I was born in 1955. Way back then there were basically 3 types of “kids”: just the regular let’s play hide-an-seek, build a fort, throw rocks, ride bikes, ring doorbells and run, make random calls and ask if “Ben Dover” was home (caller ID ruined that), get muddy, mercurochromed bloody knees and elbows, be home by dinner time kind. Then there were the “weird” kids. Now, this class broke down into the “weird” in an eccentric kinda way which made you kinda cool and then there were the “stay away from little Johnny” kinda weird which wasn’t so good, and everybody had at least one friend who fit the former and knew one of the latter. Today the latter generally hold elective office or work at the DMV.
Finally, there were the “special” kids (special being the term used in polite company). Now, I know a lot about this class, for you see, I’m a member. As a child I struggled to “fit in,” be “just one of the kids” and I lived in terror (strong word but completely accurate) of the “short bus” which transported them to school and home again. My generation pretty much walked to and from school. The only time a parent picked up their child was if they were injured beyond the school nurse’s ability to patch them up or they were sick, projectile vomiting kinda sick or did something REALLY BAD, like invade Poland. So, every day when the short bus would pass me, twice, I would freeze up inside, deathly afraid of being found out. I was seven when I first began considering suicide.
I was adopted at six weeks of age and unbeknownst to my new parents, I was “special” as well as being a sickly child; my heart stopping more than once before I was 9. As a result, my father felt cheated out of the son he envisioned having, and though I supposed he tried, it was abundantly clear he would have traded me in for a different model if given the chance. Mom was Mom. I could have been on death row, guilty as sin, and she would have been there patting me on the arm saying, “its OK honey, the Governor will call since I know in my heart you are a good boy.” But I couldn’t talk her or anyone about what I was feeling and experiencing, hell, I couldn’t even put it into words for myself.
I didn’t know why I was different, but it was clear I was. I would watch the interactions of my playmates, confounded as to the ways they related and responded to each other, and they did it so effortlessly. I’d hang in the background, try to be a part of without really being noticed, especially for the wrong reasons. And I watched a lot of TV looking for clues.
I had a hard time making and keeping eye contact and would often look off to the side when talking to someone. I would say “inappropriate” things (not like bad language or such, well, OK, sometimes, my mind just makes connections which make perfect sense to me, others, not so much) and had no clue as to why they were inappropriate. I would get that hated scrunched up nose narrowed eyed “say what” look and know I had somehow messed up.
In the early 60’s IQ tests were the rage. When the sealed envelopes with the results were handed out in my class, everyone got a white envelope, well almost everyone, mine was manila in color. That day’s walk home was filled with thoughts of suicide and ways to do it because I knew this was it. I left the envelope on the kitchen table (the thought never crossed my mind to disappear it) and waited in my room resigned to my fate. When Mom opened it all it said was the school wanted them to make an appointment to come in for a conference. My Dad was pissed (yep, that is the word he used) because he would have to take off work and was sure I had done something I was covering up. I maintained ignorance, thankful for the reprieve, dreading what I thought I KNEW was coming. The day came and I attended the meeting with the Vice-Principal as well. They were told I was, wait for it, ABNORMALLY intelligent. I don’t know what else was said after that, for I had shut down and blanked out. It was in the car driving home when I came back around to my father saying, “that was a huge waste of time.” I waited for “the” talk I had been dreading, but it never materialized. I went to school the next day as if nothing had happened and it was never brought up again. I really don’t know why they had my parents come in, this was before GATE or programs for gifted students existed, I think they were just as perplexed at what to do with me as I was.
At a very early age I decided the best course of action was to try to “fit in,” so I dedicated myself to mimicry. I would surreptitiously watch you: your facial expressions, the tone of your voice, the words you chose, how others reacted to you and how you reciprocated. And I practiced and practiced. You know how people say they have done something a “thousand” times? From that point (around 7) through High School I spent thousands of hours in front of the bathroom mirror rehearsing the things that came so naturally to you, until it became second nature. I taught myself to “fit in,” to act as if, even though I didn’t understand the underlying why’s.
