On the spectrum

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Act I:

I recently hosted a social event at my house. I noticed, with some dread, a familiar name on the attendee list. It was a person I’d met at a prior workshop. They repeatedly inserted themselves into the class, each time raising the same only-marginally related topic, to the disinterest of the rest of the class and the annoyance of the facilitators. Unconsciously, I had filed them away under the label “jerk with an agenda”. And here they were, signed up for my social. Sigh. Oh well.

People arrived, including the attendee in question, some period of chit chat happened, and the event began in earnest. This time, the person’s introduction included the self-identification of “autistic”. As the event continued, I found I had a completely different perception of the person. This was no longer a “jerk with an agenda”; this was someone with a special interest that they found fascinating (so of course, everyone else found it fascinating too, right?!) and who was blind to some of the social cues that convey, “This is the wrong time; you’ve lost your audience.” In other words, “Oh. This is a complex, flawed human being, trying their best and not always succeeding.” Just like the rest of us.

That simple label changed my impression of the person. It made them real and multi-dimensional in my eyes. I felt like I had much more empathy for where they were coming from. If I’m honest, it was also a little annoying. It was so easy to dismiss the other person as a “jerk with an agenda”. It was neat and tidy and it meant I didn’t have to spare any more thought or effort towards that person. Now I was aware how deeply dismissive and simplistic of a label it was. 

Act II:

I noticed that Olivia’s calendar had an invite for a class on Kink and Consent, taught specifically for a neurodivergent audience. I expressed an interest in attending as well, though I confessed to feeling a little awkward about it. When Olivia asked why I felt that way, I responded that attending felt a little disingenuous for me, as a neurotypical person.

Olivia cocked her eyebrow the tiniest bit and said with a neutral voice, “Oh? Do you self-identify as neurotypical?”

That reply brought me to a full stop. Sensing that there was something large here, I said, “Do you have something you would like to share?”

Olivia came back with a line that was so smoothly polished, I imagined she had been practicing it for some time. “It is my observation that you sometimes exhibit behavior that is consistent with the behavior of people who have been diagnosed on the Asperger spectrum.”

“Oh”, I believe was my eloquent reply. I didn’t know much about Asperger’s Syndrome, but I don’t think it had occurred to me that I was anything other than boringly neurotypical. By most any objective standard, I was successful in my personal life and had been very successful in my professional career. I frequently joked that I was “playing life on easy mode”. Geek that I am, I started doing some internet searches on Asperger’s. Olivia helpfully suggested an online test that was reasonably well regarded, and I plunged into it. Sure enough, I scored well into the “red” of Asperger’s.

The more I read, the more I felt puzzle pieces click into place. Aspects of my personality that I had always considered small quirks were being described with a disturbing clarity. Yes, I’m pretty introverted. I struggle with small talk in social circumstances. I do much better in social settings if I have a role to play or a task to perform. I am very uncomfortable with strong negative emotional displays. I distrust my own emotional reactions, and sometimes have to wait for my inner emotional storms to pass before I can decide how I want to proceed. Processing large emotions takes me longer than it seems to take other people. I have trouble making new friends. I have profound difficulty reading non-verbal cues. I am capable of focusing deeply on a topic, in a way that can shut out the rest of the world around me. I am detail oriented and very attached to finding algorithms or rubrics for handling problems or situations. I greatly prefer factual information over abstract or emotional data. (I could go on and on.)

I soon found Olivia had been strongly considering the possibility that I was on the autism spectrum for several months, and she and Melody had been actively talking about it for the week prior, as I was struggling with some recent emotional upheaval. Both of them had some apprehension about how I would react to finding out I was on the spectrum.

Thankfully, I didn’t have a negative reaction to it. If anything, I found it a bit of a relief, and more than a little illuminating. Suddenly, I had access to a wealth of information about people with ‘quirks’ like mine, and a variety of tools for dealing with them. Seemingly random and unrelated odd aspects of my beliefs and behaviors could now be viewed as symptoms of a common theme.

I did briefly wonder why I didn’t stumble onto a label like this earlier. Oh, right. Practically my entire adult life was spent in the software industry, and then later chasing a math degree. By the standards of those groups, I hardly stood out as unusual at all. No wonder I had thought of myself as boringly “normal”. I also developed an appreciation for the many positives I had experienced from various of my Asperger traits. Arguably, a great deal of my professional and academic success was related to my ability to focus obsessively, block out distractions from the rest of the world, organize all the factual data into a structured and consistent format. I am very comfortable that if there were a ‘cure’ for Asperger’s, I wouldn’t take it. In many respects, the diagnosis has felt like it reveals as many positives as negatives; there are superpowers in it, as well as some specific and challenging vulnerabilities. I have no interest in a ‘cure’; I’m content to have tools and insights to help smooth off some of the rougher edges in my experience.

I continue to read more about it, finding some materials I loathe and some I really appreciate. I skim a reddit community on Asperger’s, and find much there that I recognize, and also a fair bit that doesn’t seem to apply to me at all. It’s a very broad umbrella, and not all of it applies to all people on the spectrum.

Like the story at the start of this essay, I’m finding that simply having the label is significant and empowering in some deep ways. I have a better framing for some of the struggles in my life. I’m finding more patience and more tolerance of myself when I’m in situations I find challenging. 

Act III:

With this new label, I am discovering awareness of things that I thought were universal human experiences, that are in fact not at all universal, but are pretty specific to Asperger’s. For instance…

I did attend the “Kink and Consent for Neurodivergent People” class that initiated this discovery. As you might imagine, the class had attendees that were all over the spectrum, and there were several people whose challenges appeared to be much greater than my own. After the event, Melody made a comment that as we were going around the room doing introductions, mine seemed so comfortable and fluid compared to a majority of the attendees. I said, “Well sure, I practiced.” She was confused by that response, so I explained. Whenever I am in a situation where introductions will be called for, the second I realize it, I start mentally rehearsing what I’m going to say. How I’ll introduce myself, what key information to include, in what order, even what words to use. “No, don’t say that; that will sound stupid. Oh, include that! Not that order, say it in the other order. Leave that out. No, that would be weird. Say this, not that!” That runs through my head over and over again until it’s my turn and I can recite my carefully chosen and mentally rehearsed introduction. And then I can exhale and relax and pay attention to everyone else again. No wonder I am so bad at remembering names and faces at these events! I’m so focused on my own experience, I can barely pause to think about anyone else in the room. Melody, by contrast said, “I don’t think I know what I’m going to say until I open my mouth. It just comes spilling out.”

Now that I know my experience is not at all universal, I know to spell it out for my people. This gives them more insight into my experience, and a better appreciation for why some things are easier for me and some things are harder. It feels like a real learning experience for all of us.

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