I recently read a great article by a mother who is “unschooling” her autistic kids – Possibilities. It talks about having “radical trust” for kids, to know what they need, to develop as they need, and to not resort to the usual pressures and enculturation and forcing them into neurotypical straightjackets, just to be like everyone else… and pass as yet another regular person just going about their regular life.
It’s interesting that I came across this, because I was just thinking earlier that day about how my very strict, rigid, constantly correcting upbringing did turn me into a successful imitation of a neurotypical, who passes easily in the non-autistic world, and is a productive member of society. I was out for my Saturday afternoon walk, and I got to thinking about how I haven’t been at the same kind of disadvantage in the everyday mainstream world that so many autistic folks are, because I was constantly, continuously guided and instructed and commanded about the right things to do, under a variety of circumstances.
Never once, while I was growing up, was there ever any question about the right way and the wrong way to do things. It continues that way, to this day. When I visit my parents over the holidays, I frequently interact with their neighbors and others in the area who are quick to point out when I’ve done something wrong. When I’m not dressed properly for the weather. When I haven’t maintained my car properly, and the air in one of my tires is low. When I have spoken out of turn. When I have put something expensive in my shopping cart, while there’s a more economical version right on the store shelf in front of me. When I have parked too far from the curb. When I have locked my car doors in a neighborhood that is safe as safe can be.
Where I grew up, there was never any question about the proper way to do things. And there was never any hesitation among friends, family, teachers, ministers, neighbors, and complete strangers, to point out the things you did that were wrong. It was both stifling and soul-crushing, and refreshingly candid. You never had to question where you stood with people. They made that clear. And if you stepped out of line, they made sure you knew how you could get back in their good graces.
Of course, some of us could never steer ourselves back to the straight-and-narrow. All of the kids in the family fled the area, and we situated ourselves in new surroundings. Two of my siblings moved to areas populated by people very much like the folks we grew up around. One of those siblings has had unspecified mental health problems, which haven’t abated in their entire life. If I were a gambling woman, I’d say the company she keeps has something to do with it.
But I digress. The benefits of growing up in an area like that (where I’d hazard to say there are a much higher concentration of spectrum-y individuals than in the mainstream), is that there’s never any question about how to do things, how to live your life, how to be a member of society, how to contribute to the world around you. You’re instructed and corrected and prodded and cajoled and intimidated and hounded and coaxed, from the moment you wake till the instant your head hits the pillow. And as exhausting and distressing as it can be, it still trains you to conduct yourself in the world in a fitting manner. Moment after moment, day after day, month after month, year after year. And no bad behavior is tolerated.
Basically, you’re schooled.
And the other day, as I sauntered down the back road leading away from my house, I was feeling pretty good about my progress, thus far. I’ve been able to piece together a pretty good version of “the good life” – at least on the surface. I own a home (well, technically, the bank owns it). I have two cars (one of which is owned by another bank, which I’m paying off). I have a full-time job with a good company. I’m in a 25+ year marriage that’s still going strong. We are safe in a nice town, in a relatively prosperous part of the planet, and we have every comfort at our disposal. Not all of them are affordable for us, but if we had to have them, we could figure out a way to get them.
On the surface, nobody believes I’m autistic. After all, I’m a woman of a certain age who can interact with others successfully. I can do small talk. I can make eye contact, if I have to. I can relate to others. I’m relate-able. I don’t stim openly in front of people. I do tend to talk people’s ears off, when we start discussing the 12th century renaissance or user experience in web-based applications. I don’t collapse in horror when the fire alarm goes off at work; like everyone else, I hustle to the exit, hands over my ears. I don’t demonstrate a lot of the stereotypical traits often associated with autism. I pass as “normal”.
Because I’ve been trained.
Yes, I’ve been trained, I would imagine in a similar way to ABA – through constant feedback, continuous consequences, a steady stream of correction for when I’ve done things wrong, and the occasional reward for when I’ve gotten it right. Truth to tell, the greatest reward for getting it right, is just being left alone – I’ll take that. Just being out from under the scrutinizing eye of the culture police is the most delicious of reliefs.
I’ve been schooled. With the social equivalent of a ruler-clutching fist hovering over me, ready to strike at the slightest provocation. With the constant, constant, incessant attention to every detail about my life that indicates whether I’m Getting it Right, or I’m Doing it Wrong. I’ve been conditioned by the equivalent of a red-hot poker, or let’s say a cattle prod, to do things a certain way, to say things a certain way, to carry myself in a certain way, to embrace certain values, to develop a certain routine. To measure myself along the same lines as the rest of the world does – the rest of the neurotypical world.
I felt pretty good about that, too, as I was striding along that country road. Then I got back home, read the article, and I’ve had 24 hours to think about it… let it sink in… digest it… and realize, my supposed success has come at a very steep price. I was a pretty tortured soul as a kid. Depressed much of the time, isolating, fearful, anxious, just aching to get free of that world. I had so, so many problems with just about every classic point of autistic difficulty, but I suffered in silence, hiding it all, burying myself in religious fervor, in hopes it would “save” me from my “sinful” nature. I was in constant pain of one type or another, and was hurt and injured in countless ways. For all my supposed success at fitting in and fulfilling my social role, it came at a steep price.
And I’m still paying that price, even as I distance myself from the neurotypical ideals and step more fully into my autistic identity. I have tremendous difficulty doing a number of things independently and properly, but I have even more difficulty admitting it and asking for help. I have been sorely in need of support, many, many times in the course of my adult years, but I was too ashamed, too terrified, too confused to even begin to understand why that really was… or admit the depths to which I was floundering. I’ve been treading water ever since I left my parents’ home in 1983, and only in the past several years have I actually learned how to take a few strokes and begin swimming on my own.
So, for all my supposed success, for all the apparent effectiveness of my upbringing, that schooling had a steep and violent price tag attached. And I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to get out from under the spectrous threat of social retaliation. Like a fog it hangs over me, that fear of retribution, that fear of shaming, that fear of ridicule and public humiliation. Like a heavy wet woolen blanket, warm though it might be, it wears me down, it pulls me down, and there is no sun in sight to dry it.
I’m through feeling chipper and proud of my “functional” state, thanks to my violent upbringing. I’ve been schooled. Now I need something entirely different. Let the unschooling begin.