HI! I’M AUTISTIC! HOW ARE YOU?

When I was 48, I was diagnosed with Autism. When I was 49, I accepted my diagnosis, then raged against it. I am now 50 and I’m still dealing with the aftermath.

In 2018, my doctor announced that I have “Asperger’s Syndrome” with the same gravitas as telling me that I have a skin tag.

I didn’t have any kind of denial or anything. I mean, I’ve been me my whole life (with the various evolutions one hopefully goes through with growing.) My medical record was originally marked with “Aspergers” and later amended to “Autism” because Hans Asperger had no problems with killing children for the Nazis.1

I believed that my diagnosis didn’t change any aspect of me. I merely had a name for the weirdness I always had. My weirdness included but was not limited to:

  • Performing repetitive movements
  • Developing rituals or routines that can’t be disrupted
  • Resistance to touching
  • Echolalia (repeating words or phrases)
  • Echolalia (repeating words or phrases)
  • Hyper-focus
  • Speech problems or unusual speech patterns
  • The odd huge meltdown now and then and here and there
  • Difficulty following simple directions
  • Inability to recognize social cues or predict someone’s response or reaction
  • Short attention span
  • Echolalia (repeating words or phrases)
  • Problems understanding feelings or talking about them
  • Extreme sensitivity to sensations like light, sound, or smells
  • Being extremely fascinated with a particular subject matter, fact, or detail
  • The inability to look at or listen to people…

And the list goes on. Imagine people’s surprise when they found out that I am Autistic and not merely an asshole!

So my doctor granted me the title “Autistic” without so much as a sword tapping on each shoulder, the way it should happen. I went home thinking “well, this explains things, but this is closing the barn door after the cows have escaped. This won’t make any impact on my life.” Then I forgot about it.

Please start the dramatic burst of music.

Eleven Months Later

A lot changes in a year. I met my best friend, later to become my partner. I moved to a new residence. I was hired full-time for a job I had previously been contracting for. I turned forty-nine. Things were wobbling upwards.

In October 2019, my partner and I took a trip to Vermont to watch the leaves change. We stayed at a lovely little condo in the mountains and spend a lot of quality time together. While there on a rainy day, we watched a documentary on Amazon named “Too Sane For This World.” This documentary interviewed twelve people with Autism, each with a wildly different perspective on their condition.

This documentary shook me ragged. There’s no tragic bent in the documentary itself. It is very respectful to the Autistic people in the film. It just brought up all of the issues that I had with being Autistic. I had a new view on my entire self.

I wish I could say this view was optimistic.

I saw the abuse, terror, loneliness, anguish, and constant grief in a new way. I thought, “I hadn’t a chance when I was young. I was an easy target. This thing, this Autism in my head, made me a target for the Neurotypicals. I hadn’t a chance to fight back.” I didn’t have the wherewithal to stand up for myself until much later in life, and even then results varied.

The funny (NOT ha-ha) thing about physical abuse is one tends to assume that the beating was in some way deserved and it takes ages to work through that issue. For decades I had worked out that it was in no way my fault. These kids acted out because of their own terrible issues, most likely abuse at home.

But it turned out I wasn’t just the “weird kid.” I had a “disorder.” There was something wrong with my brain, and trying to think your way out is like trying to jump out of your skin. My weirdness went from something I can do about to nothing I can do about, all because my mind is hardwired that way. Of course I was an easy target.

I felt like self-help was now impossible because no matter what, I would always be Autistic. I felt robbed of the ability to improve myself.

I felt like my agency was taken away. I was a big believer in self-help but that was now gone. I felt that attempting change was nothing but wasted calories because no matter what, I would be facing everything with a “broken brain.” I was Autistic, and there is nothing that will ever change that. There is nothing that can bring back the wasted potential and happiness I could have had if I hadn’t been hobbled by my own syndrome. I was robbed of peace, happiness, and accomplishment because my mind was doomed from the start.

Once, my partner asked me about what it was like discovering I am Autistic. I told her, “knowing the name of my prison doesn’t free me from it.”

Sorry, fellow Autists2. That’s how I felt.

My Personal, Heartfelt Caveat

I feel the need to say here that I have never been an “Autism hater” or whatever the term may be. My daughter is Autistic and I can’t bear thinking of her being any other way. She is one of the sweetest beings I’ve ever met and her Autism is a large part of that. Her mind is beautiful.

I have chatted with many Autistic people since my diagnosis and it is amazing the amount of support, love, and understanding they give each other. I am totally supportive of Autistic people and love them as they are.

But I despised my own Autism.

It Gets Interesteringer!

