What I’d tell my younger ‘autistic’ self now

They’re right: you are wildly different than them. But they suck. Embrace your difference, use it to take the lead. Whenever another kid tells you you’re weird tell them they’re the weird ones. Laugh at them. Joke at their expense. In a few years you’re going to turn that into a successful strategy against the heterosexism all around you; it will work for your neuroqueerness too.

h/t to AutisticAlly Support on Facebook for the prompt this morning. (Unfortunately either fb won’t let me link to the post, or else I just can’t figure how to do it. Anyway, search for their page, you’ll find it!)

From Kindergarten on, everyone pointed out how different I was: peers to exclude me, teachers to praise me. But I never wanted to accept that there was any merit to their observation, in part because I couldn’t understand what they were talking about, but more so because I just wanted to be accepted.

‘I’m nothing more than myself,’ I thought, ‘a human being… Sooo… What could be so different?’ Ahaha… ahahahaa… turns out, a lot.

But back then, I spent all kinds of energy doing anything I could think of to deny difference—for no reason at all, turns out, like so many other neuroqueer people. That’s masking, as the comic from NeuroWild (IG) expressively demonstrates.

The situation with my neurology is so absurdly parallel to what I went through coming out over my sexuality. But at the time, funnily enough, my sexual orientation was a hindrance, one among others, to discovering the profundity of the difference between me and others.

Knowing I’m gay was a simple realization made extremely early. All I had to notice for that was that I found men to be attractive. In the age of Sally Jesse Raphael and the heyday of the American Soap Opera, that was easily achieved (even though, actually, my tastes veer rather far from the sculpted, waxed and primped men on the covers of Romance novels).

I thought the gay part was what was different about me, that my voice was too high or too gay (so, yeah, I have pretty intense feelings about my voice to this day); who could say, maybe I sat in a gay way or something lol… But my voice is what I really noticed.

[Music Only I’ve Heard for a little on my voice-complex]

For lack of understanding, many kids also pinpointed my sexual orientation as the point of difference. They were as wrong as I was, but what kind of fascinates me is that no one, so far as I can remember at least, mocked my mind or used ableist slurs at me—I remember the ‘r-word’ was popular among my peers, this or that random thing was re… [well I’m not going to repeat it, am I?], but the word was removed from intellectual disability insofar as it was a different way of saying ‘bad’ generally [unsaid: badness as founded on a cultural premise that any ‘disability’ was a bad thing],* in which sense it may have been lobbed at me a few times, but there was always ‘faggot’ and ‘queer’ and ‘fairy’ and whatnot, so why resort to advanced psychological othering when there’s something so obvious before that?

*. I want to be clear here: I am not excusing the use of the word in that generalized negative sense. Generalized negativity to do with intellectual development is precisely the problem! Ableism that deeply rooted. Even once the word had swung toward ‘unhinged’ in a countercultural sense and the Black Eyed Peas used it in the chorus of the original version of ‘Let’s Get It Started,’ it was deemed unacceptable, and the song was revised to ‘it started.’ It is a different kind of word than heterosexist slurs, something entirely negative that resists being taken on and turned into a positive descriptor of one’s existence, perhaps, as I suspect, because of the problems at the heart of the very idea of disability (as I intend to argue in an upcoming post).

I spent a long time pretending to myself that I was like other people, and other people were just being ridiculous. Well, the latter part is probably somewhat accurate, but if only I had known how deep the difference really went between me and the rest of my peers!

In middle school, seventh grade actually, I met another neuroqueer student, diagnosed with ‘Asperger’s’ back when that was still a common diagnostic term to distinguish alleged ‘genius white boy’ autism, a transfer student who arrived after the school year began and whose presence was introduced and explained to us by the school counselor. I was and remain thoroughly puzzled why anyone thought that was a good idea to a room full of children; it immediately pre-outed him as diagnostically other—even doctors agree! Her introduction was the first time I’d heard the word ‘Asperger’s’ [to this day I have the same juvenile response… I mean what a horrible name! Who wants an @$$ burger?! Honestly, hard pass on burgers like that…]*

*The name is actually worse than how it happens to sound in English, because Hans Asperger (who is credited with ‘discovering’ autism), at least cooperated, if not actively colluded, with Nazi eugenics programs, as reported by Eric Garcia (We’re not Broken, page 4). The eugenics models in which Asperger worked, totally standard for the time (especially in the US!), are still to this day present in research aiming to ‘cure’ autism and in the pathological model of autistic experiences employed by default among neuroscientist, psychiatrists, and other brain/mind (neurocognitive) specialists.

