt the principal would have beaten me had he understood that I couldn’t help what I was doing. But once teachers, pastors and principal’s came to believe I was a trouble maker, they punished me the only way they knew how. When it was time to move on from Jonah’s time spent in the belly of a whale, I would force a question: did the whale chew Jonah? Did Jonah have to fight to stay out of the whale’s intestines? Did the whale eat anything else while Jonah was in there? And did Jonah, in turn, eat the things the whale ate?
Meanwhile the frustrated youth pastor or parent volunteer would be desperately trying to move on to a parable from Jesus or a Christmas story. And again, I would be removed, called out, shamed and disciplined, making my social issues worse, not better.
I have talked to dozens of people on the autism spectrum who have similar experiences which they, too, found devastating: people snickered and sneered—they laughed at them. But for various reasons, the people who saw me act out usually laughed with me, even though I wasn’t in on the joke most of the time, at least not a first. As confused as life often was, being a funny person is an identity much more pleasant than being the weird kid who doesn’t understand simple stuff. I stuck with it because it worked, and it wasn’t hard to just lean into the reputation of outlaw.
And here is where I look back and wish someone had known how to help me work through those feelings and anxieties in a healthier and more sustainable fashion. Of course, once I started getting in trouble with the law years later, I already knew how to embrace the role of outlaw. I had been performing it for years in a defensive attempt to prevent people from laughing at me by getting them to laugh with me. I might have been well on my way to the PhD I would eventually earn had I not been trapped in the cycle of self-soothing which was all I knew at the time.
Autism isn't a curse or a disorder, at least not until it is looked at in the context of culture. It is only when everything around us is built to make autism look like a disorder that we can get away with labeling it a disorder. But as the bricks of stigma crumble—and make no mistakes, they are crumbling—a different image is emerging, and it is a welcome breath of fresh air to those of us who have been forced to accept a nasty story about ourselves.
Autism is beautiful.
Notes  Lihi Bar-Lev Schleider, et. al., “Real Life Experience of Medial Cannabis Treatment in Autism: Analysis of Safety and Efficacy,” Scientific Reports 9, 2019.  Yael Leitner, “The Co-Occurrence of Autism and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in Children—What do we Know?” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 8, (268): April, 2014.  Yael Leitner, “The Co-Occurrence of Autism and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in Children—What do we Know?” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 8, (268): April, 2014.  Maia Szalavitz, Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2016), 42.  Maia Szalavitz, Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2016), 43.  Lihi Bar-Lev Schleider, et. al., “Real Life Experience of Medial Cannabis Treatment in Autism: Analysis of Safety and Efficacy,” Scientific Reports 9, 2019.  Maia Szalavitz, Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2016), 44.  Maia Szalavitz, Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2016), 45.  Maia Szalavitz, Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2016), 48.