My partner, being a good person, started reading everything she could about Autism once I accepted my diagnosis. She wanted to know more so she could interact with me and my daughter in ways that are comfortable for us. She used to be a special education teacher so she had a great grounding, but she left the business years ago and was out of step with the latest research.

As she gained more information, she discovered that Autism manifests itself differently in women than in men. Furthermore, she discovered she matched almost all of the diagnostic criteria for Autism.

So I am in a house full of Autistic people.

Which is great! I love them both and would change nothing about either of them. In both cases, their minds are wonderful, creative, loving, and fun.

Yet half of my forty-ninth year was spent seething at the chance and genetics that made me Autistic.

Time Marches On! Usually, It Marches On You

I had yet another birthday this year, as is common with every other person who ever is or will be. I turned fifty, which to some people is a seminal event but for me was just another day spent inside, avoiding COVID like a literal plague and working from home.

The rage I had about Autism is dying a heat death. I am exactly as I am at the moment I am in and that is about the most sense I can make of it all.

I went through a lot of this purposefully alone, because John do what John do. I let my partner know what was happening but left most of the pain percolating underneath. It was just a shimmery trace of toxic radiation leaking out of a pleasant smile.

Time heals all wounds and wounds all heals. My anger about Autism ebbed and flowed. I read about it, I mused, ruminated, and at times expertly dodged the whole thing to play video games.

It would be wonderful to end this article with catharsis. I would love to say that now I am a hundred percent at peace with my Autism and that I am tranquil.

But life doesn’t work like articles or blogs. There isn’t a final sentence until there is THE final sentence and chances are I will continue to be exactly as confused about things as nearly every person on this planet.

But my Autism is MY Autism. I no longer believe it is a prison or a wall preventing my evolution as a person. In fact, it does explain why every New Year’s Eve resolution I’ve ever made was abandoned an average of ten minutes after I made them. There is a kinda-sorta hope in that.

I can potentially hack my own brain. I can wander the trackless fields of my thoughts and search out creative ways to create change in me. There are benefits to Autism. Among them are:

  • Attention to detail
  • Deep focus
  • Novel approaches
  • Creativity
  • Tenacity and resilience
  • Acceptance of differences
  • Honesty and integrity
  • The ability to spot patterns
  • Being analytical
  • The ability to absorb and retain facts

In my grief, I overlooked those aspects. There are many things I can do that my Neurotypical friends can’t, and vice versa. I am weird. As a child, that difference can be dangerous. As an adult, it can be positively world-changing.

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1 “In a Different Key: The Story of Autism” John Donvan and Caren Zucker Crown (2016)

2 “Autist” is a new term that is gaining traction seeking to replace the term “Aspie,” being short for Aspergers. Since, again, Hans Aspergers killed children, it was generally felt that the community shouldn’t use his name.

MY WHITE PRIVILEGE STORY TIME!

Once when I was living in Maryland, I was driving at 11 pm down a road with a very confusing intersection. There were three different roads all crossing at one spot at odd angles that would have made H.P. Lovecraft horny for the old ones. This meant that there there a tangle of traffic lights.

I was tired, it was night, and I ran a red light because I thought the road I was travelling down had a green light.

If you’ve ever lived in Maryland, you know the struggle is real.

I was immediately pulled over. So I turned on my hazard lights, slowed down, and pulled into the empty parking lot of a business. I rolled down the window, stopped the car, and put my hands on the steering wheel so the officer could see my hands.

When he walked over, before he could speak, I said, “well, officer, I see that you witnessed the dumbest thing I’ve done in about 8 years.” He laughed, asked for license and registration, went back to his vehicle, came back, and gave me a warning while chuckling. He let me off.

SO?

What hit me on the ride home was this: I had NO fear. I had no concern that I was going to be questioned about driving my vehicle, I knew that there would be no assumption that I was out for any bad reason, there was no search of my vehicle, I was never asked if I had a weapon and was let off from an MD Transportation Code Title 21, Subtitle 2 violation that carries a $140 fine.

My expectations of the encounter were met: I expected the police officer to act dispassionately and with respect. I got exactly that. My joke saved me $140, but I also knew that if I had more melanin in my skin, the encounter would have been more fraught.

I don’t think at all that if I were black the police officer would’ve immediately assaulted me or would have been a terror. I feel completely certain that officer would have approached me in a very professional manner.

But I DO think that the encounter would have been different. It would have been more fraught, the officer would have been more nervous when approaching me, and the need for me to justify my being out at 11 pm would be more necessary. I think that my joke would have fallen flat and that I would’ve owed the state of Maryland $140. 

If I were fined as a white man, it would have been just. It’s on the books that way. I definitely ran the red light, only recognizing the offence when I was more than halfway past the light. I didn’t do it on purpose, but I DID IT, so although it would have been an inconvenience to pay that money, it would also be the logical conclusion. I broke the law. I pay for it.

