When Sean Culkin was a freshman in college in 2012, he’d walk into his chemistry labs consumed with panic. College chemistry courses can strike fear and anxiety in just about everyone, but Culkin, who was majoring in biology, was grappling with something else.
He was trying to hide that he had autism.
“I was embarrassed,” Culkin, 24, of Long Island, told TODAY. “I thought if I kept my head down and if I pushed myself I would overcome autism.”
While he was able to mask some of the symptoms during middle and high school, the dramatic changes of college made it tougher.
“I would spiral out of control. I would come into class, anxious and unable to focus,” he explained. “I was struggling with the social aspects of my peers and even going into class.”
Culkin has long known that he was on the autism spectrum, but he often thought of it as something that needed to be cured. He felt that way, in part, because that’s how society thinks of it. When the doctor had told his parents in the late 1990s that their 2-year-old son was on the autism spectrum, they weren't given much hope.
“The doctor who diagnosed me said that kids like me put stress on families that break them,” Culkin told TODAY. “Autism is really stigmatized that it is something bad that needs to be taken away.”
Culkin didn’t learn that he was on the autism spectrum until he was in middle school and suddenly his struggles to socialize and communicate made more sense.
“I knew there was something ‘off’ about me for my entire life. The news I was autistic wasn’t a shock,” Culkin said. “Once it had a name it was a lot easier to address.”
Yet, he wanted ignore it. He’d practice social interactions at home so he could be like his friends. He let his own stigmatized view of autism guide him and he got better at hiding it. So, while the routine of high school made it easier for him suppress his symptoms, college upended it.
“In high school, I was holding my symptoms at bay because it was the same day over and over,” he said. “The transition to college was difficult. I nearly failed out of college because of my refusal to get help.”
After his freshman year, he transferred to Adelphi University, which was closer to home and offered a program designed for people with autism. But his shame lingered.
“I thought I had lost because I thought the whole goal was to never admit I had autism,” Culkin said. “It made me feel the battle was over.”
But then he started therapy. For about three years he met with counselors for several times a week. Soon, he realized that accepting that he had autism made life easier.
“I no longer see autism as a detriment,” he said. “I have been consistently admitting to myself I do have these symptoms and there is something to be positively gained not negatively.”
Soon, he realized that the “quirky” things about him are things people liked about him. His acceptance helped him socialize more and be successful in his current role as a specimen coordinator at Northwell Health, a position he’s held since he graduated with a degree in biology in 2017.
“I have had a lot of happy parts in my life,” he said. “I am probably happier now than I have ever been.”