Why do you think you might be autistic?
14 Sep 2021
I wrote the following essay as part of my intake form for an autism assessment. I offer it as one autistic person’s experience. Perhaps it will be illuminating
Wow. When I was a child, back in the ’60s and ’70s, autism only referred to profoundly impaired people, and I was not that. By some accounts I may have had the highest IQ (152) in my secondary school, although I have never been told directly. I recall spending time with guidance counsellors every year taking various cognitive tests, pretty much always resulting in papers saying I was in the 99th percentile, etc...nevertheless, I regularly got the notation of being a chronic underachiever on my report cards (in my defense, I was bored). On top of this, while I was in the primary grades, I regularly received the dreaded annotation "does not work and play well with others".
I have never understood what my social peers have demanded of me, leaving me to get picked on for not fitting in, as well as randomly offending people for reasons that I, to this day, do not understand. I feel like I have a paradoxical ability to understand things that people are not saying, while simultaneously not understanding what they are saying, doing, acting out. Regardless of my mistakes with surface interactions, over the long term I have been correct more often than not in relationships that have lasted long enough to get beyond surface intimacy. And then there’s my partner, who has all the social skills and, over the course of the last 30-odd years, has also turned out to be someone whom I can barely relate to because our brains clearly work very differently.
I have absolutely no small talk. This is an endless problem for making friends, and I have never had more than a handful in any case. It’s a well of despair that I can drink from whenever I wish - only relieved by the fact that I have many "intimate but distant" relationships, many of whom also bear the marks of neuro-divergent personalities.
I am quite sensitive to light. Flickering fluorescent bulbs make me especially crazy, but in general I prefer daylight or relatively low artificial light levels when indoors. Streetlights at night provide a similar problem, and their flashing past while driving can make me sleepy, even when I am otherwise wide awake. How this all works is difficult for me to explain, but it clearly has something to do with the way that colors and shadows work.
In fact, vision is a problematic sense for me in many ways. My visual acuity is strongly myopic, where my uncorrected focal distance is about 10 centimeters. I genuinely see better (uncorrected) in the dark than in full daylight. Additionally, I often find myself needing to remove my glasses when I am talking to people in emotionally charged circumstances - I feel overwhelmed by the amount of information that comes flooding in through my eyes. Sometimes I have the eye contact problem that is common in autistic circles, but mostly I get around it by seeing the face and not the eyes. I’m not even sure that makes sense, but it feels true. I am also aphantastic, and have no visual component to my imagination and memory apart from pattern recognition.
Dreams also have a very weak visual component, although not so much *while* I am dreaming. This is an area that I have been actively exploring as part of my meditation practice. It is difficult to explain, but there is a point of awareness that is distant enough from the quantum thought field where fragments of light can form themselves into images, sounds, and other sensations. If I move slightly towards the thought field I do experience images, but am rapidly pulled into either full immersion in an alternate experience, or the thought fragments do not cohere and return to chaos.
I also have a very strong sensitivity to sound, which has moderated somewhat as I have aged and my high-frequency hearing has declined. I can hear the size of any surrounding space, and I used to think that some of my ability to see in the dark came hearing reflected micro-sounds. I know most of what is happening in a space by the sounds being made. I can tell the progress of my yoga teaching by the sounds of students breathing and moving. When I was a child and could not sleep, I used to listen for the most distant sounds I could hear as a distraction from the fact that I had to stay in bed and found in that my first gateway to meditation (though I did not understand it at the time). Loud rooms, especially if they are bright, can easily overwhelm me, although again, this is very dependent on the nature of the sound. Many voices, nearby, especially if I have a need to understand some fraction of them are particularly problematic, but musical structures tend to provide me with a lot of ease.
That said, music is arguably the center of my sensory experience, and I regularly perceive everyday sounds around me in a musical way. My composition work is driven by my desire to explore the range of what might be considered harmonious, even if it takes a well-educated ear to perceive the harmony. I have studied music (perception) theory almost as diligently as I have studied computer science over the years in order to both understand and expand my ability to perceive and produce music. I have mostly given up on traditional instruments to use digital tools because so few instruments allow me to structure sound in the ways that seem necessary.
Which brings us to the fact that I am employed as a software engineer. This is a field that is well-known to be filled with people who, at the least, lack social skills; many of these people are clearly also on the autism spectrum. This has long contributed to my own sense that I am not so different from “normal” people - my “normal” world has many neuro-divergent inhabitants, many of whom are much worse in their social functioning than I am.
Which nearly brings us full circle to the matter of the current understanding of the gendered presentation of autism. I do not trust the gendered component due to the obvious lack of research, but I find that my personal experiences resonate strongly with the stories of autistic women, particularly when it comes to masking. This is a difficult area of intersectionality for me, as I have a transgendered experience continuing back to my early childhood. I have always felt more experiential affinity with women than men; but I also find that the usual construction of gender makes very little sense. In any case, I find myself putting on the right mask and trying to follow the correct script in nearly every social interaction, because most social interaction also makes very little sense. This leaves me feeling very lonely and with little sense of my self as something other than the space that is not occupied by anyone else. I have found myself dissociating in sexual encounters for a variety of reasons, ranging from the sensual to the social; and while this is obviously complicated by my gender issues, I feel like autism also speaks through these experiences.
I feel I should mention my ongoing work with dissociation. There is something in it that is very akin to autistic shutdown. Sometimes it comes from being overwhelmed sensually or emotionally. Sometimes just part of my brain shuts down - most commonly I will lose my words, but I have strategies which help me deal with that. Other times I am simply absent. Once, I came back to myself before a stop sign at the end of a highway exit ramp with no memory of driving up the the ramp or how I even got there.
This is very difficult to write about. While I feel that I have a tightly integrated experience, I find that explaining my experience requires that I talk about different personas that have something like an ongoing dialog in my head. This is not a foreign concept in Indic thought, and is part of my ongoing fascination with Tantric studies. Yet even though I feel fully integrated, there are disturbingly large gaps in my memories. Some are probably traumatic, but with others it doesn’t seem very likely.
And finally, my grown children have begun to recognize their own neuro-diversity. My partner and I home-schooled them so we never had any issues for the public school system to pick up on, but since they have gone on through University thay have begin to recognize that they function very differently from their peers. They have a private language made up of movie quote, in-jokes, and obscure knowledge which they use to communicate much more quickly than the guests they bring home for holiday visits. This is so pronounced that they joke about having to turn things down so they can actually include their friends. When I spoke to them about seeking my own ASD diagnosis, my daughter replied that she wanted me to go ahead because it would make things much simpler for their own diagnosis in the future - she had independently been looking into getting an assessment and was quite well informed. My youngest son informed me that he also resonated with the description neuro-divergence and agreed that most of his siblings were likely the same. Since ASD has a strong genetic component, this seems consistent with my own self-assessment.
As you can tell, I am pretty convinced that I am part of the neuro-divergent community. As a yoga teacher and former parent I feel like it is important that I have a degree of certainty about my own experience when I speak, especially if I am going to use clinical terminology. The stigma surrounding autism is still somewhat distressing, and yet, when I finally owned to likelihood that I am neurodivergent, it felt hugely liberating. I was delighted to feel that my brain was not broken, just organized very differently; and that my normal was indeed just as valid as the neurotypical normal. The autism story fits the evidence of my experience like nothing else I have found in my fifty-odd years of a fairly odd life.
This document was translated from LATEX by HEVEA.