(content warning: including child sexual abuse, bullying, harassment, slavery, and exploitation)
I’m autistic. But that explains everything and nothing about me. I1 am also thirty-five years old, live in a postage-stamp apartment with my eight-year-old tabby cat, and love cheesy pop music. I have a job I love, a circle of dear friends, and a community that has seen me through the best and worst of my adult life.
I don’t like writing much about myself; I’d rather write about my work and what I’m interested in. I don’t actually crave the spotlight, but I feel I’ve been thrust there just to make myself understood. I am also aware that I may sound like a self-narrating zoo exhibit, though I try to avoid this. I am not Temple Grandin, Daniel Tammet, or Stephen Wiltshire. I am not Social-Justice Rain Man; I am not your fucking inspiration. I am not a computer, and I am most certainly not your computer, not a flesh-and-blood Siri, Cortana, or Alexa. I’m just human. And since I want to just be human, I don’t talk very much about myself. But I’m going to try today anyway.
I hear of concepts that imperfectly describe what I see and feel: hyperlexia, savant syndrome, autism, Pervasive Developmental Disorder. But I could understand what I read as a child unless I was dissociating and couldn’t focus. I don’t have an intellectual disability. And what do you make of someone whose development is delayed in some ways, advanced in others, and utterly normal in still others? The other ones are no improvement: “gifted” smells of the schoolroom or the psychic’s booth, and in any case, I associate it too much with shitty elitist educational policies. “Asperger syndrome” is all wrong; I associate it with “Aspie supremacists” and autistic people who are more abstract than sensory—I’m both. Just “autistic” won’t work, either, because there are different kinds of autism. And “twice-exceptional”? What the hell does that even mean? And I’ve often felt more exceptionable than exceptional, anyway. One of my high-school teachers compared me to Temple Grandin, but I didn’t really make the connection; I thought I was just weird2.
I don’t talk much about my internal experiences because my abilities are verbal and symbolic; I’m not a human calculator, musical prodigy, or virtuoso painter3. Because I can filter what I say with words, I understate just about everything. I also worry about being believed, even though I know others with overlapping experiences.
- Imagine what it would feel like if the words, numerals, ideas, and other symbols that you hear and read had feelings, shapes, sounds, emotional associations, historical references, textures, personalities, and smells—and you feel them almost as acutely as you do your normal senses. This is ideasthesia, which I have in excess. Ideasthetes process abstractions as concrete sense data. For me, words and symbols call up visual, spatial, emotional, historical, textural, and auditory impressions. Ideasthesia makes me a good writer and designer, but it’s also painful for me to see bad typography, misspelled words, punctuation errors, and poorly matched patterns.
- When I read my friends’ words on my computer or phone, it feels as though they’re physically there—I feel their personalities, energy, texture, and emotions. That alone makes it all worth it.
- What some see as abstractions—racism, poverty, discrimination—I see as embodied realities. Not only because of my own experiences with marginalisation, which are legion, but also because I actually feel them. Racism is my enslaved ancestors shackled together as they are forcibly repatriated to an alien world. Fingers being sliced off for learning how to read. I think of my sharecropper great-great-grandparents bent over double, picking tobacco in the humid Carolina heat. Demonstrators with calloused feet, sweaty brows, and determined faces holding signs saying, “I AM A MAN.” It’s Blind Tom Wiggins, a kindred spirit from another age, exploited and manipulated and treated as a curiosity. Though his talents were different from mine, there’s a pleasing familiarity in his perceptual acuity—and the plaint of someone who hasn’t been allowed to be a someone. And it’s my being followed around stores, constantly being asked, “Can I help you find anything?” It’s the inexpressible fear of becoming the next George Floyd or Mike Brown if I walk down the wrong street on the wrong day at the wrong time. I don’t want to become a hashtag I’ll never be able to read. When I see Black Lives Matter signs, I start welling up a little. I’m grateful for the acknowledgment that my life does matter, but I’m also angry that it’s taken this long for people to say it.
- My verbal thoughts are in complete sentences, using standard syntax, spelling, punctuation, and capitalization. Sometimes I can even choose a font for my thoughts. I can also read fluently in my dreams.
