Sunday, April 10, 2011

Growing Up Autistic, Part I

People who know me in "real life" often tell me, "Oh, there is no way you can possibly be autistic. You have no problem whatsoever talking to people, being charming, getting yourself liked by strangers. Are you sure you have it?"

Yes, my friends, I'm sure. Over the years, I have mastered a series of behavioral techniques that help me pass for "normal." I now enjoy being in front of a classroom several times a week. I can charm the grumpiest person ever and be the life of the party if I really need to. I can entertain huge crowds and give passionate public speeches. It is all learned behavior, though.

Until a few years ago, I was very different. As I was growing up, I always knew that I was different. We didn't know the word "autism" then, so I just perceived myself as flawed, broken, unlike everybody else. This was a secret I had to keep from everybody. Everything I did was aimed at making sure that what I perceived as a shameful difference would pass unnoticed. I kind of intuited that my father shared this brand of difference for which I then had no name.

As a child, the most vivid set of experiences I had consisted of staring out of the window at other kids playing together  and somehow knowing that this activity was completely out of the question for me. Once, I saw kids in my neighborhood build snow castles and play out fascinating battles with snow cones. When nightfall came and everybody left, I went out and improved the snow castles. I also made some fresh snow cones and left them for the kids to use on the next day. I was six and knew that this was the only way for me to take part in the game.

When I went to school, breaks between classes were torture. All the other kids played together, but for me my main challenge of the day consisted in somehow making sure that I wasn't seen standing there all alone with no company. I would come up with strategies that I planned at home for hours at end to pretend that I was alone because I was engaged in something very important that prevented me from playing with other children.

Fast forward fifteen years, and I was an undergrad at McGill University in Canada (the best educational institution ever in the best city in the world.) Things other than autism set me apart from other students. I was 23 and a few years older than other students. A recent immigrant recovering from a failed marriage and in charge of bringing up a teenager, I felt as different from my fellow students as anybody else. The first two months of my undergrad studies were spent in complete silence. The system of higher education couldn't have been more different from what I was used to, but asking anybody for advice was, of course, out of the question. 

"Out of the question" was, and often still is, a phrase that defined my existence. Having friends over to my place? Out of the question. Calling people on the phone or contacting them by email? Completely out of the question. Attending an event at my university? Totally out of the question. Asking for directions / help / advice? Absolutely out of the question. I had to school my husband to stop telling me to call customer service of my bank, the company I bought my computer from, or anybody else. "Honey," I said, "can't you just get it once and for all that calling people to make queries is completely and utterly out of the question?"


Rimi said...

Interesting. Tell me, when you watched the children play, did you want to go join them but felt unable? Because while I never once played with the neighbourhood children but watched them sometimes from our balcony, I never once felt the desire to go and join them, or felt lonely because I knew I couldn't fit in with the group.

The autistic test you led me to once told me I cannot be classed in the autistic spectrum because I have excellent interpersonal skills, which I find very amusing. There's deep irony in being 'the most social' or 'the most cheerful', because I taught myself to be that way even before I finished middle school. My only problem is sustaining it for long periods. Socialising exhausts me like working for hours at my computer or in the library without speaking a word never does.

Clarissa said...

My dear friend, what you say about being exhausted by socializing makes me think you might be one of us. Of course, being diagnosed as an autistic only makes sense, in my opinion, if you think you will really benefit from it.

A senior colleague invited me to go out with her and her husband. I had a blast with both of them. The next day, however, I had to spend in bed because it had been such an enormous amount of work to be sociable with these two kind and fantastic people.

As for the kids at play, I didn't really want to join them. I just wanted to be perceived as "normal." Even today, I do all I can to be classified as normal without having to join other people at play (or anything else."

Natasha from Russia said...

My God, never would believe in it if to me somebody has told about it, except you.
You are represented to me by the laugher and the cheerful child.
I congratulate on such huge victory over self.

Clarissa said...

It's not a big deal, my friend. It really isn't. Feel free to leave the link to your blog once more, because I have misplaced it yet again.

Rimi said...

More than being perceived as normal, I think I felt bad that my natural reaction was to sit in a corner with a book when immediate family, extended family, neighbours and my parents friends all wanted to be friendly, to ask me about school, or have me play with their children. I've been showered with a lot of love in my childhood simply because I'm the child of my parents (my parents are very well-loved and popular), and I primarily trained myself to be social (bright, smiley, chatty) so my reticence wouldn't hurt these lovely people who showered me with affection.

And yes, the next day I sleep till 11 or even past noon and don't want to leave my house ever again :-)

Anonymous said...

A recent article on a related topic:

Award-winning actor Paddy Considine talks for the first time about being diagnosed with Asperger’s – at the age of 36. By Daphne Lockyer