My Childhood, Part 1

firstgrade

My parents never suspected I had a developmental disorder. I met my milestones and spoke precociously. I behaved well and dazzled their friends with curious observations. My parents not only expected quirkiness, they embraced it.

I certainly had some eccentricities.

I snapped my fingers compulsively and asked ceaseless questions. I made odd noises, could not tell right from left, and was prone to insomnia. I fidgeted and had an intense terror of fans. Adults lectured me on eye contact: “People will think you are lying if you do not look them in the eyes.”

I did not play like other children. Consider my first Barbie. After I ripped her out of her cardboard box, I scrutinized her carefully.

Krunk-krunk-krunk, I bent a jointed knee. Krunk-krunk-krunk, I straightened it. The articulated knees captivated me. The noise they made combined with the novelty of moving parts ignited my curiosity.

I spent one whole day bending and unbending those marvelous knees. I studied her sky blue eyes and twisted her synthetic hair. Barbie was a creation of lovely parts, never a toy person.

I eventually tired of bending her knees and twisting her joints. I returned to my dinosaurs.

I loved dinosaurs. I collected facts on them, memorizing pages about their evolution and physiology. The natural forces that created their unusual anatomy consumed my imaginative world. My mind strung together bits of orderly information on each animal. Just knowing was a warm tight hug, gratifying and reassuring.

My parents chalked my oddness up to a “sensitive disposition” and  a “superior intelligence.” They made no judgments and played to my strengths, feeding my brain with books, microscopes and field trips.

Harmony and peace filled my life.

Then came First Grade.

I never attended preschool or kindergarten, since early education in 1970’s New Mexico belonged primarily to churches. My only group experience with children was one horrid summer swim class.

To prepare me for school, my mother equipped me with adorable dresses. She took me shopping at a specialty boutique. Spending borrowed money, she filled my closet with the loveliest little dresses I have ever seen.

Mom, who grew up in depression-era Ohio, gave me the best sendoff she could imagine. The youngest of eight, she despised her handmade dresses and hand-me-downs. The little girl in her would have relished my frilly dresses decorated with rick rack and stitched ladybugs.

Alas, clothing can make a statement, but not as loud as behavior.

I felt confident on my first day of school, dressed as pretty as a little doll. The social dynamics of elementary school stretched beyond my comprehension. I had no idea of how to behave. My first recess broke my heart.

None of the other girls would play with me. Furthermore, they knew nothing about dinosaurs, geology or Clint Eastwood. I tried to inform them, but no one was interested.

Since the girls ignored me, I sought out the boys. A mass of them played kickball, which I had never seen before. They shooed me away with less finesse.

When Mom picked me up for lunch that first day, I was in tears. She brought me home and fed me tomato soup in a brand new bowl from TG&Y.

She listened sympathetically, with a concerned and sad face. She still sent me back to school. She knew what I was beginning to grasp: I had 12 more years of horrible, horrible school.

My experiences with school life did improve, after I made my first friend.

Understanding Other People Is Hard

intensity

This summer, I upgraded from perennial chat room lurker to actual participant. Now, I correspond regularly  on adult Asperger/autism boards. Years of silent observation taught me that all chat rooms host trolls and other predictable characters.

Any place where you share your experiences, one person posts the “worst experience ever.” Their stories are so appalling, your credibility is stretched. In fact, when the same person posts “the worst experience ever” across multiple threads, some people openly reject them.

In the autism boards, members accept and support a person with a terrible tale; even when a person consistently posts great difficulties.  Since autists frequently grapple with work, relationships, and sensory overload, they possess empathy for those who struggle.

Like other boards, autism boards have trolls. I flip a mental bird at them and move on to the next comment. I am more troubled by mildly offensive posts.

When someone responds, “Well, everyone feels that way,” in response to a personal disclosure, my eyebrows arch. I wonder what the person’s intention is. Do they intend to invalidate another person’s feelings? Are they trying to be helpful? Are they in denial? I cannot navigate the ambiguity.

I am tempted to react in anger. I reveal details online I never shared before. It’s hard for me to divulge anything, let alone an embarrassing or tender moment. Questioning the validity of my experiences wounds me.  If I was so normal, why do I have the difficulties I do? It often seems as if it such comments are a subtle form of blame.

So, I am ready to pick up my flame thrower and blast napalm at the “everyone feels that way…” commenter. I have a lifetime of being misunderstood for fuel.  Yet, that comment needs to be addressed. And it must be addressed with empathy. I cannot assume ill will.

First I will concentrate on the comment, then the feeling.

Rudy Simone, author of Aspergirls addressed the “everyone feels that way” attitude:

It’s the same with all Aspie traits–everyone experiences some if not all of them, but not at the same level of : INTENSITY, FREQUENCY and QUANTITY.

It doesn’t matter if you are diagnosed with autism, Asperger’s, Tourette’s, ADHD, OCD, depression, or bipolar disorder*. Every “normal” person experiences some degree of your atypical neurological and emotional heritage. This is a good reason to build tolerance on both sides of the fence.

I will reject anger and look for opportunity. I plan to help the well-meaning and confused understand the difference between their normal experiences and autism spectrum experiences. I intend to share more personal stories to illustrate the intensity, frequency and quantity of my life. I will build empathy and put down my internal flamethrower.

 Whoo!

*Yes, I deliberately left out schizophrenia.