- Symbols can be heard, tasted, befriended, felt, touched, heard. My ideasthesia is a kind of animism: facts and words and dates and numbers are alive. This is part of why I’m so fanatical about spelling—I’m not upset at the person making a mistake, but I am upset to see an impostor instead of the word I expected. A misspelled word is like a misspelled name. I try to be patient with people, but that’s hard when errors in spelling, punctuation, diction, and usage are saws, lawnmowers, and fireworks going off in your ears. If I’ve ever snapped at you because of an error that set off my internal alarm bells, I’m sorry.
- Minute details in people’s speech, writing, and actions weave themselves into larger patterns—my brain seems to have created wetware algorithms. They’re not always perfect, but they’re reliable enough. When I point out the details that helped me identify the pattern, people are incredulous: “Why are you acting this way?” “What’s the matter with you?” “Why do you care so much?” Because those minutiae add up, and if I see certain things constantly going together, I’m going to draw an inference. If you’ve ever sincerely asked why I feel so strongly about things, thank you. Your asking showed that you cared.
- I project myself into concepts I want to understand thoroughly. I was never able to understand the idea of derivatives and integrals in calculus until I jumped into the problem, so to speak. For differentiation, I saw myself in a freeze-frame animation moving along a curve. For integration, it was several versions of me superimposed on one another on a single point on that curve.
- I have many intense interests, but my primary one is humanity: who we are, what we do, and what we can become. It’s easier to blend in when you’re doing what everyone else does by talking and using symbols. Because of that, I think people understand me all right most of the time, but I’m always steeling myself for quizzical looks when my thought processes reveal themselves unexpectedly.
- I remember a lot of things that most people forget. It’s not as severe as full-blown hyperthymesia—I can use my long memory for practical ends—but some aspects are similar. I don’t consciously choose to remember those details. At times I like having all these memories; at others, I’d prefer to forget them. I have PTSD, anxiety, and clinical depression, so it’s sometimes torture.
Although I’ve become more comfortable over time with my being autistic, it’s difficult to cast off all the accumulated shame: shame for existing, shame for being “too much,” shame for seeing things differently from most people, shame that I could never make myself easily understood no matter how hard I tried. It didn’t help that my parents were emotionally and sexually abusive. They are homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic, self-hating, deeply traumatized, hard-right evangelical Republicans who would vote for a flaming pile of shit if it had an R next to its name.4 They exploited my mind, body, and dignity for their own perverse and self-interested ends. I was treated like a card catalogue, Google Translate, a RealDoll, a pet—never like a person. Some abuse memories are filmlike flashbacks, but other incidents linger only as bodily memories, intrusive sensations, fears whose cause I’ve long forgotten. I suspect that my parents treated me the way they did for a few reasons: they isolated me to avoid reports to Child Protective Services, they have their own intense internalized ableism, and they simply didn’t know what to do with me. Although I can understand the last two reasons—I was doubtless difficult to raise—nothing in their past or present can excuse what they did to me. I hope they’ve never harmed any other child in their care.
On top of that, I grew up in a military family, where change is constant and stillness is brief. We moved every three to four years, going from state to state to country to country. (I have an especial dislike for jargon and alphabet soup because of all this; I can’t help thinking of all the military acronyms and initialisms—DoDDS, DEERS, PCS, TLF, BDUs, MREs, AFB.) Like other Air Force households, ours was organized as a strict hierarchy; we all had to know our place. Although my father was said to be at the top of this hierarchy, my parents shared power more equally than they would admit. Children were to be seen and not heard—or at least not heard too loudly. This is why I both need and fear attention: I want to be around people who also want to be around me, but I’m also terrified that if I stick my neck out, it’ll get chopped off.
Military families often organize themselves like units and battalions; individuality is subordinated to unit cohesion, family cohesion, national cohesion. Unquestioned obedience is the norm. You may be incoherent on the inside, but you’d better look sharp regardless. This may work for the troops, but it’s no way to raise a child. It was no great feat for eleven-year-old me to empathize with the characters in The Giver and Nineteen Eighty-four: these dystopias were just military-base life intensified 5. Of course Winston Smith was easy pickings for the Thought Police; he yearned for humanity in a world that despised the individual. I am terrified of a world shorn of all beauty, sense, and purpose—not surprising for a Technicolour child who grew up in a monochrome world of brown-and-tan buildings, impersonal bureaucracy, uniforms and uniformity. When I see people treated as numbers, I recoil—you won’t be remunerated well in the military, but you will be well enumerated.
Imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.
—George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-four
(That boot is my father’s.)
