Portrait of the Autist as a teenager

boy on railroad tracks with fragments of image
Everybody saw what they wanted to see — they never actually saw me. Nor did I.

This is a continuation of my “Portrait of the Autist” series… As a young child, as a happy young child, as a pre-teen… and now, as a teenager.

When I was 12, my family adopted 2 more sisters from Texas who were in a terrible foster care situation and desperately needed a home. It was a big change for us, because we had just moved to a new house in a new area, and in many ways I was starting over again. All the attention was on my two new sisters, so that took some of the pressure off me. And that was a good thing, because I had a lot of problems when I was a teenager.

I had major sensory issues – touch was painful for me, and I had trouble understanding what people were saying to me. I pushed through and went along, but it was incredibly difficult for me. The stresses of being a girl/boy becoming a woman took a toll, and I had extended bouts of depression. Nothing actually seemed worth it. But I kept on. I pushed on. Life was hard. That’s how it was. There was nothing else to be expected. So, I kept on.

In 7th grade, I was bullied again by some girls a year older than myself. I basically mis-read the social cues, and I also said and did things that I couldn’t stop myself from doing — significant executive function / impulse control issues making their presence felt. I spent my 7th grade year in constant fear of them, not realizing that I could — or should — say something about them threatening to beat me up all the time. I hid a lot, that year, and just kept a low profile.

In 8th grade, the girls were gone, but I was still “under wraps”. I was still wired and whacked out from being on constant guard and high alert from their ever-present threat, and my whole system just wanted to collapse. But I couldn’t. I had to keep on. So, I spent most of the year keeping to myself. I had grown a lot over the summer, and I went from being one of the smallest kids in the class to being one of the tallest. Nobody recognized me the following year, including my favorite teacher.

That was fine with me. I just wanted to be invisible. Disappear. Stop having any sort of interaction with anyone. I kept a low profile, focusing on my own interior world.

In 9th grade, I started high school, and I started to find friends. As it turned out, my growth spurt made me taller than all the girls who had been bullying me in 7th grade. Even though they were a year ahead of me, by the time I got to 9th grade, I was nearly a head taller than they were. They came to find me, the first day of school, “Where is she?!” they were yelling, as they waded through the crowd of kids who’d just gotten off the school bus, the first day of school. They couldn’t see me anywhere. Then someone pointed them out to me, and they came running over — and stopped short, when they realized I was actually bigger than they were.  I wasn’t just taller, I was also more robust. They were skinny little sticks of girls (most of them were already on drugs), while I was a muscular athlete.

They didn’t dare mess with me. And they backed up immediately, when they saw me. The thing was, when I saw them racing towards me, I immediately felt fear… and when they backed away in obvious intimidation, I didn’t feel any kind of malice towards them. I just felt sadness. Pity. And empathy. Because suddenly, they looked as scared of me, as I’d been of them — as though they expected me to do the same sh*t to them, that they’d done to me. I wasn’t about to do that, though. I just wanted peace. And I never went after them, in the three years we were in high school together. I was still a bit afraid of them, truth to tell. And I didn’t want to “get into it” with them at all.  I just wanted to be left alone.

High school was my banner time. Some of the best years in my life, up to that point. I got involved in sports, which gave me a valuable outlet for my energy and focused me on a common team effort. I ran cross-country and track, and it taught me so much about how to live my life independently, while being part of a team. I was a natural athlete, and I had developed from a gangly, awkward kid into a coordinated and skilled player of just about any sport. I wasn’t the best of the best, but I could hold my own on a team. Most of my difficulties in sports were about my attitude and (lack of) belief in myself, and my coaches helped me to get past a number of those hurdles. Just good hard work and focused dedication were the secrets for me.

One other thing going for me was that I grew up in a very “aspie-fied” area, and there were a lot of kids who were at least a little like me. They drew me into their social circles, and they forced me to interact. It was then, that I learned how to interact with groups of people. I studied how they related to each other… what they did, what they said, how they timed their discussions, what they laughed at. I learned how to laugh at an instant’s notice, and how to come across as engaging and interested in what was going on.

I started drinking alcohol in high school, too, and by the time I graduated, I was a falling-down drunk. Getting buzzed was the one way I could soothe my nerves and interact with others. Things at home were very hard, and I melted down a lot from fights with my mother. She seemed to know exactly what to say to incite overwhelm with me. She’s very sensory-seeking and gets through life by (literally and figuratively) bumping into everything around her, to find her way. I was one of the things she bumped into a lot, and she actually seemed to enjoy pushing me to the point of a meltdown. Drinking relieved so much of the pressure. And it also helped me interact with others and present as a “normal” person. It’s easy to look “normal” when everyone else is just as buzzed as you are.

At the same time, I became increasingly invested in my own work as a writer, my own artistic path. I’d wanted to be a writer, ever since I was 7 years old, and I became more and more devoted to that as a future path. I was well-suited to that way — always observing, always studying, always recreating scenes in my mind about what people would say or do under different scenarios. It was almost like I was writing my own life, as I studied others. I tested out things other people did and said, trying them on for size, myself, and seeing how they worked — what kind of reactions they produced, what sort of things were said or done in response. I didn’t have a clear sense of what would work, and what wouldn’t. So, my life was a mixture of art and science, as I studied the world around me and figured out what worked.

