I’ve been recently identified on the autism spectrum.
This is not terribly unusual. Tongue-in-cheek estimates peg half of Silicon Valley programmers as on-the-spectrum–in particular citing Asperger Syndrome, which is widely thought to be an autism spectrum “disorder”. Pop culture is laden with characters that display ‘aspie’ symptoms, to various levels of authenticity.
What’s more unusual is being forthcoming about it. I am deeply moved and inspired by the late Jay Lake, whose public and candid descriptions of his struggle with cancer made a mark in the world and ultimately helped countless people who’ve been though a similar situation (or may be one diagnosis away from being in a similar situation).
I’ve been profoundly affected by both having this condition undiagnosed for the majority of my life, and the “lightbulb on” moment of diagnosis, followed by a lengthy period of processing this new information.
What is it like?
Everyone is different. My particular experience involves difficulty reading social cues. I’ve figured out most of the obvious situations (and to some extent, settled in with friends who ‘get it’ and/or put up with me), but more subtle situations leave me confounded. My response to confusion is generally to withdraw and be hypercautious about saying anything at all, which has given me a reputation as even more introverted than I really am.
I (literally) take things very literally. Again, I’ve been on the Earth long enough to figure out a great many of the metaphors people use, but not all. Lately I’ve practiced being more forthcoming about straight-up asking in ambiguous situations (leading to yet more socially awkward encounters…)
I have numerous sensory/distraction issues. In a room full of talking people, I can hardly understand a thing. In a grocery-store aisle full of colorful products, I will look right at toothpaste or whatever and not see it, and get frustrated. Almost any kind of noise can jolt me out of concentration, and it takes a long time to get back. Driving is about as stressful as a trip through a minefield. And I’d rather starve than eat vegetables.
Trusted friends tell me that I can come across as aloof, cold, and Spock-like. (which seems to me like a perfectly reasonable way to be).
So why be “out” about this?
I have found that writing about my condition helps me deal with issues that come up due to it. I’ve gone through dozens and dozens of hobbies, and writing has been the one that consistently gets me through tough times.
I have also found that well-meaning people often get things very, very wrong. Notice the scare quotes above around “disorder” in the earlier paragraph. Another problematic word is “normal.” A useful and more-accurate term used in the autism community is NT, or neurotypical, to describe the majority of people without autistic traits. Different does not equate disorder, or even abnormal. If more people talk about autism, this can help establish better expectations about norms.
And while I don’t necessarily put pot-stirrers like Jim Carrey and Jenny McCarthy in the “well-meaning” bucket, their completely wrong-headed negative associations of autism with the legitimate practice of vaccination are not helping. The way to counter nonsense is with sense.
Exposure to diverse viewpoints is good for you, up to a point. No?
Simply put, one way or another, this is who I am. My mildly-off-center viewpoint pervades everything I do, and all the fiction I write. Trying to hide it and cover it over is a losing battle. Being open about it helps me develop as a self-aware human being.
Over time as I have accumulated negative responses to perfectly reasonable situations (like being bluntly efficient in a professional situation, or misreading a social cue) I have gradually come to view others as unknowable, capricious, beings that make choices only at random, which I disdain. I’m gradually working to unwind this by coming to better know the NT mind from the inside out–starting here.
What can you do to help?
Be aware of the issues. Mostly, be kind to each other. Think about what others might be going through before you lose patience with someone. Get educated. Anything by Temple Grandin is a good start.
Speak out against bullying and cruelty. Fairness tends to be a big deal to aspies. As it should be.
Tell others about this resource. You can link to the category here, where I will be adding more articles on an ongoing basis. I also maintain an author mailing list, where you can find more from my POV (and numerous aspie characters in my stories) as well as everything else related to my writing, book recommendations, and more.
Give me a shout out in the comments here, or in social media. Let me know you find value in this. Encourag me to keep going.
Seek out autistic authors and other artists.
If you feel freaked out in a social situation, just remember what Eleanor Roosevelt said:
You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.
(hat-tip to YouTube channel vsauce for the video The Science of Awkwardness, from which I learned of that quote)