Through self-discovery as a person with autism, she better understands her father
Elizabeth Stiles walked down Mayfield Road in Cleveland Heights wearing a green Adidas hat to block the sun. Over her ears, noise-canceling headphones tuned out the loud four-lane street.
She lives on a side street 12 houses away from this busy road. She walks four to five miles almost every day as a mechanism to calm herself. She usually walks with her dog, Finn, but he's recovering from hip surgery.
“Sometimes I can convince him to walk up here through the old Park Synagogue, which is a lot quieter,” she said.
Last year, Stiles discovered why she is easily overwhelmed by light and sound. Sensory overload is commonly experienced by people on the autism spectrum.
“When autistic people present in the world as not-an-autistic-person it's called masking, and so I've been masking to myself too,” she said. “I didn’t really know until a year ago. And so, I just used to deal with it and then didn’t know why I was spacey or dissociating or needed to rest.”
It’s exhausting, she said, which can lead to autistic burnout.
Autistic burnout is fatigue of the body and mind, according to the National Autistic Society. Managing life skills becomes more difficult, senses get overloaded and social interactions lessen. Burnout comes from years of trying to meet demands that are not in sync with an autistic person's needs.
Stiles, a 56-year-old political science professor at John Carroll University, began identifying as autistic after a conversation she had with her primary care physician. She opted out of getting formally diagnosed.
"I mean there’s some support that’s available as I understand it, but I don't think, I don’t think I need that at this time,” she said.
She began exploring autism by taking a self-evaluation test online and researching the disorder. She said that understanding herself better has helped her to understand her father who passed away two years ago. She believes he was a person with autism — though he was never diagnosed.
“All the things that I’ve discovered about myself were true about my dad,” she said as she took a deep breath. “And it pains me that he, like he would have been really interested in this. I know he would have. And I think he would have learned a lot about himself and maybe we would have learned about ourselves together.”
She said her dad spent his life researching World War II, which he lived through. This could be defined as a special interest, which is a term used to describe the intense and hyper-focused interests that people with autism have, according to the National Autistic Society.
A few years ago, Stiles became highly focused on computer coding, which she said is a special interest for her.
“I started learning about it and then I was lucky to have somebody from the computer science department work with me on it, and now I teach every semester this class," she said. "It’s not that common for people to be, say, in one department, in social sciences and then start teaching a class in computer science.”
She mentioned the phrase “little professor.” It's used to describe people with autism who have advanced knowledge in their special area of interest, according to a journal entry in Science Direct.
“Well, I’m an actual professor but definitely a little professor,” she added.
Researching autism over the past year has brought her profound growth, Stiles said. By listening to what her body needs — quieter spaces and rest, she’s experiencing less autistic overload. She especially grew in her ability to communicate her ideas to others.
“It’s had an effect on my relationships with people,” she said. “I’ve actually had more conflict in the last year. Just verbal conflict, then I can remember in any single year probably in adulthood. And I think it’s because I’m spacing out less and articulating myself more.”
Stiles said she’s giving people something to react to, which might be something they don’t want to hear. She’s unmasking more than she used to. This has given her and her spouse, who has supported her through this time, more opportunities for honest dialogue.
And she feels more connected to her dad. She carries internal representations of him that she now understands better in herself.