This week we have the opportunity to hear from Alex Chrenka. Alex is a commercial artist with Asperger’s syndrome. He currently is working as a Graphic Designer for a real estate firm, but has side projects involving 3D modeling and illustration which can be viewed at chrenkaart.wordpress.com. He is currently illustrating a children’s book about his experiences growing up with autism. Alex is a strong advocate for awareness of autism and helping those learn to cope with it. He has experienced the effects of medication and has had many life-changing events through those trials. Self improvement and accomplishment are the keystones of Alex’s life philosophy, and he believes no matter how difficult life gets, you can work towards a happier one by setting goals, having a positive outlook, and being a better you.
What difficulties have you experienced in the past either communicating your own emotions or interpreting the intentions or emotions of others?
I was the more emotional kind of autism, so growing up I had a lot of tantrums and meltdowns. Conveying emotions even now is a bit of a struggle, but growing up I internalized a lot of negative feelings from all the bullying I experienced. It’s definitely still something I’m working on today with professional and self therapy. I have reached the point now where my anger is manageable and I am able to convey my feelings to people, while also understanding others’ feelings. Empathy sometimes takes a bit to kick in, but I can say I can function like anyone else now.
Friendships were difficult to maintain and it took me a long time to understand that people drift in and out of your life, and go down different paths than you. I wanted to be the person who had a lot of friends, but I always only had a select few who would hang around me, and this led to me selling myself out and giving more than receiving to keep friendships. Eventually I learned that I didn’t need a lot of friends to be happy, Just a select few. It’s still a struggle meeting people in my local area as most of my good friends live in other states now. I have a best friend of 15 years; we are brothers and will be friends forever. I’m a very particular person with who I hang around with now, and I have difficult times relating to people my age compared to where I’m at in my life right now. I still try though, and that is the important message of all of this.
Romantic relationships were an interesting and difficult thing to learn. I dated only 2 people in high school, and both ended in flames. Because I didn’t go to bars or clubs, or really have any social hobbies growing up, dating in college was mostly through online websites. It’s more difficult learning about not saying “I love you” on the second date when you’re a grown man, and learning all the nuances of dating through trial and error. Sometimes I can’t discern if these are things normal people deal with too or if it’s an autism thing. I can say now though that I have met someone I deeply care for and it doesn’t give me much issue acknowledging what I’m feeling. It is definitely possible to learn this.
My advice to any young person with autism growing up is to know that you don’t need a lot of friends, you need people who accept you for you and all the dumb stuff you will do learning and growing. Also you do not need a relationship to be happy, I have learned that loving yourself first will bring the right people in your life. Work on you, and good will follow.
What strategies have you developed to address this issue that you’ve found successful?
I grew up being on a lot of different test drugs, and also had some social therapy thrown in. I’m entirely dependent on my medicine now to be normal, but I can say that you can work on social training yourself with your family and friends. Working on eye contact and learning to express what something makes you feel can help so much in the process of managing emotional overloads.
When I was younger I had an IEP which was set up so I could take a walk out of the classroom if I was feeling over-exerted, which helped me know what my tipping point was. I still use this today at work if I’m feeling stressed. Going for a walk or just disengaging from whatever is frustrating you for a bit helps.
I am an artist and I use drawing as a zen therapy to help me expunge a lot of negative emotions. I’d recommend something creative to help with feelings management.
I write down what I’m feeling, why I’m angry, and what caused me to be so angry. Being able to pinpoint what made you upset and analyze your behavior is an incredible tool even for people without autism. Learn it and it will help greatly.
How does this affect your current relationships or job?
I can say that my artwork helps me meet people as well as is a means for advancing my career. You’d be surprised what things that start off as a tool can turn into something to help fund your life.
Taking a walk or a break from a heated argument or pressure helps not start major fights with friends, family, or coworkers. Learning to analyze my feelings has helped all relationships I build because I can explain my behavior or why something happened.
In what ways do you self-advocate today?
It took a long time for me to learn to stand up for myself and an even longer time to love myself for who I am.
I write down lists of things I have accomplished and done well at and use that to help me self love more. Sometimes I fixate and obsess over things I need to improve on so much that I forget that I have done and accomplished a lot in my short 26 years. You should always remind yourself that you do great things and everything you do as a step towards improving yourself. I plan things out, make goals, and reach them.
Do you think revealing an autism diagnosis to an employer is good advice? What are the factors to consider in this situation?
Personally, when I apply for jobs, I never discuss my disorder, mainly because I don’t want it to be something that gives me special treatment. I am far enough along on learning to cope with it though that I can do this. I will tell my coworkers I have autism after I’m hired, but I believe that you should try your best to function under the premise that autism is just a different way of going about life; it shouldn’t cripple you. If you are still struggling with social aspects or have meltdowns, then yes, you should let people know because you don’t want to be fired without them knowing and then have that follow you to your next job.
You’ve mentioned that you took medication in the past? What symptoms was the medication supposed to address? Did you find it helpful? What physical, social, and emotional side effects did you experience and how did you manage them?
I have been on well over 100 different medications growing up from 3rd grade to 11th. I was diagnosed in the 90s where autism was a very rare thing to be paired with. People didn’t know how to treat it as well back then so I was a guinea pig in some sense, trying out different meds and experiencing their side effects. Some made me violent– once instanced I kicked a friend down a flight of stairs. Some made me catatonic, some made me crazy, some made me hallucinate. I eventually settled on Risperdal and Zoloft in 3rd grade, which made me double my weight twice in 6 months. In 7th grade I was forced to use Depacote and Seroquel, which gave me a medically-induced thyroid disorder. I eventually was put on Geodon in 11th grade, and it is my wonder drug. I was 325 lbs, and lost 30 lbs just sitting around due to my metabolism working again, and that was when I decided to lose weight. I lost 125 lbs in a year and a quarter. I’m still on Geodon to this day, and it gives me some strange side effects and affects my sleeping, but for me, it’s a necessary evil.
What’s your preference: “autistic person” or “person with autism”?
If you had a child on the spectrum with needs similar to yours, what therapeutic supports or interventions (if any) would you advocate for him or her?
I would definitely help them learn social things earlier on. I’d help them practice eye contact and teach them everything I have learned in socially coping with it. Medications would be a last thing to try if they needed the extra push. There is much more (correct) information out there on autism and more organizations out there than when I was young. There are camps, schools, and groups that we could use. Medications can be a good thing; they’re a struggle, but if you really need the assist, do not disregard it. The worst thing any parent could do is leave their kid alone in coping with something they have no idea how to even comprehend.
What’s the most important thing your parents did for you to help your development?
My dad is a pathologist, so I have been privileged enough to be able to afford all the different treatments I went through. People say autism is a rich man’s disease, but there is a lot you can do without money, and you definitely wouldn’t need to go through what I experienced. My dad was a great inspiration to me, because from when I was young he raised me to always believe that you can keep improving, and that you should never stop. Celebrate your accomplishments, but always keep working on being a better person.