Thinking About Autism

Amanda at Ballastexistenz has written an excellent post for Blogging Against Disablism Day describing what it is like to be autistic and taking a look at the trend of accusing people of using autism as an excuse for having poor social skills, among other things.

The post goes on to talk about techniques used by autistic people to appear “normal” and includes a video that explains how it can take all day to boil a pot of water. If a picture is worth a thousand words, that video is worth a million.

One interesting thought, which I had never heard before, is that some people might choose to be non-conformist as an attempt to mask involuntary weirdness.

There can also be attempts to mask involuntary weirdness by appearing to be voluntarily weird. Since chosen non-conformity can in some circles have higher social status than involuntary non-conformity, and since it can lead to an internal sense of being in control of one’s own weirdness, even though of course the person isn’t really.

I have always been non-conformist. For the most part it has been because I have never fit in with the “normal” people and could never figure out their completely illogical rules and bizarre system of prioritizing things.

misfit: photo by SpoungeworthyIn the place where I grew up, fitting in was essential to being treated like a human being. If you looked or acted differently, you could be assured that people would treat you badly, if not to your face, then behind your back. If you were a child who was different, you were doomed to a miserable life of physical and mental abuse where people’s idea of how to help you was to make you look and act like everyone else.

In high school, I became a “burnout”. We were a bunch of misfits who hung out in parking lots and did a lot of drugs. It was the first time I ever felt like part of a group, like I fit in. I wonder if this is the kind of chosen non-conformity that Amanda is talking about.

From that point on, my friends were always part of some nonconformist group or other. The focus changed from drugs to music to peace and love to politics to computers, but the feeling of not being alone and not “having” to fit in have played a large role in my periodic decisions to stay alive and keep trying rather than giving up and killing myself.

The autism community has taken ‘fitting in’ to a whole new level for me. It is not like other groups where I share the focus of interest, but am still kind of clueless about how people’s minds work outside of that focus. It is the opposite. It is an incredibly diverse group of people with all kinds of interests that I may or may not share, a group of people that make sense to me because I can understand how they think and how their minds might take them from fact A to conclusion B.

I think that autism is a whole different way of seeing the world. Whether it is good or bad should not be a question. It affects many people’s lives to a degree where they need help and assistance with basic daily tasks, and other people’s lives in a way where they contribute things to the world that would never exist without them. Some people fall into both of those groups or any point in between. unrulyasides has an interesting post about the idea of automatically classifying autism as a disability.

I don’t really have a point to all of this right now. Reading things written by people whose brains work similarly to mine gets me thinking in a way that other things don’t. It is not that other things do not make me think. Tons of things make me think! The difference is that these things do not need to be translated into a framework that I can understand before they are processed. An entire level of energy expenditure is removed. It is nice. Still, it gets me rambling.

Creative Commons Licensephoto credit: Spoungeworthy

6 thoughts on “Thinking About Autism”

  1. Yes, that is at least one kind of chosen nonconformity that I was talking about, although the form it takes can vary from person to person.

    I was in a complicated situation in adolescence, too complicated to describe here. But some of the results of parts of that situation were choices in appearance, combined with an increase in various actions (or inactions) that I couldn’t help, none of which were for any particular reason related to social anything.

    However, I saw from the reactions of those around me, what they assumed and thought about people who looked like I did and did the things I did.

    I’d inadvertently stumbled across a look — that had more genesis in fairy tales plus sensory preferences than anything else — that other people considered stereotypically hippie-like.

    And combined with the actions of your average autistic kid, this led to a lot of people assuming I did drugs, among many other things.

    And other people respected me for “not caring what people thought”, and actually tried to develop friendships with me.

    I remember at some point trying to convince myself that all of my difference was this kind of by choice thing.

    And while that on one hand terrified me, it was also in a way liberating to feel like I had a choice about it. So I convinced myself that I was not “abnormal” and “defective” and “different because I couldn’t help it”, but rather “free-spirited” and “different because I want to be”.

