An undiagnosed childhood, or the “unnamed beast”…
That’s how I thought of it at first. That is, when I first realized it had been there all along, without my having realized what it was to begin with. I’m talking about Autism. Yes, you can define it through technical or psychological means. But I’ll tell you what it means from the perspective of someone who was born with it.
It means you see, think, look and feel differently from what most people expect of you, and, unfortunately, for many, it means feeling a little awkward at best, oftentimes left out on the average, or being utterly ignored at worst. But when I was a child, like many adults who are now being diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, literally no one had any idea what was really happening in my brain. Misunderstandings, misdiagnoses and misfortunes tend to follow any dealings with the unknown.
Until the present day, I was better off than most. Really. With a few exceptions here and there, my early childhood was AMAZING!
My earliest memory of being part of a demographic that no one knew how to deal with was in preschool. I understand now that I was wrongly diagnosed with at least one mental illness, which resulted in me being sent to a special school. Even at that early age, I felt I was being sent someplace to be monitored rather than to learn, and even back then among other children with learning or functional disabilities I still didn’t feel as if I truly belonged there. Is that kind of sad?
But my parents proved to be the true experts, the true authorities on the matter. They recognized my capacity for excellence despite learning and reacting differently from what everyone else expected. This came to shape my current outlook on Autism: you can analyze it, and label it, and you can have all the academic credentials in the WORLD, but unless you can experience it firsthand, you just won’t ever fully know what you’re dealing with.
My parents fought for me in ways I couldn’t understand at the time, and eventually proved I was socially, mentally and emotionally capable enough to attend a real school…and as far as they were concerned I was more capable than most of the children who had already been admitted.
That makes AUTISTIC people, and their families, the foremost authorities on the subject…why don’t more people ask US what it’s really like?
And so began my first days at a Catholic school, the only educational institution willing to take their chances on me. In more ways than one, this began my long string of bucking trends.
“You’re Autistic, therefore you do not interpret social cues as easily as others.”
No, that’s never been the case with me. When someone was angry, or happy, or suffering, I knew it. And I never had trouble making the facial expressions that accompanied these feelings myself.
“You’re Autistic, therefore your brain is wired differently and conventional methods of teaching puzzle you.”
No, that’s wrong, too. In fact, quite the opposite, I rarely had trouble taking notes or looking directly at someone speaking to me, or taking my education seriously. In fact, it often seemed to me that I was the only student in the building who saw education as a necessity for getting ahead with the rest of your life; all the other students there viewed it as a form of punishment. I genuinely ENJOYED going to school and learning.
“You’re Autistic, therefore you have trouble focusing on a task for extended periods of time and easily become bored.”
Wrong again. In fact, I have the exact OPPOSITE problem: I can focus on one thing so greatly, that I sometimes find it easy to tune out distractions. And if I can’t figure something out right away, I become even MORE determined to keep at it until I have it figured out.
“You’re Autistic. Your ideas are visual rather than abstract, you’re image-oriented, and not thought or speech-oriented, so you have trouble articulating.”
Not even a little bit. When I think, I see no large string of imagery, no bright lights, no visual stimuli. My thoughts are all a series of sounds, of voices. And more, I enjoyed books without pictures in them since before the third grade. I am the opposite of an image-oriented person. To this day, even though I do enjoy comics and graphic novels a great deal, whenever I read something of that type, I’m less aware of the art and illustrations, and I focus more on what the characters are SAYING. As much as I appreciate and enjoy art museums, I’d still rather have a nice, musty library, with a vast wealth of raw ideas and words to mull over.
“You’re Autistic, therefore you have trouble registering emotions and can often seem detached or unsympathetic.”
That’s not true either. As a child, I was very keenly aware of that valuable lesson that Thumper, perhaps the most neurotypical of Bambi’s animal friends, always seemed to have trouble with: if you don’t have anything nice to say, then just keep your big mouth shut! Or something like that… When my friends were upset, or unhappy, I could tell, and I genuinely WANTED to say or do something to make them feel better again. If anything, I feel like the majority of neurotypical people need to demonstrate better manners.
“You’re Autistic, therefore you don’t feel comfortable when others touch you.”
I’ve never been like that. Shaking or holding hands, a pat on the back, hugs or a high-five, I’ve never ONCE felt uncomfortable by any of these things. In fact, I genuinely WISH more nice ladies around my age would hug me. The only times I don’t like being touched are by people I just genuinely don’t like, or when it’s by someone who’s being rude or aggressive… and NOBODY likes that, not even the neurotypical.
“You’re Autistic, therefore you often have trouble being social with others.”
AH. Now give the man a cigar, THAT’S the WINNER! It’s true. I had my share of friends who shared many a similar interest, but then there were other times where my idea of fun was vastly different. For instance, reading, writing and illustrating were some of my favorite activities, to the point where occasionally I might suggest to my friends that we read comics or novels for fun. Sure, I enjoyed sledding, climbing trees and water-gun battles a lot too, but then I also happened to be the only child in the 4th grade who honestly didn’t give a darn about football or baseball, and was reading things like Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” or Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth” while everyone else was reading the Hardy Boys – I mean, I was reading the Hardy Boys too, but still. Often, I identified more closely with adults than the other children because of this, all the way up to high school.
So one out of seven… wow, those so-called experts sure flunked on that one.
But at the time of my childhood no one knew I was Autistic, just that I was different, unique. Myself, I just always thought I was nerdy. And on top of that, I thought the things my peers were into and enjoyed were weird. I mean, come on, my classmates were 10-year-old boys, and fawning over the likes of Cindy Crawford, and Pamela Anderson. They were old enough to be our mothers at the time. Is having a raging Oedipus complex considered normal for a 10-year-old boy? I sure didn’t think so. I still don’t. Maybe the so-called experts need to rethink what is and is not normal juvenile behavior!
But this is just the tip of the spear. A spear is a thing that can scarce be seen, from a certain angle. And yet it can pierce deeply, and painfully. For some, this is what a diagnosis of Autism is REALLY like. At the time, I felt like I was far and above beyond my peers. I was thinking and dreaming of things, realizing things they couldn’t wrap their heads around. I felt like the path to ruling the entire WORLD was open to me!
But Oh, how things change over time… my movement from early childhood to the teenage years was marked and marred by something that can be very distressing, even for neurotypical children: my family decided to move away from the place I always knew as home, the friends I’d always had, and suddenly I was in a completely new and very alien environment. And thus began the next chapter in my life…
By Christopher Aaron Seltzer