I was diagnosed with Asperger’s–as an Aspie–in 2009, at 57.
This is my first attempt to make sense of this, and of my first half century of life.
The day of my diagnosis is a second birthday to me. That day, I learned what I didn’t know for the first half century of my life, namely, that my brain makes me a different breed of human.
The moment I heard the diagnosis, I felt an immense, palpable feeling of inner settling. I had an explanation for the life of head-butting with co-workers, love interests, neighbors, classmates, and family. I’d had to get along among a people whose language I didn’t speak, without a phrase book. But now my task is to use what I know to make my way with this alien people, and to fortify my sense of self.
My new self-knowledge does help, but it isn’t enough. I’m a living testament to the price many Aspies have paid for the lack of early intervention and sound parenting. I found myself in a world that didn’t welcome my kind, and I bargained for my survival by hammering who I was into oblivion. I need more than just the self-knowledge of this present-day Aspie; I need the self-knowledge of a girl and younger woman whose existence I’d long denied.
I grew up in a straight-jacketed family and community where an inquisitive, asymmetrical mind was frowned upon. That kind of belief system wasn’t kind to the neurotypicals (NTs) caught up in it, and it was soul-searing for an Asperger’s child, especially a girl. My parents’ hearts were in the right place. But they’d been raised with a parenting ethic that deemed nurturing and tenderness as coddling children, and as raising weak adults. They believed in tough, even harsh, love for growing strong adults. A child who chatted with pansies needed toughening.
I was undulged until I reached grade school, when it didn’t take me long to catch on to the message that Me wasn’t okay. The person I was wasn’t acceptable, was disordered, and it didn’t go kindly on me if adult NTs saw me being myself. I did too good of a job suffocating that little girl–so good that now, doing psychic CPR on her, I’m struggling to get her breathing again. Now I need her. I guess I always did, but I had to forego her presence to placate the NT world. I had to forget she existed, and I did her a huge injustice.
But I wasn’t placating the NT world. That was the trouble. Intolerant NTs were picking her up on their radar, and it took me five decades to catch on to this, during my diagnosis journey. I wasn’t hiding her from troublesome NTs. I was hiding her from myself.
Even as I write this, I feel myself struggling to make contact with my center, the essential part of myself where emotion, insight and deep thought dwell. As a survival tactic of decades, I’ve been smothering that center because the awareness it brought left me shaken. Now that I belong to social circles where Me is okay, even well regarded, it’s safe to bring that essence into the open, but when I do, she recoils. She stays out of reach.
That vital core eludes me, but memories are returning of episodes I hadn’t thought of in decades. When I was very small, my parents called me “the mynah bird” because often I sat inside alone, mimicking neighborhood children so skillfully that my mother, in another room, thought they were with me (mimicking skills are common in Aspies). In the fourth grade I used to stare out the window to escape the ruler-wielding nun and the mocking classmates I found so scary and toxic; the nun sent my parents a note that read, “Patricia is in her own little world,” which brought scathing wrath down on me. At 13 years old, during a jobs counseling workshop, when other girls in class told the guidance counselor of wanting to be teachers, nurses, and secretaries, I told her I wanted to go to Africa and emulate Joy Adamson by raising lions–and then I launched into a tutorial on lion hunting, mating and cub-rearing practices. In 8th grade aptitude tests I scored in the top two percentile, and then I flunked the 9th grade. A high school classmate, knowing how gullible I was, set me up to be humiliated during a slumber party she hosted by squirting red food coloring onto the back of my skirt, telling me I had a blood stain, and after I’d run to the powder room, mortified, gloating to the other girls that I didn’t have the sense enough to use a pad. I relieved stress in a clerical job by twirling a set of Greek worry beads in the air, which got me fired.
For most of my first fifty years, I wasn’t aware of the irregularities in my weave that were giving me away as an Aspie, and getting on the nerves of the viperous NTs I tangled with–the hand-flapping, the “off” facial expressions and speech cadence, the utter social cluelessness. But over the years–especially in the work place–I learned how to be a shape-shifter. It’s a companion skill to the psychic obliteration I’d mastered in childhood, which wasn’t enough to enable me to “pass” as an NT. And camouglaging my oddities in adulthood called for a craftier approach than it did in childhood. Once I caught on to the behavior that kept me ridiculed, ostracized, and fired, I began to stifle it. I observed how NTs behaved and I learned to imitate them. My mimicking skills served me well here.
That isn’t to say it made life at work easier, though. For one thing, imitating NTs worked up to a point, but if I became stressed or fatigued, I slipped into Aspie mode. Once I was branded as “goofy” or “weird,” trouble ensued. And I don’t mean “shape-shifting” in the sense that a vapor or cloud shifts its shape. No, shape-shifting for an Aspie is akin to twisting your skeleton into a painful, unnatural position, and having to hold it all day. It’s exhausting. And being someone you are not carries a price, as I’ve learned; you have an ever harder time finding your way back to who you are. The authors of ancient mythology knew this: When returning to human form, werewolves become increasingly weak and debilitated.
My diagnosis has brought me a better fit for my psyche’s moving parts, but I’ve long since reached a healthy peace with my flawed “fit” with the NT world. I used to want to fit in, desperately. For a time, my life was a series of failed stabs at it. Now, the last thing I want is to fit in with the kinds of people who are fixated on conformity. That isn’t to say I don’t fit in anywhere. I do. I changed my social circles. I’ve settled in with people secure and intelligent enough not to feel threatened by quirky, offbeat me. And they’re far more interesting. I don’t know who might be an Aspie or an NT. It doesn’t matter. I”m in a safe place for beginning to gently coax my true center into joining me after all these decades, a safe place for both of us.