I’ve been meaning to post this for days, but it was much more difficult than anticipated to turn into a blog post from the original journal entry. I essentially ended up rewriting the entire thing, and doubling the length.
One other editorial note: I don’t mean to demonize my family in any way. I’m simply describing things the way they happened. Society as a whole, and my family in particular, had much different understandings of diversity and disability, along with many other things, when I was growing up than we do today.
When reading the stories of other (mostly adult-diagnosed) autistic women in the last several years, I keep hearing about how their childhoods were spent trying to learn how to mimic NT social behaviour in order to ‘fit in’, and how important this was to them. For some, it was clearly a survival strategy. For others, there did seem to be some genuine desire to have social connections one’s own age, and an intolerance by those around them towards those who were different, or ‘other’, which necessitated excessive conformity.
I have always had a hard time relating to these narratives, as my experiences were very different. I never had that interest in socialization, much less the ability to distort myself into something that I wasn’t (for any significant length of time). (I suppose I should mention, however, that I did have friends growing up. They usually considered me strange, though, often in a bad way. As I grew older, that changed, and more often, it became a good sort of strange.) As a younger child, the purpose of typical NT social contortions completely escaped me. As a teen, when the pressure to conform was at its most intense, (from my parents, not my peers), and I had no choice but to learn to ‘play the game’ (never sufficiently enough, by the way), I remember feeling that so much of this behaviour contradicted my very sense of self, and as such, felt poisonous and destructive.
For much of my childhood, I actively avoided learning many “normal” socialization and self-help skills as much as possible, because it all felt so overwhelming, and so self-annihilating. I only learned many of these skills “kicking and screaming”, as the phrase goes. People were so inimical to me, that I spent as much time ignoring them as I could. Of course, as I approached adolescence, that only made things worse, as social expectations on me increased. Because I was so overwhelmed, and my environment was so intolerant of my differences, I spent a lot of time and energy trying to avoid as much consciousness and awareness of the Neurotypical world as I could!
As I’ve mentioned, I only started to try to learn many NT social interaction skills as a teen, after two years of my family’s intense, relentless, demands that I do so, without any respite or refuge. My reasoning was, that if I gave in a little, gave them something, they would let up, and I could compartmentalise it, so that it didn’t compromise me. Unfortunately, it didn’t work that way. Giving in a little meant giving in more, and then more, until I almost lost myself (repeatedly). Thankfully, there was always a part of me that would rebel, and show me what was real; a part that would show me who I really was. The problem was, my family, and society in general, still made me feel defective and pathological. They made me feel pathological for all of my struggles, and my attempts to reconcile what was expected of me with what I was actually capable of. For not being able to become a carbon copy of them. For not being able to become “normal”. And that’s not even including my struggles with depression, and with trauma reactions! They thoroughly believed that I shouldn’t have any of those difficulties. My family believed (and were quite insistent) that I had no reason to be either traumatized or depressed. Of course, society was also culpable, in that it customarily dismissed and stigmatized trauma and mood disorders, (even more so than it does now). Or, as I like to call it, society subscribed to a philosophy of “stoicism run amok”, refusing to admit that being human comes with a susceptibility to certain frailties.
There was a lot of trauma in my life. My parents made me feel ashamed, not only for being different, but for any and all coping strategies I had. For every way I tried to deal with the world, and tried to cope with my differences. Never mind the effects of being treated as if I were defective. Striking out at the world was harshly condemned, but withdrawal was also denigrated and treated as shameful, so I couldn’t win either way. Not only everything I did, but everything I was, was seen as defective and pathological. Needless to say, coupled with my natural autistic indifference to people, this trauma magnified my reluctance to engage with people, or even pay attention to the world in general, any more than was absolutely necessary for survival. In fact, these traumas caused my indifference to people to develop into an outright aversion to people, and to many of the usual interactions and necessary functional skills considered “typical” for age-appropriate independent existence.
I know there will be some people who will try to discredit my validity as an autistic person, because I’ve admitted trauma played a big part in my aversion to people for a very long time. This is an all-too-common tactic of those members of society who want to deny the truth spoken by autistic voices, and autistic rights to self-determination. To them, only a tiny portion of the autistic population is “autistic enough” (whatever that means), regardless of diagnostic status.
So, I want to be clear: both autism and trauma were responsible for my aversion to, and lack of interest in, people, well into adulthood. It’s not an either/or situation. Trauma and autism can co-exist, and often do thanks to the ableist society we live in!
In fact, now that understanding of autism has evolved past the point where autistics were seen as being incapable of having emotion, (except for a few portions of the population who are stuck in an archaic view of autism, and like to still deny us our personhood, and our humanity) it is common knowledge in professional circles that depression and anxiety are highly comorbid conditions with autism. It has also long been realized that the disabled population in general is at a higher risk of being victims of abuse, in part because they are seen as ‘safe’ targets, due to the likelihood that they will either be unable to communicate its occurrence, or will not be believed if they can, and do communicate it. (Autistic people specifically, are even more vulnerable than the general disabled population for reasons related to autistic difficulties, and are therefore even more at risk.) It should come as no surprise then, that the number of autistics who have reported being traumatized by bullying, or intolerant behaviour, often by the people closest to them, is staggering. As such, trauma in the autistic population is rampant, possibly even endemic.
