The snow is finally melting, in my corner of the world. It’s warm today, 50°F and 10°C, and it’s raining a little bit. Mist is rising up from the snowbanks as they melt and evaporate. The process always fascinates me, because it seems like it should take more energy or more heat to turn water into steam. And yet, here we are, surrounded by fog.
I’m so glad it’s Friday. It has been a really long week, and everybody I talk to at work feels the same way. We are all very happy the work week is nearly over, and since this is Easter weekend, a lot of people have even more time off. So, that’s good. Things should be pretty quiet today, especially this afternoon, so that means I can concentrate on my work without distraction. I might even get into my zone, if all goes well.
I’ve been thinking about how being autistic has helped me over the years. With Autism Awareness Week, the theme seems to be, how many people have been left behind and are not being helped as they struggle through life. I’ve had plenty of struggles, myself, and being denied a diagnosis for years really complicated things in my mind. However, objectively speaking, Autism has also been a huge advantage for me. And not necessarily in ways you would expect.
One of the biggest and most helpful ways, is how it makes me pretty much oblivious to what other people think of me. Now, in some cases, that is a real drawback. It doesn’t help me when I am in touchy social situations where I need to read people properly to get by. It also didn’t help when I was growing up and all the other kids were sending out magical signals about what they did and did not like, what they would and would not tolerate. I was persona non Grata a bunch of times throughout my childhood, and that really hurt.
On the other hand, now that I look back, I see that being on the outside didn’t actually stunt me the way you might think. It didn’t ruin my ability to bounce back, didn’t keep me from becoming resilient. In fact, being on the outside taught me many important lessons, and it really became an advantage for me. Because those experiences taught me how it feels to be on the outside, which I would never want to make another person feel. It made me a lot more sensitive to differences in the want more excepting of limitations, all of which have helped me connect better with the world around me.
Plus, I was really, truly happy being by myself, and I took so much obvious pleasure in the things I was interested in, and I devised a way of life that worked for me, so other people were intrigued, and they actually responded favorably to me after a while.
In fact, over the years, my outsider status has often worked in my favor. I have been outside the “in group” More than I have been on the inside, but because I’m actually fine with it and I seem happy and content and fulfilled in it, it piques the interest of others who want to enjoy life the way I do. They see me enjoying myself, being happy, being content, and they want to know what all the excitement about. I will happily share what fascinates me, any old time, and one thing I seem to have learned from my autistic grandfather, is how to translate my passion into excitement for other people. So, my geeky nerdy obsessions with obscure stuff really truly helps bridge gaps between me and others. Anybody who’s looking for a little tidbit of trivia they can use to impress people a cocktail parties is welcome to ask me for my input. Invariably, I can find something they can use later to improve their social status.
Everybody wants to be happy, everybody wants to be accepted, everybody wants to feel like they belong. It never really mattered to me that I didn’t belong to certain groups, or that I was not the most popular kid in the class or at work or in town. What did matter to me, was that other people felt welcome, appreciated, even loved, when they were around me. I learned how to transfer my sensitivity about being left out along with my deep interest in life, other people, and how things work to the social scene around me. And because I was Autistic and could not read negative reactions from people, I found myself able to be open to others in ways that most people can’t.
I can’t emphasize enough how helpful this has been. Alexithymia, or the inability to sense emotions, has actually worked in my favor, in that I have defaulted to openness and acceptance, if I needed to fill in any blanks about what people thought about me. In fact, there have been many, many times when other people have approached me with anger, judgment, aggression, or other negative emotions, and because I could not sense them, I just assumed they were friendly, and I treated them as such.
The amazing thing is, those other people backed off their negativity and took my positive lead. They realized that I was not intimidated by them, I was not put off by their behavior, I was not going to fight with them or stir up more trouble, and I really just wanted to interact with them like decent human beings. Because I had a better and frankly more enjoyable solution to the dynamic, they followed my lead.
I sincerely doubt any of that would have been possible if I were neurotypical. If I were able to read the aggression the other people feel, if I were able to respond to their emotional state with a response like what they were putting out towards me, I’m sure my life would’ve become very different and taken many darker turns. But the fact of the matter is, people look for leaders, and they look for better solutions in life. And if you lead them in a way that steers them away from their bad behaviar, on an individual basis, In personal encounters, change can actually happen.
Of course, I can’t speak to systemic inequities, as well as racism, classism, bigotry, and all the other isms that drive modern human behavior. Those are larger, more complex issues that deserve a deeper discussion. But in my own personal life, I have found that Autism actually gives me an advantage when it comes to dealing with people. Provided that I take the lead and I set the tone, really positive changes can happen whenever I encounter people who could potentially be a problem.
It’s not for everybody, and not everybody has interest, or wants to develop the skill, but I can tell you that it works. I can also tell you, I didn’t learn how to do this overnight. I didn’t magically receive divine dispensation of this glorious secret. The set of skills was hard-won over many decades of trial and error. But right now, in my current life, it works for me.
And that’s plenty good for me and my life.