    (Although this then of course led me to question — of the elements of my involuntary difference that I really didn’t like, like speech trouble and special interests and stimming and freezing up and stuff — why would I want this? Keeping in mind that at the time I viewed these things as horrible. And then developed a whole theory about how my subconscious must hate me, like Arnold Rimmer’s in Red Dwarf.)

    And since one of the expectations people had of me was “druggie”, it was inevitable that I’d be offered drugs at some point, and more or less inevitable that I’d end up taking them out of accumulated curiosity.

    Although I didn’t really find as much acceptance among other drug users as some autistic people I’ve known. I did find a little.

    But not just that particular kind of thing…

    …I know autistic people who (especially as teens, but even after) hide out, or hid out, in assorted other “subcultures”, like goth and whatnot.

    And certainly among geeks my weirdness had a certain amount of coolness to it, enough that I even managed to date for awhile, but I was still on the outside a lot there. (More than I knew, really. I’ve given up by now being startled whenever I hear “[insert name here] didn’t really like you, you know,” because I’ve realized my obliviousness to that at the time was sky-high.)

    Other people I know or know of, have become criminals at some point in their lives.

    But, yeah, when it seemed like my kind of difference meant defective, then the idea that a person could be different on purpose felt wonderful as a hiding-spot. And there seem to be as many ways and directions to be different-on-purpose as there are ways people can behave. So the part I wrote about that, is very true of one point in my life, but also drawn from many other people’s lives that I know as well.

  2. Interesting, I just read that column on Amanda’s site and then soon after read your reaction post. It moved me too… I have been recently trying to figure out why I’ve always been attracted to fringe cultures… the hippie culture with the seeming acceptance of everything has always had a strong appeal, and recently I’d been trying to get involved in Burning Man culture. But I’m becoming discouraged with trying to get into these cultures… although on a superficial level they are extremely accepting, when it comes down to it these people have preferences and cliques as strong as anywhere else if not stronger. And because I’m not so good at posing I never really got into those cliques.

  3. I just wanted to say thank you for sharing so openly what your life experiences are, and for sharing how it feels in your head. My son is 8 and an Aspie. Reading your reactions to situations helps me understand him better–and how to respond to him better. My goal is to give him adaptation tools–so if I can understand how he thinks, then I can help him cope and adapt to the world around him. Your Meltdown vs Shutdown posts sound remarkably like his panic attacks or sensory episodes.

    I wanted to comment on the chosen non-conformity. I have something called inattentive ADD, which is rarely diagnosed in girls and most often not until they are adults. Especially since I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s when they never looked at girls for ADD! Anyway, I did adopt a ‘silly’ and non-conformist personality to help me feel better about not being like other kids. My brain doesn’t function like other people’s brains, and I chose to be one of the non-conformists at school. I remember being happy to find friends who didn’t care that my brain worked in so many random patterns!

  4. I identify greatly with so many things. It’s rather eerie.

    On the matter of masking one’s own weirdness, for years I mispronounced words, acted intensely odd & purposefully acted inappropriate to whatever social boundary I could get away with without alienating my core friends and family.

    Years later I realized why I did it. I am different. I do stumble socially. I do forget words, names and inexplicably create words to finish sentences when my memory stops. The thing is though, people who know me think I’m doing it on purpose. My plan worked!

    But why do I feel so stupid? Oh, it’s because I can’t seem to remember ANYTHING anymore and I have the attention span of a goldfish. But nobody knows unless I tell them.

  5. Sorry to folks for taking forever to reply to these. Thanks for explaining Amanda. Interesting how hippie culture seems to allow for such a wide variety of weirdness, but still not enough.

    @Littlemissknowitall: Glad you can understand your son some more 🙂 Meltdowns/shutdowns sometimes lead to panic attacks for me too if I can’t “stop the snowball”. Either way, I still end up hyperventilating almost every time.

    @Jeremy: haha. I like when people think I do stuff like that on purpose too. Try not to feel stupid. Wish I could tell you how, but it happens to me too. Still, it takes a lot of smarts to live in a world where people’s brains do not work like yours and you have to find a work-around for just about every single thing!


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