Autism & the Peace Corps (Edition: 8 Months)

The swing set at my former where I would gently rock back and forth when I needed a break...or an excuse to escape the frigid office!

The swing set at my former where I would gently rock back and forth when I needed a break…or an excuse to escape the frigid office!

After a whopping 8 months in service, I have accumulated enough data…err experience to share a preliminary perspective of service as an autistic PCV. I am sure that this perspective will evolve as service continues, but here is a start, because I have heard of way too many people scared to share their mental health experience. There is a myth about health needs being a liability that scares people into not disclosing their health histories, which is not only untrue but also potentially dangerous.

In case anyone has not received the memo, I am an autistic navigating life with chronic anxiety. Despite my inability to fit most “autism sterotypes” the diagnosis still stands (18 years ago this week actually) and I am aspiring for a career in global health. Currently I am putting this interest to the test as a health extension volunteer in Peace Corps South Africa’s Community HIV Outreach Program (CHOP).

Despite an arduous start to service, my passion for global health has remained. I am open about autism within the PC community but keep that label private at site. Maybe that will change as service evolves but most South African communities are not ready for a discussion on specific mental health labels when the local clinic is struggling to get ARVs to clients.

Autism is not a life experience often shared out in the open, but it is not something I can hide. It is a good thing I have almost two decades of experimentation with coping mechanisms and refined confidence with the label, because my cohort is dominated by professions and family members of autistics who have infallible autistic radar! Recently I found out that a few days before I disclosed to the cohort, the Social Worker leaned over to the School Counselor and posed the question: Did my subtle rocking and lack of eye contact meant I was on the spectrum? Bingo!

I define autism as the way my brain works and a general oversensitivity to certain triggers. Does autism impact my service? Yes. Yet, autism is more of a positive influence because is what makes me a good CHOP PCV and able to support people living with HIV (PLWHIV). I cannot say what it is like to live with a life threatening condition but the frustrations intertwined with stigma are a reality for me also. Also, having my behavior critiqued since the age of 5 via therapy sessions provides me with the ability to graciously accept social feedback, one of the few clear indicators available for personal growth in cross-cultural settings. Factor in this awareness with a general fixation on other cultures and autism fits into this obscure puzzle of South African life/Peace Corps experience. Usually I am happy to be here in South Africa, where direct eye contact is not an obsession (and an abundance of decaffeinated rooibos tea) is a mini-vacation in itself! However in an agitated mood, my realist perspective of life tends to shift into unfiltered negativity. I am pain at times to interact with, but always capable of doing my job and doing it well (in my biased perspective)!

Like anyone with a chronic health condition, I may thrive but still struggle. I am extremely lucky that my friends in the cohort came in with awareness of the autism spectrum, and they let me vent while cracking awkward jokes at the expense of my behavior (my main coping mechanism). Their kindness eases my agitation more than any self-initiated coping mechanism could. My hope is that with more exposure to medical needs as a form of diversity, more PCVs and staff will choose to see those experiences as assets. This has been my experience with the supportive PCSA staff, and I am optimistic that progress will continue to be made. Simultaneously, I am cognizant that there are many people with medical needs (let alone autism) who do not get opportunities to be successful in their communities. I am not more valuable than the autistic loved ones of my cohort members back home and they deserve the same belief in their potentials.

At this time, I am the only woman PCV who is openly autistic during service I am aware of (this service is definitely in part for the autistic girls). I am aware of two men who completed service with autism spectrum. Hopefully someone will call me out on my arrogance and send me a blog, e-mail, or news article proving me wrong as it is a lonely road out here. I could have a stellar service, but still need to shatter a hidden glass ceiling in the global health field because my experience will not curb the doubts over my abilities If more people live out loud with their identities, then we can break this “liability” nonsense. Health needs are a form of diversity and should be respected as such.

In the meantime, I have an incredible opportunity as a PCV on the autism spectrum and will continue to use these experiences to my advantage.

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