Tag Archives | survival

A Conversation with a Friend

Jim, I just finished reading “Letting Him Out.” I’m sorry you’ve suffered for decades, protecting that little autistic boy inside you. But I’m glad you’re considering letting him out of that walled prison you’ve kept him in all these years. I like knowing the real you.

Thank you, but I don’t get enough credit for how well I’ve done without him. I’ve accomplished a lot — so much that people don’t recognize the sacrifices I’ve made. They can’t see my deep scars. It is so tiring, still. I’ve had to be strong. I’ve had to protect that little autistic boy.

I wrote a year and a half ago how I wanted to let him out, but I’m afraid he won’t be strong enough to survive. I’m afraid I won’t be strong enough for the both of us.

Which is the greater pain?

What a Shame

derived from <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/leshaines123/8066229321">Reivers Cursing Stone Carlise</a> by Les Haines/flickr, used under <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/">creative commons by 2.0</a>

I have cursed myself, as a matter of survival. As a child, walking past a table of classmates in the cafeteria, and hearing their mocking laughter, I avoided emotional collapse only by — paradoxically — supporting the claims of my tormentors. I distracted myself from their words by doubling down with internal, vile self-indictment. Somehow my uncontrollable mind screams was able to mask the external cruelty. Stumbling in the din, I scarcely felt the chairs or people I stumbled into, as I sought escape.

This was typical. To recover from any childhood social ineptitude, from bungled interactions, from awkward moments of clear otherness, I would repeat a self-abusive phrase so foul, even as an adult I have not dared reveal it. I lived my youth with this brutal, effective and uncontrollable method to cut out the rest of the world and distract myself from the shame-filled pain of social ignorance.

The Passing of a Generation

derived from <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/pandora_6666/3649859916">no passing zone (1 of 1)</a> by Jo Naylor/flickr, used under <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/">creative commons by 2.0</a>When I published Letting Him Out on May 30, 2015, I suspected I had a winner. Writing the piece is what drove me to go public with Living Amongst Humans. It was a raw exposition of the arc of my autistic existence over decades, with a well-disguised metaphor that I revealed with dramatic effect. I expected people would be moved. Still, I was surprised when, in a very short period of time, many thousands read it.  I reveled in comments such as, “I cried for an hour after reading this.” and, “Breathtaking piece really felt how life would be for my Autistic boy as he grows to an adult,” and even, “This is the most powerful thing I have ever read.” And then, on August 17 I read David M. Perry’s tweet: “An amazing essay on the struggle of passing.”

Passing? I was passing? That hurt. It felt like criticism, even if I didn’t understand “passing” in that context. I wasn’t trying to pass in my essay. I was trying to stay alive. So I researched passing. I read about it on Wikipedia (where else to go first?). Every word stabbed. Reading further articles written by autistic people confirmed my original reaction. Passing was not good. Passing meant the suppression of natural autistic tendencies to fit in.

Making Sense

derived from <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/kermitfrosch/5376271001">"Time Expired"</a> by kermitfrosch/flickr, used under <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/">creative commons by 2.0</a>

It was 1971. It was nearly four decades before I knew I was autistic. It was 25 years before soccer moms. It was the year, on one particular day, I discovered magic inside my brain.

I had orchestra rehearsal that day. I played string bass. Both the bass—quite a bit larger than my slight thirteen year old body—and I needed a ride home when practice was over late in the afternoon. We both made our way to the doorway of the school, to wait for my mother to pick us up and drive us two and a half miles in time for one of us to have dinner.

My mother had six children. Keeping up with them, even keeping track of them, was quite a challenge. This time, as was typical, the other orchestra kids had already been picked up. The staff had locked up the school for the day. A cold, rainy evening was settling in. In this age there was no handheld wizardry to occupy me. It was too dark, too wet, to read. So I retreated into the only truly comfortable place I have ever known: my mind.

The Seventy Percent Solution

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I am wrong 70% of the time. Don’t ask me how I know it is 70%. I recognize numbers the way you recognize faces—a matter of familiarity and unconscious association, not calculation. I have a holistic understanding that 70% of all the decisions I make are incorrect. Even when I am not paying attention, my brain is keeping track. Just as you might say, “Oh, that’s Arnold. He changed his eyeglasses.” I will tell myself, “Yes, 70% feels right.”

I wouldn’t have had much success in life if I failed at 70% of everything I attempted. What I needed was a mechanism to overcome my intrinsic tendency to make the wrong call. 

Letting Him Out

derived from <a href="http://www.shutterstock.com/pic-74741107/stock-photo-alone-  man.html">"alone man"</a> by luxorphoto/Shutterstock, used under <a   href="http://www.shutterstock.com/license">Shutterstock Standard License</a>I had a boy nobody knew about: a feeble autistic child. I was barely an adult myself when I put him away. I had no options. And I told no one what I did.

My boy avoided people. He would slip off to the basement, hiding in the narrow space behind the furnace, comforted by solitude and constriction. He barely ate. He rarely spoke. I knew my rail thin, silent child was not made for this world. To protect him — from himself and others — I found a place for him behind thick walls.
He was isolated, but safeguarded. It was the best solution I could come up with.

The years passed while I kept my dark secret. I would lie awake at night, picturing the young boy,

They’ll Know He’s a Phony

Robert Preston and Julie Andrews in Victor Victoria

Robert Preston and Julie Andrews in Victor Victoria

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.

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