A Little Bit Autistic, A Little Bit Rock and Roll
I answered a question in the column yesterday from a woman with a very sweet and empathetic daughter who reflexively apologizes, and after reading it nineteen times, thought “…oh, I think your daughter might be autistic” (silently, to self, “also, you might be autistic too, letter writer”.)
But I was also thinking about me. I’m a weird adult, like all interesting people I know, but the process of getting myself to just this amount of weird and no more has been a long journey. I am also married to a (probably, but not quite enough to be noticed as a kid in the 1970s) autistic man and have an autistic kid. Who make a lot of sense to me. We make sense to each other.
I don’t spend a lot of time remembering or thinking about how hard childhood was for me. I had such wonderful parents, and everything I needed, if not everything I wanted (which is the correct way to raise children regardless of your resources).
Childhood was a nightmare. I did so much masking, which I didn’t know was masking until…a few years ago? I am hyperlexic, which has been a tremendous gift to me for my entire life, but as a kid it both brought me joy and a way to filter out the constant fucking hell of peer interactions I was unable to navigate and excessive sensory input. I still destroy my fingers (cuticles, nails), but as a child I would do it until my fingers got literally infected. I chewed and tore at my feet. I ate reams of paper torn from the bottoms of books. I ate skin. I had a hairless doll I kept pressed to my face for years because having a familiar scent to focus on filtered out other things. I tapped patterns on my fingertips to self-regulate, which has remained my little secret stim. I had significant fine motor deficits, but people just thought it was being left-handed and clumsy.
In third grade I had a teacher, Mrs. Robinson, who (after and before years of nothing but perfect report cards and glowing reports) noticed (!) that I couldn’t seem to hear her, or wasn’t listening, if I was doing something else, and flagged me for a hearing test, which I passed. I found not pleasing her to be intensely traumatic, I can still feel this absolute gaping pit of terror at the memory of not doing what she wanted me to do. Trying to explain that I just could not hear her if I was focused on something else. She had to clap loudly next to me to snap me out of focus. I have been mad at her for so many years, and yet, in retrospect, it was because she saw something about me that other people didn’t, because I was so good at being so good all the time. She saw me. She saw something was different.
Another gift of hyperlexia is that it gave me the information I desperately needed: how to look normal to other people. How people are. How they communicate to each other. I remember reading The Left Hand of Darkness and as Genly Ai struggled to make sense of this alien culture’s concept of “shifgrethor”, described in the book as “prestige, face, place, the pride-relationship, the untranslatable and all-important principle of social authority in Karhide and all civilizations of Gethen” thinking “Jesus, that’s exactly what it’s like for me to be alive all the time.”
I was a normal amount of bitch as a teen to my parents. No more, no less. Life got easier for me. I had so much information. I was so much better at navigating Gethen. I still ravaged my fingers but not my feet. I didn’t need the doll pressed to my face. My high school got the International Baccalaureate program and it was so hard that I was able to dissolve into it like salt and it was logical that I didn’t have time to hang out with peers. I was like a beam of pure light pointed towards university. Purpose, flow. I got into Harvard. I negotiated a full financial aid package. I got there.
I came unglued. I still got good grades, but I had to have friends and be normal with them and I had to have romantic relationships because I had so much desire and I was bad both at being normal enough to get friends and romantic relationships (finally, memorizing Monty Python and Blackadder paid off, nerds unite!) but not to keep them, in either case. And then I was about to graduate, white-knuckling through to the end, and didn’t know what came after. I got a job and was good at it. I still struggled to be with other people correctly.
Every year since has been easier, money is a tremendous social lubricant. I am told I overshare, I probably do. I am told I can be very obnoxious, I probably am. I don’t know what’s normal to share or always how to say it. I am very happy (when not Seasonally Affected) because I am in a very happy marriage with a person who makes more sense to me than other people do, and because of my children, and because I have found many wonderful friends with whom I can be essentially myself. And many, many online friends who have been a source of joy.
Twitter is like Snood, for me, which was how I self-regulated in college. The dopamine hits. I’m larger than life. The feedback loop is so satisfying. It’s like the game the Romulans smuggled onto the Enterprise. I cannot use it moderately. It’s been very good to pull back.
Life is very good. Life is very hard. Be safe on our nation’s roads. I am probably autistic.
I love you very much.
You are all so lovely. Hitting publish reminded me of John Mulaney’s “I’ve never talked to my dad about that, but I thought I would tell all of you.” I’m like “obviously my close friends and family MUST subscribe to my newsletter so they’ll read this or they do not deserve to possess this information.” But obviously I have talked to my parents about bits of it. You just don’t want to bum people out. Especially when they were GREAT parents and I was doing exceptional amounts of invisible work to not let anyone notice I had clearly been dropped from the moon into the world.
I have been saying "I've got a lot of autistic traits" for a while, I've been saying "I'm not precisely neurotypical" for a while, but I think it's probably time to just own it.