Torn Between an Extraordinary Memory (HSAM) and Autism
“I want teenagers with autism to know it’s O.K that some days are tough and I’m here to tell you it gets easier as you mature into adulthood and find your passion.” Wise words from Rebecca Sharrock who knows only too well how difficult the teenage years can be for someone with autism and who suffers with depression and anxiety.
We talked to Rebecca about how life growing up in Australia was for her.
Trying to put the pieces of the world together in a way that makes sense and contending with a Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM) diagnosis can be challenging.
When you talk to Rebecca you know you’re talking to someone who is focused and clear about what she wants to do with her life. Her passion is to become a writer and public speaker, but this didn’t happen over night. Rebecca certainly has a story to tell!
Putting the Pieces of Autism Together - The Long Journey of a Diagnosis
Her life hasn’t been easy and she’ll be the first to tell you it took her a long time to put all the pieces of her childhood together to be where she is now. Rebecca has suffered from anxiety and depression from as young as 3 years old, which saw her in therapy on a weekly basis until the age of 19. Rebecca’s family put it down to the breakdown of the family unit. She recalls being fearful, and at times needing to build physical walls around herself. Her mother Janet often found her trying to barricade the fence to their home against possible intruders. The fence was only knee high but that didn’t deter Rebecca. Janet put it down to a coping mechanism.
Rebecca’s story doesn’t stop there! Janet felt that Rebecca might be autistic. When Rebecca was 6 years old, she was tested and the results came back as negative. The doctors put her behavior down to severe anxiety and depression. It wasn’t until her mother remarried and welcomed 3 more children to live with Rebecca and her younger sister that things started to become a little clearer.
Following the diagnosis of a stepsibling, Rebecca was retested at 15 years of age and was diagnosed with Autism, confirming Janet’s original thoughts. The doctor explained to her that girls present differently and could easily have been missed as a result of limited knowledge amongst professionals at the time. Rebecca tells us of the relief she felt and read up on autism, which helped alleviate the anxiety and gave her a sense of identity without the feeling of being isolated. Although some relief was brought on by the diagnosis, Rebecca still felt incomplete.
One year later Rebecca was tested for OCD but that still didn’t giver her the peace of mind she was looking for.
Struggling at School with an Unsupportive System
School was challenging for Rebecca. Bullying was quite significant and she found the classes too much, too long and with too many students, leaving Rebecca feeling overwhelmed. Overall, she didn’t like school, which added to her anxiety. She didn’t feel she had enough support in the classroom. Subjects like maths and spelling were enjoyable for Rebecca but she could have done with having more structure and the lessons explained in more detail. Having a special needs support teacher would have significantly helped to manage challenges as they arose.
It wasn’t until after the diagnosis that school hours were adjusted for Rebecca and breaks provided to listen to calming music.
By the time she was 9 years old, a teacher introduced Rebecca to Harry Potter because of her love of maps, and in the process identified with the character Neville Longbottom because, like her, he was an outsider and bullied by others. Today the obsession couldn’t be more prominent where Rebecca can recall line by line from every one of the Harry Potter series.
Janet will tell you that Rebecca’s memory as a child was extraordinary. At 1.5 years old, she knew the alphabet and at 4 years old she was into maths books. By 6 years old, she was choosing her own books to read which included geographical books. Reading calmed Rebecca and she couldn’t get enough, which contrasted with her younger sister who was into dress-ups. At such a young age she wasn’t able to process the information fast enough but once she understood it, her retention was incredible. The internal dilemma that Rebecca was dealing with left her anxious with a feeling of low self-worth and an inordinate amount of inadequacy and frustration. As a child Rebecca recalls her feelings as “how come everybody is coping but I’m not? They must be better at hiding it than I am. What’s wrong with me?”
