One question I get asked a lot as a young woman on the autism spectrum is: “Why was it difficult to make friends as a little kid? Do you think it had anything to do with other kids’ parents perceptions?”

From the moment a baby opens her eyes for the first time, her mind is like a sponge, absorbing everything about the world around her, good and bad. Children are not as naive as you think they are. They can hear and understand everything grown-ups say. I get a lot of stares in public–I always have, and I always will–and the other children my age picked up on that. If another grown-up made a rude comment about my behavior, it did not pass over my classmates’ heads. They thought to themselves, “Why don’t strangers look at me like that?” or “Why don’t people say those things about me?” This brought them to realize that maybe there was something that made me different from them. As humans, our primitive instincts tell us to avoid the unfamiliar, but this instinct comes from the days when we were nomadic hunter-gatherers constantly being chased by saber-toothed tigers. The evolution of a species takes many tens and hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, of years to happen, and civilized society has only been around for a few thousand years, and, despite our possession of more advanced cognitive ability than our ancestors, the human race is no exception. Kids and grown-ups alike fear the unknown. To them, I was the unknown. Most people thought that only boys had autism, and here I was, the fabulous fairy-princess from Planet Asperger’s.

Another thing I keep in mind when reflecting on my past is that most of what happened, happened 10-plus years ago. The world has changed A LOT in the last decade, and therefore, if I had grown up in this day and age, things may have been different. Then again, there is no way that human instincts have changed since the early 2000s.

The most important thing that I think of when writing about my early childhood experiences is that you can’t move forward if you’re always looking back. The truth is, I didn’t have it so bad. I’ve always had a place to sleep at night, a supportive and loving family, enough food, clean water, and access to medical care whenever I’ve needed it. When you think about it, that’s all you need in life. My challenges have also made me a stronger person. I had to figure out my identity a lot earlier than most of my peers because people have always looked at me differently. The adversities some of my friends are facing for the first time in their lives–failure, rejection, sadness, insecurity–are ones that I have battled before, and I know how to battle them again if need be.

I learned that life isn’t handed to you on a silver platter because I work my ass off day in and day out to learn the skills that are hard-wired into my peers’ brains. I know that asking for help isn’t shameful because assistance from others has been the most invaluable asset to my success.
Most importantly, my experiences with autism have taught me that if nothing else, you can never, ever, ever give up on yourself. When everything and everyone around you is convinced that you can’t, that should be additional kindling for the fire burning inside your soul that forces you to believe that you can.