I had a number of friends — a small inner circle of 3 other girls… an almost-inner circle of 4 or 5 additional others I was “in cahoots” with (we faked our way out of gym class together, smoked cigarettes together, and traded details on where you could buy booze)…  an outer circle of about 8 others (both boys and girls) I felt connected with in some way…  and a wider circle of people I got along with fine. I got along with just about everybody, partly because I didn’t really care what anybody thought of me. I was on my own path. I was a writer. An artist. An intentional outsider who only wanted my independence — and allowed everyone else their own freedom to be whatever they wanted to be. I was on friendly terms with everyone from the 5 contenders for our class’es valedictorian spot, to drug addicts, to heavy-duty jocks, to ultra-conservative “Reagan Youth”, to developmentally delayed kids who everybody else made fun of.

One girl, in particular — I’ll say her name — Dawn — because her condition cost her her life before she could even graduate high school, was just about the sweetest, most insight person in the school. But because she was developmentally disabled, her spine was twisted so that she limped, and she came across as a “retard” (their words, not mine), nobody else would give her any time or attention. She was pretty much alone, and she was bullied by kids who mis-pronounced her name like they were delayed. She was bullied like I’d been, and I couldn’t just stand by and watch. I didn’t feel comfortable speaking out against others — there were so many of them, and I didn’t want to be bullied, myself, all over again. So, I started hanging out with her. I sat with her at lunch. Not only because I felt sorry for her — which I did — but because I knew from experience, just how much someone can have to offer, when the rest of the world has decided you’re a waste of space.

If I remember correctly, I ate lunch with her a bunch of times. And we talked. She stuttered and stammered, but when she relaxed and got the words out, she talked about things that were so insightful. She was my teacher. That 15-year-old girl with the hump on her back, the vacant stare, the stammering mouth that sometimes drooled, and the delayed response time, taught me worlds about different ways of thinking and being. And we had so many good laughs. Just a lot of good laughs.

Then my drinking caught up with me, and I couldn’t manage to sit with her anymore. I didn’t have the capacity to focus my attention. I was having sensory issues, myself — especially in the cafeteria, which was always so loud and echo-y. I started sitting with the big groups of kids who were a mix of popular athletes and “brains” and class clowns, and I left Dawn behind.

Senior year, I heard that she’d died over the summer. And I hadn’t talked to her for quite some time.

Socially, I had one best friend, and that was honestly all I really needed. Just one best friend. My other connections were largely for the sake of others who wanted to be friends with me (for reasons I couldn’t figure out). I was very jealous of anyone else she interacted with. I insisted that we share a locker for most of the 4 years were at high school, and when she told me she wanted to have her own locker, I was crushed. Just devastated.

She and I had been in the same homeroom since middle school, since our names started with similar letters. We hit it off very well, almost from the start, and as it turns out, she was actually in love with me. She may have been, almost from the start. I never realized that, though. Even after being the focus of her affection for over 10 years, I never fully understood just how she felt about me. My partner of 25 years used to say all the time, “She’s in love with you!” and we’d fight about it, because I couldn’t see it. I never could. We parted ways when I was first getting together with my life partner, because she said some things about my relationship that I didn’t appreciate, and she wouldn’t take them back. I just dropped her and never looked back. It was too confusing for me, anyway, and I could never figure out what she actually wanted from me.

Looking back at my high school pictures, I’m struck by the stark contrast between how I looked back then, and how I was actually feeling. I knew how to present. I knew how to blend. I knew how to look the part of a “together” young woman with confidence and self-assuredness. And to some degree, I had that. But beneath that veneer of self-confidence and surety, there was always a shifting magma plate of cluelessness and uncertainty that never, ever left.

Small wonder, nobody knew what was going on with me. I knew exactly how to present my best side, so I could keep off the radar, escape detection, and never have to provide clues about how clueless I really was… how many answers I pretended I had, but completely and utterly lacked.

I wonder, sometimes, if things might have been different if I’d known I was on the autism spectrum, back then. They probably would have. But they wouldn’t have been better for me, I believe. Nobody knew sh*t about autism or Aspergers, back then, and any weakness was a thing to exploit and target. I’d had enough of being a target, without any obvious reason for it. Why give people yet more reasons? Why indeed?


3 thoughts on “Portrait of the Autist as a teenager

  1. My story of my teen years is nothing like yours.

    And it’s exactly like yours.

    To most people those two sentences would seem like nonsense. Perhaps you’ll know what I mean by them. I was particularly struck by a sentence early in your post.

    “So, I kept on.”

    Yep. I did too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. VisualVox

      Yes. I get it. Absolutely. There’s a certain… sense… we all share, when we’re autistic. A kind of “meta-pattern” of experience that transcends individual details. This, I think, is where telling our stories is so important.


  2. Pingback: Our Most Notable and Favorite Disability Articles for the Week Ending October 7, 2016 – Celebrating Individual Abilities

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