Would I have noticed similarities with this student had I any sense of neurocognitive difference? In truth, I did notice similarities between me and him. But I took them to mean he was gay, too.* I’m not sure what his sexual orientation was. What marked him out as different, however, was that he was already well on his way down puberty, as if he were significantly older than the rest of us. He had the acne, the facial hair, he was so tall already, all of the weirdness that was in store for all the rest of us in the coming year or two. His voice was deep, markedly deeper than even most adult men, and gravelly. My math teacher put him next to me in the front row because no one had been seated next to me and he also needed to be in the front.

*. I am definitely suddenly wondering how many men I’ve taken to have been at least bi because of what I took to be gaydar going of were actually familiar to me because we were both neuroqueer? I can think of at least two other guys I’ve encountered for whom this could be true, one of whom was probably autistic (science interests; World of Warcraft nearly all the time; put popcorn in my microwave for 45:00 minutes and ignored it long enough that our whole dorm smelled like a popcorn conflagration for a week or two; etc). Eeeeeh…. :/ lol And, gee, isn’t it great that I definitely didn’t ever, say, hit on nearly every autistic guy I encountered mistaking them for gay/bi/whatever … or anything cringy like that… 🤦‍♂️ #bigOOF

One thing I would tell my seventh-grade self: befriend this newcomer assigned to sit next to you in math. Be careful not to react to him for what you disdain in yourself. What connects the two of you is not your sexual preferences, but your minds. Learn from this boy. Let him teach you about yourself.

Obviously I didn’t befriend him. We were even put together a few times—which has me wondering now about whether my teachers could see the similarities I could not (except that we were also two of the partnerless rejects, sooo that could be the simpler reason). But whenever we were put together, it was like Tina Belcher and Henry Haber at the Museum.

So I should probably also tell myself to make an effort to get to know him whenever we’re put together, like that time we’re partnered up for an overnight—is that real? Or is that a conflated memory?—or any other time we have the chance to interact.

I was too focused on not being different. It was a plague on me, the constant othering I endured. I couldn’t understand on what basis the kids around me were making those claims.

That next year, eighth grade, I wrote an essay in my English class that diverted from whatever the prompt had been and sought instead to excuse what I took to be the differences other kids had been noticing in me. My voice was the way it was, I claimed, because of a birth defect. (My chest is a little ‘caved in’ or whatever, so I ran with that.) ‘I’m not gay!’ I proclaimed in print with words as warbling as the tremulously staccato flow of speech through wrenching sobs. ‘I’m not weird! I’m not different!’ I was begging my peers to stop harassing me.

Maybe I even got into my past in that pleading essay I wrote, how I was raised by my grandma, no parents in sight, as if I could persuade anyone not to notice the intergenerational differences between us, since, at the same time, I was being raised as if the youngest sibling from among their parents’ generation.

Of course I was definitely gay, and I certainly knew I was gay and that I was full of shit, but I was fully in denial, practicing, to be honest, what I’d seen those around me doing all my life. I didn’t understand quite what all that sexuality stuff was all about yet, so I treated it like something I could just ignore, sweep away, dismiss. I just wanted to not be so alone in a classroom full of people. I would’ve said anything, and I did say so many things, to try to become acceptable to people who got a thrill out of excluding me for reasons neither I nor they could’ve comprehended at the time. I wanted sympathy, some kind of recognition that I was human, that I was suffering.

My English teacher that year was… What was his name? I wish I could remember. (Palmetto? Salametto? Oof… I can’t remember. I’m pretty sure it started with an s and had an i an m an a and a t and a double consonant.) He actually took up class time to read my essay aloud to the entire class, even though he wasn’t doing that with other kid’s essays. He felt for me in my plight. I remember at least two times when we had conversations about social issues with my peers. But, as is probably pretty obvious, my essay did not have the effect I’d intended. Basically, I caught a lot of extra hell for it. Alas.

Sidenote to my present self: remember that remarkable gift given you, when you were allowed space to have your say over a room full of people who held you down, bullied and traumatized you. What a strange and wonderful forum he gave my voice shouting against them.

(Too bad most of it was bullshit and went in the wrong direction; denial instead of bold acceptance. But still, he gave you that stage and took a stand for you in your own words.)

But my point, anyway: back in eighth grade, I analyzed my situation and the exclusion I was enduring in order to refute any difference anyone may have perceived. I was not different! I was sure of it. There were so many reasons for people to think I was different, and I wanted to hit them all in that one essay. Never once did it occur to me that the difference was on the level of the very way I sense the world, the way I process what I take in, how I express my thoughts.

But what if I had known? Would I be anywhere near where I am now? This gets into a question without an answer, an unfair question actually, because it’s impossible: would I have been better off knowing I’m autistic with ADHD as a young child, or would I have reified the diagnosis into a self-limiting barrier so that the horizon of what I was allowed to believe of myself would have been so much narrower?

