Day 6. If you’re still reading these letters, hats off to you! You’ll have taken a beating by this point and it can’t feel good. I’m not sorry for what I’ve revealed but I do feel your pain.
So what do I want to tell you today, Dear Parent? Maybe we should go down a road we have not before. Yes, let’s.
In my 40’s, I finally understood why my life has unfolded in the previously inexplicable way that it has. Why no matter how hard I studied people and their behavior, no matter how hard I prepared for interactions, eventually I was rejected in some (sometimes creative!) way for not fitting in. People often don’t realize why they’re repelled and, for a very long time, neither did I. Now, if I know you at all, you’re probably thinking, “So what?” or “Poor baby! Suck it up.”
But here’s the thing: our culture runs on cohesiveness and fame. If you don’t have good relationships out there, you don’t prosper and by “prosper” I mean earn enough to buy food and shelter. When the group pushes you out, you then may have to struggle for the resources to sustain your life. It happens in the wild and it happens in society.
Why didn’t this poor baby fit in the big bad world? It wasn’t my appearance as I’d carefully designed that to not only mimic but exceed cultural standards. It wasn’t my behavior per se as that was thoughtfully constructed as well. Since I was smarter than the average bear, I was found to be useful. Since I was young, I was seen as full of potential. What I was — what I am — that nobody including me knew, is autistic.
I know! Surprise!
For an inadequately brief overview, the autistic brain is one that processes differently than the non-autistic brain. In simplistic terms, input is handled much like a math equation is computed, rationally and deliberately in a different area of the brain than most. Social cues are handled this way as well, at least for me. Obviously there’s more to it but, generally speaking, all this means the interaction experience doesn’t go down as expected for regular folks and they can’t quite put their finger on why.
Long ago, I memorized the interaction styles, verbal cues, tonality, body language, gestures, and more of people in general and, when interacting, offered the appropriate response as needed. Growing up, I assumed that was just how life was “done”. I thought everybody learned this way and that I was just behind. I observed that conversation was an inexplicable and tedious ritual of exchanging pat phrases and facial expressions in order to achieve an end and that somehow, everyone but me was perfectly chill with this. Today I know that behavior is called “masking”. The term refers to the persona developed to cope with societal demands.
My persona became highly developed. It became all that I was. Yay, I thought. I was “doing life right!” And when I saw that I wasn’t, I’d adjust. I’d study and practice harder. I’d arrange my face in the right postures and pitch my voice up high while keeping my vocabulary down low. I smiled and made all kinds of eye contact. I had eye contact to spare! But still, people would be put off.
It could happen right away — like if I forgot to use the proper greeting phrases in a coffee shop before placing my order — or it could happen after a weeks or months of getting to know someone new. With every “How To Do Life” box checked off, I’d assumed that things weren’t turning out for as I expected because I wasn’t making my social calculations fast enough.
I would later learn this isn’t how life works for most people at all. In fact, not only was I processing fast enough, I was doing it at speeds multiple factors faster than was the norm. It turns out that I was exhausting myself just being in the world and couldn’t understand why I was the only one stressed out about it.
Now that I know more about my incredible, beautiful 2E brain and those like it (there are LOTS of us), I see that I likely inherited it from one or both of you. We know my other Dear Parent was a mathematical genius. I got zero of the mathematical parts but 110% of the pattern-recognition parts. He was likely an Aspie too — shorthand for Asperger’s Syndrome, an out-of-date way to describe people who often possess extraordinary ability along with the other traits of autism.
Once you know what you’re looking for, you can see traits in some of his other children and probably grandchildren as well. And we know your difficulties in life stemmed largely from social issues and life management difficulties. When you read more about women and girls who have neurology categorized as “autistic” you may see yourself reflected. Or you may not. Knowing you, that will likely remain a mystery forever.
But I will tell you that once I began researching my neurological makeup in earnest, my life began to make sense. A LOT more sense. In fact, as I said, once you know what to look for, it can be stunningly obvious. And contrary to your previous derogatory comments, having an autistic brain is magic.
I can discern patterns in ordinary life remarkably easily. I don’t even have to try. This wondrous ability helps me predict individual and group behavior, accurately project system outcomes, imagine flavor combinations, visualize mechanical possibilities, you name it! Life runs on patterns and I’ve got the touch.
I can hear multiple conversations at once, along with minor sounds in the background and pretty much everything else. This comes in handy when the person I’m talking to may be less interesting than the lover’s quarrel going on the next table in a restaurant. I can also hear when machinery is failing or when appliances have been left on. True story!
My sense of smell is keen which means my sense of taste is up there as well. Because of that I enjoy meals more than most anything in the world.
I can hold an extraordinary amount of information in my working memory at one time and can hold focus forever. Together with pattern-recognition, this is handy for working with large-format stories such as screenplays and novels, as well as large system structures such as complex software structures or architectural schematics. All of these have supported my life over the years.
I am incredibly sensitive to the feelings of others. I had to learn the social cues in order to recognize the feelings on display but once I did, I couldn’t turn the volume down. I feel so deeply that I need to schedule blackout time to process the intensity. I believe this makes me a peaceful and compassionate person. It also allows me to communicate with animals a bit better than most.
It isn’t all sunshine and moonbeams of course but what is?
There is so much more but I tell you all this as proof that being in possession of an exceptional brain has all sorts of benefits. Most of the daily struggle comes from other people not accepting these differences because different is a threat, different is confusing, different is bad.
My pack-animal theory applies to all parts of life, not just to people who think differently. As I mentioned earlier, this truth makes trouble for those who need to fit in in order to gain the resources needed to support life. And that’s everybody.
So if you resist looking inward to see if this is also true of you, it’s understandable. I encourage you to do so anyway. Life doesn’t need to be all pain. There is joy. There is peace. It’s there if you go looking for it and I wish nothing more than that for you.
And I hope you’ll look back over our time together and be able to reframe our experiences to see that what you once interpreted as shifty or willful, dishonest or disrespectful, mean or uncaring, were likely pretty standard communication differences.
I was never what anyone expected. Turns out, I was far, far, far more glorious and now, much too late, I know it.