My white privilege here wasn’t how the law applied to me, it was how the law wasn’t applied to me. Privilege comes from the Latin privilegium, or “private law.” That is a set of laws that apply to a set of people that doesn’t apply to others. Or in my case, don’t apply.

That might not have been the only factor in this encounter. The officer could have been tired and didn’t want to do the paperwork. But my privilege was, I feel, a very strong factor.

MORE ANECDOTES, PLEASE!

I was inclined to speed in my 20s and in many encounters with the police, I got exactly four tickets. In two cases, I went to the court and the traffic officer never showed, so they threw out the ticket. In one case where the officers showed up, I paid the fine and took the hit on my driving record.

In the cases where I was let off with a warning, the officer was friendly and professional. There was a “boys will be boys” attitude about the whole thing.

A MOST UNFLATTERING STORY

Once, I tried to outrun a police officer. I was speeding down an interstate and I heard the sirens start off in the distance. Instead of slowing, I gunned it for the nearest exit, hung a hard right, and parked my car at a college.

The officer found me (of course). I had shut down my car, had the window rolled down, and had my license and registration out.

He walked up to my car with a smirk and said, “you tried to run, didn’t you?”

I said, “yep” in a matter of fact way.

He laughed and said, “I woulda done the same thing. Let me let you off with a warning, partner.”

A PARABLE THAT IS ACTUALLY A TRUE STORY SO I GUESS ISN’T A PARABLE AT ALL

There is one case in my whole life (so far) was I treated poorly by the police. I was driving from Austin to Houston in what turned out to be a heavily used drug corridor. I didn’t know this until that very night when I was pulled over. The officers were rude, cruel, and ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN my body and car were made out of Angel Dust. 

They were pretty pissed to find only meat and metal. They insinuated, tried to entrap me, and didn’t like the fact that I was very carefully watching them search my car.

That’s it. I was not scared for my life. I was severely put out. I was indignant. How DARE the police treat me this way!

And the fact I could feel that way shows my privilege. I didn’t fear for my life, I was thinking about lawyers. I knew they weren’t going to haul me off to jail. They originally threatened to do so. One said “you know, we can impound your car and do a thorough search. We can take you to jail at any time.” So I said, “yes, and I can sue the town for false arrest because I don’t have so much as an aspirin in that car or in my system.”

I played with fire because as a white man I knew my life was protected with metaphorical oven mitts. I could be as “uppity” as any other white man.

They gave me a ticket which I never payed because I decided to use a new route from Houston to Austin and because screw those guys.

I called up the court of that town a few days later and asked if they had a ticket in the system with my driver’s license number. The lady said, “no, would you please tell me the nature of the infraction” and I said “nope” and hung up. I was not about to help them find a ticket that slipped through the system.

I checked my driving record later and it was never recorded, so the cops probably never submitted the ticket because it seems to be legal to drive the speed limit at night. Yes, even in Texas.

You see, the law didn’t apply to me. I got away with it because I COULD get away with it. I was a white man in Texas. That is pretty much the top of the cow patty pile.

(NOTE: I am STILL a white man, just not in Texas.)

SO, ABOUT THAT PRIVILEGE…

My privilege is not something that I’ve willed into being. I didn’t MAKE my white privilege. That’s not how it works. I was born into a system made by white men for white men. I was raised in it blissfully ignorant that I was not only given an advantage in life; I was given cheat codes.

I was a baby Buddha still in the protective castle walls of his father.

Only later when I actually listened to people outside of my “tribe” and read history not taught to me in basic elementary, middle, high school, and college history that that I found out that my tribe has done and is still doing some very shady and cruel things.

Americans are deprived of history. White people ignore it because we can and black people have had theirs taken away.

I have gotten away with a LOT of little things over the decade, most often in the most cavalier manner. I shrugged off minor infractions like they were nothing more than a cloud of gnats flying in my face while on a walk.

That is the immense amount of privilege I have inherited from my white, racist ancestors – a world where the laws bend to us, where we can ignore suffering because that shit gets in the way of shopping, where we can live an entire life without feeling an ounce of the weight of an entire system that says to the other, “we are not for you. You are at most tolerated or used for entertainment.”

Some white people might have stories about how they were discriminated against, but that again is a privilege. They can be upset about it, enraged even. They have the privilege to do that. With black people, that experience is so woven into their lives that it is “just the way it is.”

We can look at the murder of a white man and feel the profound injustice. We don’t have look at the murder of someone with our skin color on television and think, “it happened again like it always does, and again nothing will change.”