I find it almost absurd, even offensive, to think that denial of self-knowledge at any point could ever be beneficial, from a premise that the more a person knows up front, the better off they’ll be.

But that isn’t necessarily always right, is it? Some things can only be understood in time, with experience. We are complicated creatures, interpersonal as much as personal for the way we are woven within and in fact woven together as entities by those around us—or as Aristotle said, humans are political animals, using ‘political’ in its broadest sense, of interpersonal relations among a group of people within a polis (a sociopolitical and geographic community).

There is that immense moment of Coming of Age, that Transition from childhood to adulthood to consider as well. Is that of no value? Our ancestors definitely believed that coming of age was the most significant transition of all along with birth, marriage and death. To come of age is not necessarily to endure some plight in the Wild, whatever desert that be for you, but to learn of oneself, to experience the world as you had not before, chipping away at the naïveté that holds us down from birth.

And to be honest, when I was a child, what would I have done with a diagnosis of autism? Would I have waved it around as if it were a pass against bigotry? That would only have brought it on from another side. What could I have made of that diagnosis, of myself as a result of that diagnosis? Wouldn’t I make it my identity, a limitation, a hindrance, some kind of hurdle that was born with me and that I carry every day?

I do not in ANY way intend to suggest that an early diagnosis is bad. In a positive environment, where the child’s particular needs can be met appropriately in a violence-free, prescriptive-behavior-correction-free manner, then that is obviously ideal. However that could never have been the environment in which I was raised. On the one hand, while my grandma has always done her best and in fact managed well enough, I’m from a typical working-class single-parent household. Resources would have been an issue. Secondly, timing. I’m always late or early or something. Early here. There wasn’t the understanding of autism there is today, and I almost undoubtedly would’ve ended up so much more traumatized from allegedly positive behavioral interventions.

What kind of classes would I have had? Would they have prepared me for college at least half as much as my regular courses half-way managed (some more than others)? I wonder. That same teacher who read my essay to a room full of my tormentors also let me skip the daily grind of his class to go build a popsicle house in a little room next door for the hour while another kid in the class worked with a special ed aide. It was such a blow-off free time for me, but honestly I didn’t need his English lesson and we both knew it, so my advanced lesson was to do something on my own. I think I wanted to write a book at first but then I realized the vibes in that room were the opposite of advanced, so I ended up building a half-assed popsicle-stick house that I think he put up on a shelf to display in his classroom? lol… But would that have been every class I took? A blow off that didn’t engage me whatsoever? At least I had to write essays every once in a while elsewhere. Occasionally things interested me, random things (the battle of Bunker Hill on which I went *all out* in 3rd grade with a six-page hand-written essay LOL), and more logical interests like when we got to learn about the Ancient Mediterranean. Would I have had those moments?

I hope at least things are different in K-12 now so that other kids like me get many more of those moments that challenge them, that things are better for them than they were for me, better enough anyway that a student could know what to do with a diagnosis of autism.

As for me, given the time in which I was raised, I wouldn’t tell my young self what is different about me, and I think in the end I’m fortunate that I wasn’t diagnosed as a child or ever, that I was able to come to the understanding instead of having to variously contend and negotiate with a label given to me by someone else. It’s a strange thing to say, and I’m not advocating for anyone else to follow what I’ve been through (definitely not), but what happened in my case happened as it happened because the world was as it was at the time.

The only thing I want to go back and tell myself is to start questioning the value of other people’s opinions much earlier, and literally quit giving any attention to what anyone says or thinks. Their valuations are worth less than an uphill piss against a stiff breeze. Your best weapon against that is to turn and confront them: be yourself with dignity and when random people heckle you, turn and laugh directly in their faces because they are so childishly foolish, cup your hand and twist it gracefully at the elbow, huge smiles. Make sure they know what value you set in their opinions.

But also, they’re right. You’re going to realize over time that you actually are different. And you’re going to realize in time how to harness what makes you different into entering conversations ongoing for millennia, thinking about Hermes with Horace, of all the humans who ever were, conversing with Homer—you can’t even imagine what that will feel like. You are going to get to talk to Herodotus and wander the Nile with him. And then the most amazing thing will happen to you when you finally wander onto the slopes of Helicon with Hesiod and his herds, when from the sky come nine maidens who will enchant you, revealing themselves to you at last, who have inspired you gently along out of sight until then. No necromancer you, you will carry on conversations carried through time down to you, and you will bring them forward from that perspective every one of your teachers keeps telling you is ‘so different’. They’re right too. And it is going to be absolutely magical when the time comes.

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