Ironically, out of my entire family, I seem to be currently the one with the fewest personal problems, the most peace of mind, and the most satisfaction with my life. (And yes, that took a boatload of work, and self-reflection. Several boatloads, actually.) In fact, as I look back on my life so far, I’ve been starting to wonder for a while now, if rather than social mimicking, I spent my energy on learning and developing emotional intelligence in order to make the relationships I did choose to have, as beneficial as possible. I seem to have spent most of the last few decades focusing on learning how to deal with all the stress and chaos in my life that has come from being a disabled person in an ableist, ignorant and intolerant society. My focus has been on how to get the supports I needed to have some semblance of the life that was demanded of me by society, developing the requisite people skills to achieve those supports, and how to make the complexities of navigating appropriate support work out.
Come to think of it, I suppose what I’ve learned is simply an extension of the skills I needed to survive my emotional struggles in high school (a.k.a. chronic, severe depression, and the above-mentioned trauma). In early adulthood I redoubled my focus on learning more about stress responses and trauma responses, and applying that knowledge. Coincidentally, this also meant learning about how people work (to the limits my autism enables), and how they communicate, in order to figure out how to get my needs across to what certainly felt like an alien species. A complicating factor was that most of the people I dealt with had difficulty comprehending (or refused to comprehend) why someone with my intelligence needed help with things they took for granted, yet I had a facility with the things they struggled with. Or, to quote an autistic, former friend of mine, “I swear sometimes that my brain is wired backwards”.
My complaint usually was “It wouldn’t be so bad if we didn’t look like the damned native inhabitants of this planet!” (We are, of course, native to this planet; it just feels like we aren’t, too frequently.) For many of the NTs I encountered in my early adulthood, it apparently just didn’t compute that an intelligent person could have difficulty with basic functioning or social interaction for reasons other than willfulness or pathological dependence.
Actually getting my divergent needs met was another skill I became quite proficient at, out of necessity. Assistance from my ANI friends, and the disability rights community in general also played a key role. And sometimes getting my needs met meant meeting the emotional, (or occasionally practical) needs of the people who were helping me, when such things were within my capabilities.
In the process, all this knowledge about how people work, (or don’t), meant I was developing more compassion, crucially, for myself, and also for other people.
Another thing I seem to have learned through all this advocacy, and the complexities of human relationships it involved, was how to improve, and refine, my ability to read facial expressions, and vocal emotions. I learned to perceive when people were expressing empathy, sympathy, compassion, frustration, etc. and to distinguish frustration from anger, as well as fear from anger. I also learned how to get people to recognize what I was feeling, even when I couldn’t manage the NT typical expression of it.
It’s amazing what exposure to, and involvement in, relationships with people who are willing to fight with, and for, me, and my right to be included in society in a way that works for me has done for me. It radically changed my ability to value and accept myself, be compassionate with myself (as mentioned), as well as my willingness to interact with this foreign world that is fundamentally set up in opposition to the way my brain is wired. More recently, I’ve discovered that, stealth-mode like, comprehension of the very purpose of other people, and why NTs find a benefit in superficial social relationships has crept up on me. Even cooler, I’ve realized that for a long time now, I’ve been able to comprehend, and engage in, an inordinate amount of the bidirectional benefits of deep relationships with the right people. (I suppose that’s what happens when I only choose relationships that are going to benefit my life, not ones with random people because I’ve been told I’m “supposed to”.)
One last thing of importance: Years ago, after a fair amount of repeated comments by people who were important to me, about how they thought I didn’t find the relationship with them important, because I wasn’t displaying the verbal or nonverbal behaviour they expected to see, I decided it was important to devote energy towards finding ways to let these people know that they were important to me. I knew I wasn’t capable of many of the usual nonverbal NT behaviours, and I was unwilling to use verbal or nonverbal behaviours which felt empty to me, or done only for social convention (e.g., “social lies”), so it became necessary to figure out ways that were congruent with who I was, and what my abilities were in verbal and nonverbal behaviour, that would demonstrate the important emotions. Especially since, as a rule, I didn’t “stick” in relationships (with rare exceptions). After some experimentations, I succeeded. Even when my behaviour or words otherwise said “I don’t need you”, “I don’t need relationships”, or even “I don’t want relationships”, or “I don’t want to have to deal with other people at all”, I was able to signal to specific people that they were valued, wanted, and beneficial to my life.
Of course, these signals were (and are) often different for each person, though I learned that some things generalize. Over the years it has become habitual, once someone crosses my (admittedly high) threshold of “worth the effort”, to be able to find those things that lets that person know when they are important to me, even when all other appearances suggest otherwise. The curious, and amusing (to me at least) thing is, that this has resulted, over the years, in many NTs remarking that I make more effort in my relationship with them than their NT relationships do! After much reflection on this issue, I’ve hypothesized that because I can’t do a lot of the ‘typical’ bigger things, I probably just pay attention to different things, things that perhaps NTs overlook.