I ran away from my parents when I was twenty years old and never looked back. I knew everything was all wrong; I could never love Big Brother. I shudder to think of what might have become of me—if there’d still be a me—had I not known people who were kind enough to help me flee. I celebrate the day I left—10 October 2006—as my “observed birthday.”
I pity my parents, but I can’t forgive them, despite all the indoctrination I heard as a child. Even if the abuse were emotional only, even if my parents’ evils were limited to shouting and belittling and isolation, they were evil nonetheless. There’s always a chance that your child may be an extreme statistical outlier. Improbable is not impossible, and people like me will always break ostensibly airtight statistical models. I am a statistical outlier, so I push against the reduction of incommensurable human life to statistics and figures6. (The universe is a troll, though, so I ended up studying sociology and public policy. My apologies to my statistician colleagues—you do good work! Just remember that people like me exist, too.)
I make connections that others don’t, but much of what we take for granted started out as those connections. Let’s consider language. It’s all around us, so we see it like air or water. People see and hear language as marks on pages or arbitrary sounds that are mere vessels of meaning. But let’s look at that a little more: natural languages use concrete descriptions to refer to abstract phenomena. Comprehension means grasping together. Description means writing down. To discover is to remove something from its hiding place. The words idea, wit, and vision are cognate—in the Indo-European languages, sight is the primary metaphor for knowledge. I suspect that the first users of language were ideasthetes. Our languages would be very different if they weren’t.
(This is why doctrinaire descriptivism fills me with existential terror—the model seems to neglect those of us who do see, hear, and feel spelling, grammar, punctuation, and usage as sensory stimuli. What are you doing, you monsters! You’re letting people hurt my friends.7 I can’t abide their sanguine predictions of radical linguistic change that we can never control—or their blasé attitudes toward so many of the things I find abhorrent. But I suspect they may think the opposite about us. How dare they change the flow of language? It’s its own phenomenon, and we’re foolish to change it. Being swallowed by the indifferent crowd, being laughed at for caring about style or beauty, being told that feelings and culture don’t matter—this is nightmarish, not reasonable. It just reminds me of my parents, the military, and the hell of my childhood. Apathy is the mother of dullness, so I resist it at every opportunity.)
This is one of the most difficult things I’ve written, since I bristle at the idea of showing too much vulnerability, too much sadness, fear, and trauma. But I’ve done a lot of difficult things this year—in the past six months, I’ve left a toxic nine-year relationship, started living alone for the first time after years of sharing with housemates, and started processing more of my trauma—so why not do another difficult thing?
I see my friends’ and colleagues’ faces as I write this, and hope you’ll understand what I’m talking about, at least a little. I do this for you, and I do this for everyone like me who feels alone in an intense, chaotic, and often frightening world.
I wish I’d known someone to show me the way when I was growing up. (I think I taught myself so much because there was nobody around to teach me.) I couldn’t understand how I was making connections others couldn’t see, even though they were as real as breathing.
But all of us, whether neurotypical or neurodivergent, rely on connections—social, symbolic, physical, mental, intellectual. Some of us make those difficult connections naturally. Others have to be shown the way. But all of us can make connections, at least a little bit—because that’s what makes us human.
- Really, “I” is a misnomer; I’m just using it for your convenience. (I do a lot of things for people’s convenience.) ↩
- It gives me a chill up the spine, though, to think that I was on a discussion panel with her last year. Over Zoom, of course. ↩
- I am an artist, but I’m just good, not great. ↩
- Donald Trump would qualify. ↩
- (Lois Lowry, who wrote the Giver quadrilogy, was a military brat, too; I wonder whether it had an influence on the series.) ↩
- I owe an intellectual debt to the late Jacques Barzun, who deplored what he called the “Stat Life.” It’s a recurring theme throughout his œuvre. ↩
- I hate their constant mutilation of all right, one of my calming phrases. I repeat it to myself, all right, all right, all right. It’s a grounding mechanism: all will right itself. Two words, not one. Alright, on the other hand, is a false sense of security, a dissociative haze, a repugnant mixture of gloppy processed cheese and rancid vegetable oil that sticks in my throat. Allright is just a car crash that I can’t stop staring at. I hate seeing words wrongly run together—alot, aswell, atleast, eachother, and the like. They’re colliding into each other! Or maybe they’re like enmeshed couples who really need to break up for their own good. ↩