When I was young, I kept a diary. This was not a diary like you might think. Those pages weren’t filled with fun gossip, or highlights of my day-to-day activities. The pages of my diaries were methodically filled with ‘socially acceptable’ rules, facts my peers found relevant and funny, as well as the dos and don’ts of being a teenage girl. I was desperate to fit in with the other kids at my school.
I started these diaries in sixth grade after my ‘friends’ told me that I wasn’t good enough to sit with them at lunch anymore. They aspired to sit at the table with the ‘popular’ kids, and I was too weird to join them. Melvin (the Janitor and my friend), found me sobbing, and escorted me to the nurse’s office where I pulled myself together. After I’d explained what happened, he ruffled my hair and told me “You are perfect, just the way you are.”
So… what was it that made me socially unacceptable in 6th grade?
It’s well known that people on the Autism Spectrum lack a certain social grace, especially for those with Asperger’s Syndrome, like myself. Social grace encompasses the ability to send, receive, and understand social cues. I’m talking about eye contact, body language, physical cues, facial expressions and even tonality. These are things that I just didn’t understand. Because of it, I was perceived as awkward and annoying. Most Neurotypicals (Non-Spectrum Individuals) take these things for granted, simply because they’re used to doing them.
Why do we make eye contact? Why do I have to look at you in order to prove that I’m paying attention? Why do I have to stare at you, without blinking or flinching to prove that I’m telling the truth? Why do you jump to the conclusion that I am being disrespectful if you’re not at the center of my gaze? If I’m making eye contact, why is it important that my eyes ‘speak’ for me? What does that even mean? Why must you stare intently into my pupils, while discussing the ratio of my iris and how it correlates to some hidden meaning of my response to you? You want me to look at you, but without staring at you? But if I look away, you get angry. Make up your mind! Most Neurotypicals know to look someone in the eye when talking to them. I didn’t. I failed to see how it was important, relevant, and why I had to force myself to do it. I’m using eye contact as an example simply because for many of us on the spectrum, making eye contact is a challenge. Not because we’re lying, or because you’re ugly, or we aren’t paying attention; but because there’s a ton of other stimuli we’re processing, and we don’t need to look at you to hear what you’re saying, or to be aware of what you’re doing.
I am able to be present, and disengaged enough to know everything that is going on around me. I’ve never been fully present in social scenarios. The speed in which the world processes around me is faster than a Neurotypical, preventing me from completely engaging “in-the-moment.” My mind looks at the bigger picture, ten steps ahead, while processing the numerous variables of “in-the-moment” interactions. Add to the mix an intolerance for bright lights, loud noises, and uncomfortable physical contact. Every single stimuli that enters my immediate environment becomes one more thing that I am uncontrollably, helplessly, overwhelmingly obsessive about.
I’ve developed a bad habit over the years that consists of structuring and rehearsing conversations with specific persons before they have yet to happen. I research, construct, calculate, and account for variables in preparation for different responses. Then I’ll go into a conversation when I feel comfortable enough to control it, and be able to add something meaningful to it. Which of course isn’t the point of ‘casual conversation’. Yet, when I don’t do this, I rarely find myself able to contribute. One of the patterns I had learned during the years of collecting data and storing it into my diaries, is that the structure of conversation is illogical. Social rules are too subjective, and there’s no set, correct way of interacting. Which means I could never adjust or adapt. This created my desire and internal need to construct and control conversations myself. In doing so, I inadvertently made things worse. I was honest in my opinions, and despite the high demand people make for it, honesty was offensive. I was considered rude because I was ‘forcing conversation’ and not letting it happen naturally. But, don’t all conversations begin with someone initializing and guiding it? I was ‘too controlling’ and ‘too rehearsed’ and my topics were ‘so yesterday’. Everything that I did, or said, was scrutinized, yet I was the loser for never contributing anything?
One of the common myths I hear about Autistics, is that we don’t empathize or feel for our peers. Many assume that because we lack a filter, and come across bluntly, we must not have any remorse for the people we hurt, or annoy. For myself, that’s far from the truth. I’ve upset more people than I care to count because my social acumen isn’t the same as theirs. If anything, I have too much empathy for the people I frustrate. It is those moments I relive. I analyze the conversations, or relationships, trying to decipher how I could have handled them better.
At the end of middle school, I was fed up, but I also had the epiphany that I was unknowingly sending inappropriate social signals. I realized that I was also struggling to receive, and understand, signals from my peers. I was overcome with a desperate need for understanding what I was missing. This began the period of socially mimicking my peers. I thought if I copied them, maybe the hidden subtext would pop out at me. In my diaries, I began ripping apart everything, looking for a shred of logic to help make sense of this illusive concept. I made myself mad trying to identify and understand social cues, hoping I could adapt my behavior to start blending in.
Did I ever learn?
In 12th grade, I was diagnosed with Asperger’s and that’s when I began to see behaviorists who finally helped me to make sense of all the formulas I had compiled. And as a result, I created the only successful ‘Social Equation’ that works for me to this day: Dare to be me.
Honestly… most days I still feel like it all eludes me. Internally, it’s a constant battle of being myself versus trying to blend. The anxiety is never ending, but it helps to know that anxiety is never the reality.
This is how my brain is wired. It analyzes, searches, and becomes obsessed over assigned meaning to things that don’t make sense. You’re probably thinking that I’m thinking too long, and too hard about this. And yes, you’re absolutely right. The world is full of rules that have no real reasoning of “why” behind them. I grasp for the “why” of everything. My mind doesn’t comprehend, or let go of things without reason, because the gray area is not a comfortable or safe area for me.
“Live and learn.”
By the way… I did eventually let go of all those diaries. Just after high school I buried over 3 dozen of them in the backyard, each of them 2 feet below the earth. Someday, I’m sure someone is going to dig them up and have a heck of a time deciphering them. In hindsight, I wish I’d been wise enough to listen to my friend, Melvin. Had I dared to just be myself sooner in life, I’d have been spared a lot of heartache and disappointment.
Writer – Jessica Cox | Editor – Sarina Scott