I am autistic.
To celebrate April as Autism Awareness Month, I’ve decided to come out of the autistic closet, y’all! For a good resource or clearing house on mental health issues in general and autism in specific, visit my friend Madelyn’s page, April 2017: Mental Health Awareness Month.
I’ve been aware of my differentness almost since conscious awareness. Straight out of the womb, I wouldn’t cry. No matter what the doctor did, no crying. Luckily, I was breathing without the crying. For the rest of my life, though, I have endured discomfort with nary a care and, surprisingly, cried easily. According to my mother, up until about the age of five, if another child cried, I cried; if another child vomited, I vomited. I was popular at day care and other babysitting services since they could get the crying child to stop since there was a reason for that child to cry, but it was much more difficult to get me to stop since there was no discernible reason for me to be crying. My mother was frequently called away from bowling and other such past times to come sooth her unsoothable child. I guess to compensate for all those missed hours of entertainment and socializing, my mother used to play this fun game: If you start crying, I’m going to spank you! she’d tell me. Of course, I would immediately dissolve into tears at which time she would laugh and laugh. Cruel, but fun!
When I was in university, I took a sociology class in gender roles. One of the essays we had to write was about how we learned about gender roles — gender specific behavior and characteristics. I realized then that I learned most of my gender specific behavior from TV and movies. At the time, I attributed it to growing up without a father and searching for a gender model. Now, I realize I was searching for rules by which to live my life.
But, let’s stop to think about the images that would be available from TV and movies in the late 1960’s and the 1970;s. Gilligan’s Island. Star Trek. All in the Family. You know, those are the big three. Of course, there were others, too, but I took specific things from each of those shows. The other big influence was Shirley Temple movies, for all love. They would be shown on Saturday TV movie matinee. No wonder my relations with women — I’m apologize to my dear and long suffering wife — have been so… Awkward? Strange? Inept?
I based my social rules around romantic relationships on freaking Shirley Temple movies! And, I identified with Shirley Temple! Sweet Baby Jesus beat me with your dirty diaper, how fucked up is that?
I identified with Gilligan. I see my day-to-day self and moment-to-moment interactions with others as if I were Gilligan. Oh, that’s going to work out well, isn’t Ms. Employer, ma’am, ain’t it, now?
Layered on top of Gilligan is Archie Bunker. What kind of perverse universe produced a hybrid Gilligan-Archie Bunker? But, yet there it is. I get the derogatory barely contained rageful humor. And, can turn it on in a moment’s notice. In a sitcom it’s funny. In real life, not so much.
The basic rule that comes out of these three paradigms is that I fuck things up and someone else comes along and fixes it. And, somehow, I bumble my way to a solution. Only, the world don’t work that way just scripted TV shows with multiple takes and a laugh track.
So, as a teenager, I became Mr. Spock. I suppressed my emotions. I actively pursued feeling nothing. And, there on the TV, I was being told that logical emotionless existence was the way to be. It was the superior way. After all, Spock always ended up on the winning side, didn’t he? He always contributed to the solution, right? Who didn’t love Mr. Spock? It seemed a better alternative to what I had going on inside me.
I think, but I don’t know, that most high-functioning autistics live their lives feeling like there is some big secret that the rest of the world knows, but we don’t. For me, the whole movies and TV shows thing just amplified it. It took me a long time to connect the two together, but I finally realized that movie and TV shows not only follow a plot, but also, a predictable progression that transcends individual episodes or movies. As the viewer, you can predict what will happen: Captain Kirk will never die in an episode of Star Trek no matter how dire the situation. Unfortunately, life ain’t that way. But, to me it feels as if it is… for everyone else but me.
Autism is a disorder of prediction. The autistic cannot predict social situations. We can predict the physics of the world. We can predict mechanics. But, we cannot predict the behaviors of others or even ourselves. We look for rules. In the physical world, the rules rule. In the social world, the rules are only loose guidelines that do not always work out. In other words, it is ambiguous in the best of circumstances, and I don’t deal well with ambiguity. Again, think of my long suffering wife.
Any regular reader of this blog knows that people are emotional decision makers, and autistics are no different. Those emotional decisions are often experienced as intuition. So, I follow my intuition. I do what I think I oughta be doing. I do what I think is right. And, because what I do is perceived as odd or peculiar to those around me, there is always someone who feels like they can (a) point it out, (b) make fun, (c) belittle, or (d) recoil in horror and disdain. When you are different, people instinctively feel permitted to tease or bully. And, worse, when you complain about it, you get the tired line, I was only joking. Which of course implies that you can’t perceive the joke so you’re even more different. When your emotional reactions don’t match the predictions of those around you, you’re the one who is wrong.
As an autistic, the world is constantly pointing out how you don’t fit in and how you are wrong. Your very instinct is wrong. Your assumptions are wrong. You’re like the mouse in the lab experiment where electric shocks will be applied only the experimenter has set the generator to random. There is no pattern, so there is no safe place to learn. It’s like you’re in an abusive relationship with the world.
For some ungodly reason, autistic people are clumsy. So, imagine the misery of visiting my in-laws in far north frozen Canada for Christmas and everyone wanting you to go snowmobiling or eight-pin bowling or whatever the scaled down bowling ball and pins game is called, and them not understanding about how difficult it is to coordinate all these new positions and sequences so that you screw things up over and over and over again to the point that everyone else first is just jaw-dropping amazed — and they’ll tell you about it — second annoyed because you can’t respond to their instruction and you’re just not getting it — and they’ll tell you about it — and third, give up. It is just easier not to in those circumstances.
One of the most important human needs is to feel understood and accepted. When you’re autistic, you are fundamentally misunderstood and barely accepted at best. We talk too loudly. We talk about things that no one else is interested in. We say the wrong things. We embarrass those around us. We misinterpret what should be plainly obvious. We’re pedantic driving home a pointless unimportant point with too much enthusiasm. And it happens over and over and over every time you interact with another human being no matter how hard you try.
Luckily, most autistics have a rich inner world and highly focused interests to retreat into. I like being alone because (a) it is easier and (b) it is less exhausting. And let’s face it, the shit I’m into is INTERESTING! Man, if you only knew.
I’ve been aware of my autism diagnosis, which isn’t official, by the way, since the birth of my autistic daughter twelve years ago when she was diagnosed at the age of three. For those of us who are math challenged that is nine years ago. She has been my biggest blessing after my long suffering — I cannot emphasize that enough — wife. In many ways, my life would be miserable without them. They give me structure, meaning, and purpose that I would struggle to find without them.
The biggest difference between my daughter’s life and mine with autism is that she knows and has always known. And, she has had help in adapting to a non-autistic world. At the very least, she understands why things are happening to her. She has been taught specific coping strategies and methods. She has parents that understand and accept her. She has teachers that know how to cope with her idiosyncrasies, most of the time. It is still not easy, but at least she has the benefit of my insights and her mother’s love and care and guidance and embrace.