(Note: This poignant piece originally appeared on Art of Autism in 2015. Here it is again with minor relevant changes.)
If it could be said that I have a super power, I suppose it is this: that I have become very good at ‘passing’ at (so-called) normal. My weakness (kryptonite?) is that I’m very good at passing at (so-called) normal. I am incidentally not the only person on the spectrum who will tell you this. Because this takes so much effort, I often wonder a couple of things:
At what cost to myself?
Is it worth the lengthy recouping time afterwards?
I’m an adult with some hypo and some hyper sensitivities. Add in anxiety. And dysthymia, a hard to treat ‘flat affect.’ I happen to have diagnoses of both Aspergers and
selective mutism. I remember very well what it was like to be a child with those challenges. As I said, with age, skills have developed to get by. But every thing, and I mean every thing, is an effort. This means telling myself with intention, not to map, that is to say, how to walk with a gait that doesn’t draw attention. Skipping, quick right angles, forgetting to say ‘excuse me,’ all of this and more I actively concentrate in any given daily circumstance. But, to be cliché, that is the tip of an iceberg and so much more is under the surface.
Low-lifes took advantage of me growing up. Adults who knew better laughed at me.
Peers waved their hand in front of my face: “Yoo hoo! Is anybody in there?” At the time, I
thought that because I was so different from everyone else that I must have be an alien
dropped here and expected to know the culture! I was nearly 100% mute in school settings, to the point I appeared to be staring into nothingness. Because I was. School had commingling, expectation of speech, shuffling, sudden departure from routines, other
children quick to laugh at jokes I didn’t ‘get;’ and also school had hidden rules I couldn’t
comprehend. Thinking back, it was an ingenious survival mechanism I had: staring into the pattern in the radiator to stay focused and tune out invasiveness. Selective mutism for me is lifelong and it is a source of, and brings feelings of vulnerability, frustration and terror.
Still, there are times I almost disappeared completely. Not speaking at all was and is a
comfortable place. I realize now that the sense of disappearing is a common feeling. If I
could write a note to “My Child Self,” it would go like this:
Dear Child Self,
Your childhood truly is magical. There are so many wonders, so much laughter, so many animal friends to love. But some emotions seem as big as the universe. You will experience fear, tragic loss, indignities and confusion, and all of that seems so overwhelming. But guess what? Huge uncomfortable feelings are survivable. They really are! Peers your age seem to know how to bond. You watch them, puzzled, like an anthropologist. But Child Self: you can’t get words out. They stick in your throat like the biggest lump ever. You cringe when people say, “She’s so shy,” because you know that you are not shy. The word ‘shy’ minimizes something feeling more serious. But don’t be alarmed by that difference. What you can’t know, Child Self, is that your senses are cranked on high. If you could see your brain, you’d see it may look like other brains physically, but the way it takes in information, makes sense of the information and manages output is unique. Still…I understand right now, BLENDING IN seems like the most important thing in your life. (There will come a time later in your life when you realize it’s perfectly okay to embrace your individuality. You will even find like-minded people with which to commiserate.)
Your serious, all-out desperate meltdowns leave you sleepy, red-faced, and even ashamed, but also you feel somehow better afterwards and you should not feel guilty about that. The meltdowns leave your mother weary and that is hard for you to see but know that she is weary faced because she is worried and she is worried because she cares. You don’t know this now, but sometimes Moms are blamed for having children with ‘different’ behaviors and she too is feeling big emotions. Don’t blame yourself for everything, Child Me.
Sometimes you can’t even communicate to your own parents. You attach notes to clothespins and throw them into the living room for your parents to read. This is clever on your part, Child Me, because you show that you are determined to communicate! They do not read your clothespin notes. They will simply yell, “Stop throwing things!” Give yourself credit for trying to communicate. At least you tried. You must know this: Many times, now and throughout your life, your thoughts, feelings, and ideas will indeed go unexpressed. But they are valid! Guess what, Child Self?
You aren’t alone.
All this time that you isolate yourself, struggle, and are confused by the things others do, take my word for it– there are others who are just like you! One day when you are much older, you will know true peers who understand. You will find a belonging with these fellow anthropologists such as you have never known. This I promise.
Keep reading! Keep journaling! One day people will read what you have to say. Your words will become the biggest clothespins ever thrown into the world…and people will unclip the words from them and hear what you have to say! Keep creating! You have the ability to lose yourself for hours; ‘just’ drawing. You can’t begin to realize Child Self, how therapeutic art truly is. One day you will even show your paintings in galleries and you will sell them! Your art will be on the covers of books too! All human beings have ways to de- stress and for you that is Art, and always will be; even when you are grown up. Write what you cannot say aloud, and save those journals. Draw what goes unexpressed. And be easy on your young self when you are overwhelmed and lose control. So much of what happens is a learning experience even though it is often painful. Above all, trust me, ‘Your Future Self’ when I say:
Your Art and writing will sustain you. It will always be your safe footbridge over turbulence.
If you cannot express yourself through your voice, continue to do so on the written page.
The things you think about really are important.
You may not believe me but you are stronger than you think. You try harder than most to
do what others seem to take for granted. The good news is, this is called perseverance and bravery. It makes you a resilient person, just like that silly toy you have: the blow-up
wobbly clown that keeps getting back up every time you push or punch it.
Take pleasure in being in your own company because one day, others will too. I promise.
So draw! Make Christmas ornaments from cinnamon sticks, glue and sparklies! Spread
peanut butter on pinecones and enjoy watching the squirrels come for them. Write!
These types of expressions will carry you all your life.
Being you, uniquely you, fully and wholly is all you’ve ever had to be. It’s enough because you matter.