If you’re autistic, talking to humans is a bit of a magic trick.
When I was a child, I had yet to learn that trick. In fact, I didn’t yet know that I was autistic. Talking to humans was a mystery to me, as was so much else in life. I was a frustrated quiet child.
If I needed to something to drink, I didn’t know how to ask for it. So I remained silent and thirsty. If I was lucky, my younger brother was with me. He would know what I needed and ask for me.
When I was sick during the night, I knew I needed help from my mother. I went to my parents’ closed bedroom door and froze. I didn’t know what the next step was. I tried every few minutes to knock, or to speak, each time backing off. Tired and sick, I collapsed to the floor and slept the rest of the night curled up at the foot of the door.
It wasn’t for lack of words. I had vocabulary. I just couldn’t fathom the complete art of communicating with humans.
I didn’t know what volume to use. Any sound at all would have been painful to hear. How close was I supposed to stand? Where should my eyes be looking? What arm position was appropriate for conversation? Which words would get me what I needed? I didn’t know where to start.
I was perpetually at a loss for words, tone, volume, gestures, facial expression, body position, proximity and all the other complexities of conversation. And that was just the first sentence! After that came interlocution order, follow-up sentences, reaction to the words of the other person, not stepping on their speech, finding appropriate interjection points and everything else that turns two people saying words into a natural interaction.
How was anybody supposed to know all this? It was easier to hide in the basement in the narrow space behind the furnace, my small body safely quiet, my mind lost to a different world, than to be with all those noisy people in the house above me, where I was expected to talk.
I wasn’t mute. I just avoided talking whenever I could. But life required speaking at times. So I would, awkwardly, self-consciously. If I could rehearse the conversation and perform it, it was easier. Spontaneous speech was the hardest.
I had a reasonably complete vocabulary. I was surrounded by articulate people spouting words all the time. It was simple enough to catalog these and call them into play, hesitantly, when needed. I would try to glean the other components of conversation at the same time, but they didn’t fall into line in my brain. My mental library of facial expression and the other intricacies of speaking was haphazard. I could organize the words themselves alphabetically or by topic, but the other elements of talking to humans had no order to me. Still, I watched and listened and learned. One of the best sources for this was watching movies and television.
In 1982, I saw the movie Victor Victoria. Early on, Toddy (played by Robert Preston) proposed a scheme to the down-on-her-luck Paris singer Victoria (Julie Andrews). Toddy suggested that she pretend to be Count Grazinski, a gay Polish female impersonator. He claimed that he could book that act in Paris clubs and they would both be wildly successful. Victoria didn’t buy it. She didn’t believe she could pull off acting as Count Grazinski, being a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman.
Victoria: Toddy, no audience is that gullible. They’ll know he’s a phony.
Toddy: They’ll know he’s a phony.
Those four lines changed my life. That was the magic trick I had been missing. Misdirection. I didn’t have to perform as a perfect human. It wasn’t about simplification or reduction. I had to make my performance more complicated by adding a sacrificial oddity. If I made it bizarre enough, people would focus on that and ignore the rest of my imperfectly constructed persona. I could make the addition funny, make it startling, make it off-putting, even, but if it was sufficiently remarkable, they wouldn’t notice me struggling with the rest of the conversation. Or the meeting. Or the automobile purchase negotiation. Or the wedding proposal.
I knew I was different. I didn’t know I was autistic for more than two decades longer, but since 1982 I’ve have a surefire technique to help me navigate this overwhelming world. There’s hardly a day that goes by where I don’t coach myself, right before I enter into a human interaction. Sometimes I even say it aloud. “They’ll know he’s a phony.” And I smile. And succeed.