Sometimes the dawn of understanding arrives at a ridiculously slow pace

November 22, 2020

My mother tells a story about me that reflects a lot of my life experience. As the youngest child, she was concerned that I was too isolated after my brothers and sister went off to school. Despite having great memories of staying home with her to play and read, she enrolled me in preschool with high hopes of me making friends and socializing with other kids my age. After multiple days of finding me playing alone in the sandbox when she arrived at the end of the day to pick me up, she pulled me out of the school in frustration. In her words, “why would I pay to find you playing by yourself every day?” I have (apparently) been a loner since I was 3 or 4 years old.

50 years later, I am finally figuring out why preschool wasn’t a successful socialization for me. Maybe I’m a slow learner (says the woman with two master’s degrees). Maybe I’m just a cranky bitch (despite having long-time close friendships and a long-term relationship). Maybe I’m just difficult (and able to build a relatively successful career). So really, WTF?

The last few years have been difficult. My long-time workplace changed and I couldn’t keep up. After years of working and building, of navigating and learning, I found myself on the outside, an experience that eerily echoed a social expulsion from when I was 12 years old. A new head honcho, a realignment of allegiances, and I was out, this time accused of exhibiting “career-ending behaviors.” After over 10 years in the same workplace I was hurt and confused. What did I miss?

It took a move into a new environment to make me see what exactly I missed, and understand what I have overlooked my entire life. What causes me to stay quiet in large groups, to avoid loud gatherings, to sink into working from home with such intensity and relief, to see how difficult it was for me to move from my own office to a shared workspace, to see why I loved living alone, why I excelled at working on my own, where my “strategic” skills and ability to focus come from. 

Recently, when I mentioned to a friend that I was reading about autism, she replied “oh everyone’s a little bit on the spectrum.” I was shocked at this response, to have something so deeply troubling be so lightly dismissed. But after reading about others’ experiences, I know I should get used to it. A blog called This Great Ape beautifully explains one perspective. A recent post describes how damaging the persistent disregard can be when it comes from your medical providers. I am lucky, I don’t have debilitating pain or overwhelming anxiety. But I do have to work for an income, and this work requires me to interact with other people. The time spent recovering from confusing and exhausting social exchanges is not insubstantial. 

Learning about other people’s experiences with autism is allowing me to resolve so many confusing encounters of my own. I feel as if a lifetime of clues have been cracked and the murderer dramatically revealed, although in reality the solution has far less drama and delivers an actual life-changing relief. I get it now, about why I attached to people so fiercely when I was young, why I connect so intensely to my work; I understand the comfort I felt in being a morning helper in my elementary classrooms, how my unspoken anxiety around just the idea of prom and homecoming could make me flee high school in the middle of my junior year, why I don’t have a close cadre from grad school, how I can be lacking a robust professional network after 20 years in my field. And I have to say, it is profound to find someone who uses the same metaphor of alienation I used in middle school (the source of the title of this blog), but has been able to turn it into an actual career path–brava!

Without an ability to connect socially, I am left to my own devices. On the fringe, autistics watch and listen, trying to learn how to fit in. Eavesdropping, watching movies, reading books–these are all essential tools for learning how to connect. But of course the tools don’t provide a full picture, they only allow for mimicry. Sometimes the copyists are pretty good–we the “highly functioning” can get graduate degrees and have long relationships, families, and careers. But the stress of acting, of masking, takes a toll. After a work week, I spend most of the weekend in recovery. The isolation is needed to regain my emotional balance so I can start again on Monday, start pretending to be neurotypical: holding back my responses, trying to keep a straight face and stay quiet so I don’t overwhelm my colleagues, attempting to hide my intensity, to not snap in anger when my focus is interrupted, to try to accomplish something in the midst of so much stimulation and noise. 

I’m unclear on how a diagnosis would help at this point in my life, but I wonder if it’s worth pursuing to at least learn about resources that might be useful. I’ve figured out how to function in my private life–avoiding large, loud gatherings, finding an understanding and compassionate partner, making enough money to afford personal space. But I could use some coaching in the professional world. I am at a point in my career where I finally see how autism is preventing me from pursuing what I imagined I could do. With that knowledge, the question becomes: do I figure out what I need to stay on that original path, or do I find a new path that is better matched to my abilities? 

Luckily, I think I am in a place where I can take time to find out. I’m not looking for a cure, I’m just trying to see what’s possible.

5 Responses to “Sometimes the dawn of understanding arrives at a ridiculously slow pace”

  1. Thank you for the mention, I am so grateful that you found my post relatable!
    This is such a wonderfully-written post about the struggles of realising you may be on the spectrum later in life. I wish you all the best with your endeavours!

    • Thanks for your message. Your post was so heartening! To see that young women can finally have a chance for clarity about themselves and an understanding of what they are capable of is so exciting! Best wishes to you.

  2. Thanks for mentioning my post as well.
    If you identity as Autistic (regardless of official diagnosis), your blog is eligible for inclusion on the Actually Autistic Blogs List. If you want it included, please click here to customize your blog’s description on the list.
    Thanks for writing your blog. The Actually Autistic Blogs List wouldn’t exist without bloggers like you.

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