I like to say that being autistic is like having a sticky brain. When I’m trying to process stimuli, all the bright lights and loud noises get stuck at the forefront of my mind. I can’t filter them or tune them out. Sometimes, words get stuck in my brain, and I can’t get them to my mouth. Other times, those words get stuck in another part of my brain, and I say them over and over again. Ideas and actions often stick in my brain, too. I’ll fixate intensely on one topic or repeat a certain behavior, like tapping my fingers or tilting my head.
There’s nothing wrong with having a sticky brain—actually, it’s pretty cool sometimes—but it can be hard to flourish in a world made for neurotypicals. Many people don’t understand what it means to be autistic. Things that come easily to others, like mowing the lawn or making eye contact at a job interview, are challenging for me. Some people don’t seem to care enough to educate themselves or make accommodations to help autistic people be successful. This creates many environments where I struggle to get the resources I need to thrive while neurotypicals enjoy access to the tools they need to excel.
My mom knew that public school would be a challenging environment for me. I wasn’t yet diagnosed with autism at age five, but my mother knew I was a “high-maintenance” child. I noticed I had unusual sensory and communication needs. Our local elementary school had already failed to provide a safe and challenging academic environment for my gifted older brother, and it didn’t seem like public school would be a good fit for me either. So we started homeschooling the year I entered kindergarten.
I’m not certain how my mother managed it. She was a single mom homeschooling her four young children while working as a fitness instructor and serving in the Air Force Reserves. Our homeschooling days were crazy but also incredible. My siblings and I learned not only how to read and write, but also how to be kind and compassionate and to appreciate and celebrate diversity. I enjoyed an environment where I could learn and be myself. I could stim and sensory-seek and pursue my passions to my heart’s content. In that atmosphere, I flourished.
Of course, home-learning wasn’t always easy. There are memories of fighting over toys with my younger sister when we were supposed to have quiet playtime while my mom worked with my brother. I recall my older brother struggling to take tests because of how distracting my auditory stimming was. I remember the baby crying and interrupting several lessons. But I also remember having a safe space to develop conflict resolution skills, getting to take breaks when I became overwhelmed, and developing coping skills that would help me be successful for years to come.
With the onset of puberty and subsequent hormone-filled meltdowns that ensued, however, our little homeschool became less of a safe haven and more of over-reactive powder keg. That adolescent need for a change of environment, coupled with the fact that I was ready to expand my academic horizons in more ways than my mother could facilitate, catalyzed my mother’s decision to enroll me in public high school. Now THAT was a transition.
Suddenly, I had 2000 classmates, an enormous labyrinth of a building, and a confusing new social environment to contend with. I hated spending several hours a day under dreadful fluorescent lights with their incessantly irritating buzzing and ceaseless flickering. The overwhelming cacophony that was my classmates’ chatter in the cafeteria made me cringe. I struggled to make friends and searched desperately for anyone or anything that felt safe. Most days, my mom had to pick me up early. On days she didn’t, I would come home and completely melt down on my bedroom floor.
Soon, I began to loathe myself and my sticky brain. Why did everybody else have friends? Didn’t they notice the lights and the noise and all the little things that sent me into sensory overdrive? What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I just be normal?
Thankfully, I had parents who loved me, siblings who supported me, and mentors who never stopped believing I was valuable, no matter my differences. With time, I developed a support system at school. My favorite teacher’s door was always open when I became overwhelmed. The crisis counselor gave me a spot outside her office where I could come to take breaks. I joined the track team and found friends among my teammates.
Eventually, my self-hatred turned to appreciation for my unique gifts. My love for order and structure allowed me to organize and supervise the school’s food pantry. The passion I had for my special interests allowed me to help found and direct the first Black History Celebration at my school. And my ability to retain and recall information allowed me to graduate at the top of my class. These successes resulted in a full scholarship to Johns Hopkins University, where I am currently an undergraduate studying to be a doctor.
Transitioning to high school was difficult, but it prepared me for the even more difficult transition to college. There are so many resources for autistic children, but people seem to forget that those kids grow into autistic adults, and we need support, too. I learned to advocate for myself, to ask for equal treatment and reasonable accommodations. I also learned to ask for help when I need it and to give help where I can. Most importantly, I learned to love myself.
It is due to my autism, that I am devoted to my research and my classes, and that I make valuable contributions in both the lab and the classroom. Because of my autism, I evaluate in unusual ways and come up with unique solutions. Thanks to my autism, I have this incredible sticky brain.
Although it’s true that words and sensory information stick in my brain, so does important information. That is why I do well in my classes, why I’ll do well in medical school, and why I’ll be a capable doctor someday. Yes, my passions are intense, but my deep commitment to helping others and solving problems is why my patients will have such quality care. It’s true that I think and behave differently, but that only enhances my perspective and creativity.
I’m grateful for autism, for the valuable lessons it’s taught me, and for the amazingly supportive people it’s brought into my life. I’m still learning to be independent and navigate this whole adulthood thing, but I’m not afraid. I know that I’ll be successful because I’m autistic, not in spite of it, and somewhere out there, there’s a bright future for me, sticky brain and all.
Kennedy O. Onuoha is an autistic self-advocate who is passionate about creating a world that is more accepting and accessible for autistic adults. She is a student at Johns Hopkins University, and hopes to become a doctor and crusader for increased neurodiversity in medicine. In her free time, she enjoys learning, writing, playing piano, making lists, and snuggling with her dog, Daisy.