by Patrick Ridge
My childhood, upon mature consideration, can best be described as catastrophic. I won’t go into the details, and I have heard of children less fortunate than myself, but catastrophic is an apt word taken all in all. The aspect which most stands out for me today is the way my experience was shaped by my borderline autistic condition, Aspergers Syndrome. I will refer to Aspergers as AS for the sake of brevity. For my purposes AS is best described by the phrase “standing behind the door when the instructions were passed out”. After some thirty years have gone by and I have developed some mental and emotional “tools” to compensate for my condition, I can specify a little better what the differences, the symptoms are that created this condition, but for a child of ages five through thirteen I was quite unclear on what was different about me. The effect was that everyone was behaving in a manner similar to each other, as though responding to cues that I was not receiving. Today I know that this is a form of brain damage, neural scarring that has eliminated certain parts of my perception enjoyed by most people. Those parts of my perception that are missing have to do with understanding social cues; the problem is thus reduced to its elemental form.
Emotionally for the person with AS, there is a problem with many ramifications that are mystifying and in no way elemental. Even today I don’t have any first hand experience of the way that neurologically typical people comprehend human behavior. This gap in my understanding of fundamental basics of human interaction is on some level very disconcerting, even frightening even after all these years. As a child it was catastrophic. In the same way that I had no idea what signals I was not receiving the children around me had no way of knowing either that I was not receiving them. Even with neuro typical brains, they were struggling to learn how to interact in the manner of the human animal. It is human nature to become irritated with people who are not “with the program” and they had to assume that my social incompetence was willful. I was a gentle and sensitive boy who wanted to do the right thing, but I was badly hampered by the relative poverty and chaos of my family of origin. For many years I ascribed my failure to properly integrate socially to my family situation, and certainly the violence and neglect constituted poor parenting when I might have benefited from good parenting.
The irritation of the other children resulted in me being ostracized into a group of one for many years, which made it much more difficult for me to observe how neuro-typical people interacted. Later on in my early teens when I changed schools I was, after a period of intensive observation, able to learn to imitate this phase of human behavior until it became second nature, although I continue to learn more every day. In my group of one I was completely in the dark about why my interactions with people were so different from the people I saw around me who were having satisfying social experiences. It was clear the problem was me on some level, but I was also aware that they seemed to be capable of a kind of cruelty that was foreign to me. I know now that this is because it is part of the nervous system that I lack, a social response that causes the neuro-typical to ostracize those who are different. This reaction is good for human society because it helps to insure that people all act the same. Lacking that human trait and being the victim of it made my fellow children seem monstrous to me, so that I did not want to fit in with them, to play their reindeer games.
At my school there were bullies, as there are among all children. These bullies saw me as fair game, and due to the peculiar nature of the neuro-typical, I was. There were perhaps six boys who were able to strike me at any time without fear of reprisal of any kind from me, from my parents, from school authorities, or from any legal consequence. I did not respond because I was not trained in violence in my family as these boys were, because I was a gentle person, and because the entire society was united against me. The fact that these boys were not constrained in any way and made no effort whatsoever to be secretive made it clear that their behavior was condoned at every level. This sense that every single person knew it was alright to assault me at any time without any fear of intervention was far more disconcerting than the impact . No school authority at any time in nine and a half years ever made any attempt to defend me, and the reason is I didn’t know the proper social skills because I have AS.
In spite of my emotional pain and fear I was able to cope, although I self medicated daily from the age of twelve, which went a long way towards allowing me to gain some equilibrium. I armored myself emotionally as well as I could to protect my inner vulnerability. It was very clear I was different, and so I embraced that difference and decided I was different in ways that made me “better” than the people around me. Predictable efforts, but effective. Over time I began to see that the neuro-typical act in very predictable ways – that is the essence of being non AS – your social behavior is predictable. It was precisely my unpredictability that made me ostracized. I made a nerds game of learning to emulate them, and because it was all an act and I am a clever fellow, I was able to turn the game on its head by winning, by learning to be extremely charming under controlled conditions with certain people for periods of time.
This emulation has in some sense made all of life a lie for me, but with my early experiences I don’t think I would trade it to be neuro-typical if I could. The human animal’s social behavior does not bear that close examination unless you have a strong stomach, and I have examined it as closely as anyone. In some way it has made me cynical and then taken me beyond cynicism into the philosophical realms of free will and determinism. And it’s true that I have no idea what I am missing, that the pure pleasure of fitting in and knowing whatever those people know would amaze me if I could know it. But I just could not stand to be one of them, to behave like a robot the way they do, so easy to predict, with no way of knowing they are somehow stuck. From some other vantage point of greater neuro-dysfunction, I no doubt appear the same to them as they do to me. But knowing that there is something so chilling in human animal social behavior, I am happy for however much room I have to play with it, even if it diminishes my overall happiness. Sometimes though it is as if I can feel in my brain the scar where the human information would have been and I know this is no blessing.
Note: This story has been reprinted from its original source with the permission of Patrick.