It wasn’t until Rebecca was 17 years old when a family friend called to tell Janet to watch a TV segment about people with Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM). Rebecca was hollered back from the garden to watch. Janet was shocked because this acknowledged Rebecca’s unique memory and Rebecca thought, “Why is this amazing? Isn’t this normal?” When her parents told her it isn’t, Rebecca said “But I can do that”. In a state of disbelief, Rebecca was torn between “Isn’t this normal?” and “I’m possibly one of only a handful of people in the world with this condition”.
Uncovering an Extraordinary Memory
With her family’s encouragement, Rebecca emailed the University of California, Irvine where they asked her to complete an online test. Rebecca and her family would have to wait until she was 21 before the diagnosis for HSAM was confirmed. She is now part of the university’s ongoing research and to date 60 people are confirmed with HSAM globally. It is estimated that this figure represents only 10% of the actual number of people with this gift.
This was the final piece Rebecca was looking for. She felt the puzzle was complete and now, at the age of 27, has formed her own identity of who she is. What is unique about Rebecca is that of the 60 candidates, she is the only one with Autism!
Those with HSAM have varying degrees of the condition. In Rebecca’s case, she can date her first memory to when she was 12 days old lying in her crib looking up at her mum. Although Rebecca can recall earlier than that, there needs to be physical evidence to confirm it, such as a dated photograph. At such a young age, Rebecca isn’t aware of the concept of calendars. But if you asked what she did on her second birthday she can tell you and reference days before or after the event.
So how does the world look to Rebecca now? With every memory she can recall the emotions that go with it as well as any physical pain, which is no wonder it contributed to her anxiety if she recalled such negative memories so vividly. Positive memories are remembered equally as much, “When we relive a memory, we relive it in our own personal emotional state”.
None of the other HSAM candidates are able to recall that level of pain that Rebecca associates with and she describes when a 3 year old falls over and grazes itself, it hurts more as a child than as an adult. She relives the pain as a 3 year old over and over again.
When we asked her about walking and talking, Rebecca tells us that walking is something she remembers vividly as something she saw everybody doing and wanted to do the same. Her aim was to get up and move as fast as possible before falling over. Learning to talk is a lot less vivid, except that she knows once she mastered the language she built on the knowledge.
Rebecca has many comical stories to share. Janet remembers having a mini mouse doll with freckles on it and every time she gave it to Rebecca, she would throw it out of her cot. Janet thought that she was enjoying playing with it and wanted it passed back to her to throw it out again. However, Rebecca actually disliked the doll because the freckles scared her, tossing it out at every chance she got. There is no way a parent would have known that! Years later, they laugh about the confusion. Her stories are endless and she can recall them with ease, especially now that she has a better understanding of herself.
What Does the Future Hold for Rebecca?
It took Rebecca the better part of her late teens to find herself and it wasn’t until her early 20’s that she found her passion: a love of writing and public speaking. Now in her late 20’s, she is very clear where she wants to channel her energy. No doubt with a memory like hers that will come naturally to her.
Rebecca wants to share her story and experiences as a teenager trying to navigate the various diagnoses of anxiety, depression, OCD, autism and HSAM and help teenagers going through the same to give the inspiration and hope she now has for herself.
Advice to Teenagers Suffering Anxiety and Depression
When asked what 4 tips she would give to a teenager who is going through anxiety and depression, here is what she said:
- With the support of family and friends, try to get a diagnosis as soon as possible. This makes a huge difference in how you manage situations. What’s more, read about it as much as possible. It’s not scary and will give you the clarity you need.
- The challenging part is the teenage years and know that it does get easier as you mature into adulthood.
- Understand that the way you view the world will change, so make sure to focus on the most important and positive things.
- Finally, find your passion and follow it. This will give you a sense of purpose and with the new found freedom as an adult, you will find life more enjoyable.
How to Get in Touch with Rebecca
If you’d like to get in touch with Rebecca, you can reach her with the following links:
Email - firstname.lastname@example.org
Facebook - https://www.facebook.com/ALifeJournal/ (Teens and Adults on the Autism Spectrum)
Skype - rebecca.sharrock1