Above: Aliya Drakes photographed at her business, Opal Kids, in Cascade. Makeup by Shenelle Escayg, photographs by Mark Lyndersay.

Published in the Trinidad Express on September 30, 2019.

I’m a Paediatric Occupational Therapist, a triathlete who has participated in international Ironman events, a triathlon coach, an aunty, a daughter and I’m autistic.

You wouldn’t be able to “see” the autism right away. I surely didn’t, for more than thirty years of my life! There were quirks, sensory issues and many things that I felt simply made me unique – or weird, take your pick.

I’ve always felt that I didn’t choose Occupational Therapy; it chose me, and now I know why – it was so I could better understand myself and how my brain works. Since becoming an Occupational Therapist over a decade ago, I’ve learnt so much about neurodiverse brains, both in theory and through observation of my clients.

More and more, I can understand why my patients have what most typical people consider “strange” behaviours. Because of their neurodiversity, which means having a brain that is wired differently, they experience the world differently and that is my normal as well.

I am self-diagnosed, which I’m sure will raise more than a few eyebrows and draw a lot of suspicion – especially within my professional community – but I’m ok with that. I know I am autistic based on my professional knowledge of autism, its varied presentations, and careful and thoughtful introspection of my own lifelong experiences.

I had been trying for years to find an explanation for all of my differences. I won’t get into all the differences here because that would be a book on its own. Let’s just say that eventually, after narrowing down the possibilities (sensory processing disorder was thrown around but I knew there was still something more than that) and putting all the puzzle pieces together, I came to the conclusion that Autism explained EVERYTHING.

Aliya Drakes

It wasn’t until about two years ago I had no choice but to admit it to myself. It was both a challenge and a relief, but overall it’s made life easier knowing that I can be proactive about it and minimise tricky situations as much as possible.

In my case, the autism itself isn’t so much of a challenge, as evidenced by the first couple of lines I wrote. What makes it problematic is the demand to conform or be “typical” when it simply does not come naturally. Some people whom I have told have commented on how “normal” I seem saying things like “but you can’t be autistic, you make eye contact.”

Yes I’m pretty good at making eye contact because when I’m speaking to someone there’s a whole side conversation in my head about how long I should look at the person, when I should look away, am I staring too much, where are my four colours that I have to see and on and on.

I also work with several autistic children you would never guess are autistic – they are sociable, friendly, happy, enjoy humour and many other traits that people usually think autistic people are incapable of displaying. With girls/women, I’ve learned the presentation can be different, and that girls can mask many of the typical autistic traits and appear as neurotypical as the next child.

Among children, autism is four times more common in boys than it is in girls. However, a 2013 study involving almost 2,500 children with autism suggests that it often goes undiagnosed in girls. This could explain why autism appears to be more common in boys because girls simply do not present many of the markers very early on and are usually diagnosed later on in their lives.

I wish this were the case for so many of our kids here in Trinidad and Tobago and the wider Caribbean. I don’t present as obviously autistic, so I’m assumed to be quirky but typical, therefore I’m accepted. For others who can’t hide their autism, people sometimes discriminate against and treat badly.

Our culture, like many worldwide, is one of conformity and I see time and time again my autistic kids being forced to be who they are not. Forced to sit still, not stim, make eye contact, endure uncomfortable sensory experiences, and get pushed outside of their comfort zones. Stimming, by the way, usually refers to specific behaviors that include hand-flapping, rocking, spinning as the more obvious ones, but can be as simple as repetitively playing with your fingernails.

These are simply coping mechanisms that help manage possible sensory overload and I don’t believe that we should be forced to not do certain things just because it makes everyone else uncomfortable.
Occupational Therapy sometimes pushes the boundary of comfort so that in time, my clients would be able to cope better when they experience the same in the real world, but what I do with my clients is controlled and very closely monitored.

I don’t teach them to not be autistic, I help them to manage with it. For the most part we are not living in a world that caters to autistics, but with the right guidance and support and the removal of societal barriers, life can be manageable, participatory and happy. You can’t “outgrow” or “cure” autism, it is simply a difference in brain function.

Let’s all support other autistics to live in a way that’s manageable for them by understanding that the human brain is now being looked at as diverse in the way it functions and that it is no longer considered a one size fits all concept; it is a constant process of discovery. It is my hope that one day when someone says “I have autism”, it will be as natural as saying “I wear glasses.’

Sponsors: Dale McLeod, Jacqueline Scott, Starlite Collection, Sacha Makeup, JB Fernandez Memorial Trust II.