I’ve been thinking a lot, lately, about how fortunate I am. I’ve been kind of tangled up in all sorts of emotions about letting go of old unrealistic expectations that were very much a part of who I thought I was — or could be. I’ve always had goals, always had aspirations, but the more I think about it, the more I realize just how non-autistic so many of those goals were.
I think it’s just normal to internalize the values of society — we’re constantly being shown images of the “ideal”, constantly getting unspoken messages about how we should/should not be, constantly being redirected in subtle ways to keep us on society’s “straight and narrow”.
I also think the influences are particularly pronounced, when you’re autistic. We pick up so many cues and clues that slip by others, and we can be so strongly impacted by even the slightest nudge in a certain direction… even the faintest hint that we’re not OK… Which sets us up for ongoing bombardment, because society’s clues and cues are really designed to pressure folks who aren’t sensitive, who don’t pick up on subtle messages, and who can’t discern the gray-area differences between good/bad, right/wrong.
So, autistic folks end up bludgeoned. We really do.
Which is why I’m really, really happy that I was raised in an autistic family.
Nobody called themselves autistic, of course. It wasn’t a thing when I was growing up. Autism was a classic-Kanner deal, where you had to be severely impacted/disabled by your challenges, in order to be considered autistic. We knew of families who had autistic members — the guy who renovated our kitchen, for example. But those cases were just whispered about. Those of us who suffered intensely from environmental and sensory distress, but were able to go about our lives without being permanently disabled by all that, were considered “normal as normal can be”.
Indeed, for that time and place — in an insular religious community that was highly regimented, rules-oriented, literal, hard-working, and chock-full of physical activity that gave you ample outlets for your overabundance of energy — we were normal. Because how we were and what we were, was the norm. And our community of faith was sufficiently insulated from “the World” (capital W), that the ways of the evil outsiders never posed a danger to us.
Our autism was our creed. It was the right way to be. It was the only way to be. And anybody who wasn’t like that, was considered a minor (or major) threat. The ways of the non-autistic World were evil. Temptation. An ever-present danger that put our souls at risk. In the world where I was raised, you followed the rules. Autistic rules. Religious rules. Social rules. You didn’t deviate, on pain of expulsion. It wasn’t pathologized. If anything, NOT following the rules was pathologized.
Of course, all that pathologizing got a bit old, after a while. Especially for me. I wanted something bigger and broader than what the rules allowed. A more generous interpretation of gender. A less debilitating interpretation of what was possible for girls and women. The rules may have spared me a lot of anguish and insecurity, when I was growing up, but they also hemmed me in… in ways that were excruciating. Nearly lethal.
But let’s talk about the fun stuff, shall we? I can sit around and feel bad about the bad, or I can choose to feel good about the good. Life supplies ample amounts of both, and where I choose to concentrate is up to me.
There was a lot of good, in being raised that way. As painful as it was, as excruciating as it could be, it trained me along certain lines. And having a hyposensitive mother who was always on the lookout for the next exciting experience turned out to be a boon. Seriously, my Mom was/is like a shark… always moving, always seeking her next sensory experience, looking to fill up on the inputs of life. We did a lot, when I was growing up. Camping. Hiking. Playing. Working. Always active, always thinking, always talking. Even though it overwhelmed me constantly, and it took me years of pain and frustrationi to learn how to deal with it, now that I know how to do it, it’s an incredible gift.
My father, with his unending pontification, philosophizing, pedantry… always thinking, always talking, always convinced that his ideas were the stuff of wonder and awe, always convinced that he was on the cutting edge… His bravado (annoying as it could be at times) is something I carry with me. I’m more tempered, I think, in my suppositions of grandeur, and I do believe I have a wider base to draw from than he, who’s always operated within a fairly narrow mindset and belief structure. But that same conviction that my thoughts matter, that my insights have depth and importance, is clearly inherited from him.
My whole family was so autistic… Pick up a (credible) work on autism (preferably written by an autistic writer/researcher — Milton Damien comes to mine, along with others whose names I can’t conjure right now — or someone who’s a true ally — Luke Beardon’s latest work is a good bet)… and make a laundry list of autistic traits, and I can assign them, to most (if not all) of my biological immediate and extended family to one degree or another. I can also find those traits in my onetime neighbors and classmates, the folks who attended our church, the people I interacted with daily as a kid.
They all helped raise me. They “trained me up in the way I should go”, and that way was autistic. They raised me to be neurodivergent, and it was our most critical identity. It was our saving grace. All those rules, all those pressures, all that constantly reinforced messaging of right/wrong, on/off, acceptable/verboten… all of it spared us from the world. Our agreed-upon rules, our regulations, our religion… it buffered us and gave us a profound, unassailable sense of belonging with one another that was so powerful and enduring, it makes today’s identity politics look like capricious dabbling.
We were autistic. All of us, to one degree or another. And the ones who weren’t, were recognized as “different” and accommodated, so long as they made an attempt to comply with our ways. In a sense, I was raised in a world that was the flip-side of the neurotypical mainstream — all the autistic folks were normal, non-autistic folks were the neurodivergent ones, who were looked upon askance, not quite trusted, sometimes pitied, often excluded, and constantly pressured to become like us.
To be autistic.
Well, it’s a beautiful day, and there’s an adventure out there “with my name on it”. How’s that for an image — in my mind’s eye, I see a vast stretch of wilderness with a stickie tag on it that has my name written in dark blue marker.
Time to make that come true, and do my parents proud.