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  • Writer's pictureCecelia Pfliger

I like Toads and Birds

Updated: Oct 11, 2022

“I always felt there was something weird about me like I was an observer watching everyone around me interact.”

20-year-old Sophia Willis Grew up in multiple small towns across rural Iowa. Throughout her life, she transferred schools multiple times. Even though socializing didn’t come naturally to Sophia, in each place she went, she became fixated on becoming everyone’s friend. She was especially good at mirroring their behaviors and having a slight persona that catered to each friend. At a young age, Sophia had inadvertently mastered the art of masking.

For an undiagnosed autistic girl, she felt it was completely normal to mimic others' behaviors to fit in. Sophia explained that she gained a high emotional IQ in her childhood while her social intelligence was lacking. She spent many of her social hours analyzing and observing everyone else just so she could feel regular the next day, behaving like them.

“As time went on, the feeling that something was wrong with me only grew.”

Sophia‘s grades began to suffer. As her classmates began to excel in classes, Sophia felt like she was running to catch up. She was living her life fixating and hyper-focusing on several things, and she felt she couldn’t control it. She found herself falling into deep rabbit holes, worrying about earlier fixations she had that day.

“I was dealing with severe autistic burnout because I was trying to fit in a box that was not Sophia shaped.”

By the time Sophia was 18, her mother had scheduled her an appointment at a Chicago clinic. Initially, they were looking for brain damage due too many concussions Sophia had endured during her childhood. This was the first time Sophia had been to a psychologist. She took a brain scan and multiple quizzes. Finally, her results were precise. She wasn’t suffering from brain damage. Sophia was just an autistic girl living an allistic life.

You are autistic. Those three words were enough to shatter Sophia‘s world. In the beginning, Sophia was extremely shocked. She listened as her family discredited her results. She felt the emotional weight of being less accepted by her peers and her family. All her life, she was an abnormal child that was just written off as quirky. Now that everyone knew Sophia’s diagnosis, she experienced dismissive behavior from her family and friends. Simply, how could this normal functioning human being be autistic?

“As a “traditionally high functioning” autistic person, it became extremely eye-opening to the ableism people so casually dropped.”

It wasn’t a bad thing that Sophia was diagnosed as autistic with comorbid ADHD and OCD. It was incredibly validating to her. The bad thing was that people were discrediting her autism. It was a bad thing that the people closest to her now viewed her as incapable. For a while, Sophia felt a burning rage for the people who wanted to take away the one thing that made her feel normal and comfortable for the first time in her life.

“I spent years invalidating and gaslighting myself because the people around me led me to believe that I was the problem. I believed I was the problem. For once, I was like; I’m not the problem; there is something there. It’s not just in my head.”

Even though a part of Sophia wonders what it would have been like if she had been diagnosed sooner, she is happy she was diagnosed when she was. In any other way, Sophia feels she wouldn’t be able to advocate for herself the way she can now. She now has the capabilities to recognize the qualities of her autism. Sometimes she has a fixation with her hands and face, solely to comfort her from overstimulation or to keep her focus. Sophia finds herself mimicking small behaviors of friends, so people feel they relate to her and enjoy her presence.

As an autistic person, one may have a particular interest. Sophias are toads and birds. She feels a deep intense emotion and passion for these animals. When she was a child, she would sometimes fall into these rabbit holes of toads and birds. She would become enraged when someone would pull her attention away from her special interests suddenly. Sophia feels a lot of emotions strongly, so much so, she feels empathic. She notices more things than others, like the sub-context behind actions, the hyper-focus on behaviors, and reading any tone of voice.

“It can become a vicious cycle when I focus too much and fall into a tunnel or rabbit hole. Sometimes people say, oh, you’re such a worrywart. No, I’m just reading into a situation, like over-fixation.”A lot of people don’t know about autism. Autism is not a one-size-fits-all. Sophia likes to use her autism as a conversation starter and break the ice with new people. She says this helps normalize the topic of autism and helps people get comfortable with the subject. Sophia stresses that opening up the conversations with and about autistic people can help normalize it and stop the ablest behavior. Many people don’t realize that they are ableists. It is prevalent in our society to think autism is a stand-out thing; it is not.

“Autism doesn’t reflect the capabilities of someone; it just tells you what kind of brain they have. We just process things differently than Neurotypical people.”

We must break free from the stereotypes of autism. These people are no different than the next. Sophia says that one way to break free from the stereotypes is to validate the people who choose a diagnosis and those who can’t afford it but recognize autism within themselves.

“It is such a small percentage that people will fake autism for attention. More people have it than you know of. Listen to them when they advocate for themselves. Especially when it comes to people on the spectrum because it was probably tough for them to do so.”

Many people do not understand the spectrum. They think that the spectrum is a place where handicapped and disabled people are placed to separate the capable from the incapable. The spectrum is vast. It is time that we recognize and normalize people on the spectrum.

“The spectrum is like a map, and everyone has a different destination, and different pit stops along the way.”

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