And life went on. I looked at what generally qualified as “normal” (not surprisingly a lot of that came from TV) and started checking off the boxes. In time my fear of being “found out” diminished, but I was still a little “weird” which was kinda OK in High School. I played sports, got a girlfriend (relationships took my acting to a whole new level, and I still sucked at them), had a small circle of friends and was bored out of my mind. I drove my teachers to distraction by rarely turning in homework but acing tests. My poor mother on numerous occasions had to fight with instructors to pass me. I wouldn’t have graduated High School if not for her. She was 5’1 & ¾” as she would often proudly state and maybe 110 pounds soaking wet. One her favorite momisims was “dynamite and poison come in small packages,” she was a force to be reckoned with.
What really made High School tolerable though were the drugs and alcohol. See, if you were loaded or drunk you were expected to say and do inappropriate things. It would be forgiven with the blanket, “oh, he is just f#%ked up.” Talk about a get out of jail free card. As you can well imagine, drugs and alcohol became constant companions and close personal friends. Time passed and I kept checking off boxes: I got married (poor girl), bought a house, became a father and had the beginnings of a career in business management, because that is what “normal” life looked like, right? Things were good, at least I thought so, right up until they weren’t. My reliance on intoxicants turned on me and I ended up out of control, alone, broke, in dire straits physically and mentally. Then at 30 years of age I sought help and have been free of active addiction since 1985.
When I first I entered the community of recovery I was amazed. They talked about secrets and being “the actor,” of hidden feelings and motivations, lies and destructive behaviors. I felt like I was home at last and I let my guard down a little. Though I am still a part of this community, this feeling lasted only a couple of years until I had to face the truth, though I had much in common, I was still “special” and proceeded to work to “fit in” once again.
You see, I’m Autistic and all that implies. Hyper focus, given to routine, poor socialization skills, difficulty in forming and maintaining relationships, the whole eye contact thing (I have been practicing that for over 55 years and I still get it wrong) and so on. I am “high functioning” with (if you believe the tests) a high IQ. Sounds good, but to me it’s like being the car in the junkyard with the best paint job and good tires. I know, I know, just stop it. You must admit though it is a pretty good line. Shhh…just between you and me, the whole IQ testing thing, today I am pretty sure all it really denotes is someone who takes IQ tests well. Just sayin.
There used to be a thing called Asperger Syndrome, which pretty much described me. It is not a thing anymore though, which kinda sucks cause Asperger sounds like you’re having a burger made from snake and only real men eat snake burgers, I could see John Wayne or Errol Flynn eating a snake burger and liking it (remember, born in 55).
It wasn’t until President Kennedy came to office that the approach to mental health and how we address and work with children who are “special” began to change. In the ensuing decades a new world of resources and understanding has emerged, and had I been born a decade or so later, my life probably would have had a very different trajectory.
There are myriad of ways we can be defined, if we allow it. I am not DISabled; I am just other abled. I see the world through a prism of colors, sounds and textures different than you, not a good thing or a bad thing, it just is what it is. On the upside, having studied people’s expressions (micro and macro), vocal inflections, body language, etc. since I was a small child, I have an uncanny ability for “reading” people and predicting behavior, especially those who suffer from addiction.
Today, maybe it has to do with getting older, but I don’t care anymore about “fitting in,” I want to spend the rest of my days free of the fear-based restrictions I placed on myself and be honest. I met a young man recently who was Autistic, I asked him how he was coping with life and fitting in. You know what he said? “Screw’em. If they don’t like me for who I am, I don’t want them in my life.” I cried.
We all have gifts and talents, are part of the grand fabric of life, the tapestry of colors truly a wonder. All here to teach and be taught, no one without or lacking value. Today I see the world through a new pair of glasses and though the music in my mind is somewhat different from yours, it is all part of the great symphony, every note of value, even those off key for they provide the impetus for change and growth. The key is, and always has been, love, and from love acceptance and respect.
So, if we ever meet in the “real” world, whatever that is, I may say something a little off key or be a little too blunt, but don’t take it personally. Oh, and I am told I can be a little intense so there is that. It is just me, being me, no longer in hiding, and chances are excellent I will probably say something that will make you laugh and though I don’t own a 1949 Buick Roadmaster convertible I am an excellent driver.