I was born into great circumstances. My parents worked hard to raise my brother and me, and we never felt lacking for the essentials.
I feel especially lucky to have a Mom who is a speech-language pathologist specializing in early childhood intervention. That is, she has quite a bit of experience working to help young children with autism by teaching them how to better function in life.
I’ve heard stories of how much she has helped children and their parents with just an hour or two a week of therapy.
She hides the therapy in play—kids love to play. Her car trunk is filled with toys well-suited for conducting therapy. What do I mean by well suited? She once removed from the church nursery a pull string toy that plays music because the interval between successive string pulls was too long. Children need the ability to learn cause and effect; they need to pull the string to hear a sound that they can immediately hear again with another pull of the string.
A therapist with a strong focus on healthy play would almost certainly use that same play with her own children. Many hours of play per week; inadvertently exceed society’s milestones. It would certainly mask underlying pathologies. And the late eighties, early nineties view of autism is very different from the current criteria, so there would be no reason to diagnose autism in her own children.
My Dad taught me shop skills and gave me life advice. He also taught me the Pythagorean theorem; I seem to remember him even intuitively proving it to me using some aspect of his work. This helped me open up my mind to learning in ways not well-taught in school. It was practical. It was hands on. There were pieces that can move around and a mental overlay of what those pieces are and what they mean. A-squared plus B-squared equals C-squared. He also exposed me to amateur radio and kept me involved in the hobby for more than a decade. This brought me into contact with adults from whom I could learn. I had breakfast with some of these guys more often than I did any other meal with my friends.
My parents taught me to fit in without realizing it. In the autism community, this fitting in is known as masking. It’s looking, acting, speaking and being like what neurotypical people expect. It’s a construction of the brain, mediating my inner-most self from the environment.
My Mom’s hyper-healthy play and my Dad’s engineering-oriented conversations helped me build enough mask to get through undergrad and into grad school.
My masking was weird, but people accepted it.
In grad school, I had some painful, personal experiences that caused my mask to crack. I’m speaking metaphorically, of course. As it cracks, it takes more energy to get through each day, and my fidgeting and social awkwardness both increased. By the time I left Cornell, my mask had multiple cracks and was held together with super glue and duct tape. Others might not notice, but I did.
My first job out of college was fantastic. I had great co-workers and we maintained a crucial piece of infrastructure.
I felt like I had purpose: My mask began to heal.
That feeling of mask repair and growth stayed for multiple years until some work events resonated heavily with the painful experiences that cracked my mask in grad school. My depression amped up. My mask cracked in a way that left me missing the familiar and feeling a new familiar.
Seeking help, I checked into a Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP) to solve my problems. The PHP is much the same therapy as the therapy on a normal psych ward, but the rest of the day outside of therapy belongs to the patient.
When I was nearing my exit from the PHP program, life sent me a curveball in the form of a mixed bipolar episode that lasted for six months. Interacting with others—especially non-family—became painful. I started feeling an intense feeling that I came to know as anxiety. What was the feeling I was calling anxiety before? I would stim nearly continuously. Instead of sitting still, I would rock back and forth. When standing I would shift my weight between my feet by alternating which heel I lift. I would pace the house seemingly without purpose—something I hadn’t done in years.
Trying to treat the bipolar episode tore my life apart.
Now I’m left wondering which parts are my authentic self, which were trained into me, what I actually value about life, and what my life goals are.
At thirty-three years old it’s like someone hit the reset button on my persona and I’m left to figure out who I am and what I value.
Who am I?
What do I value?
I don’t know anymore. This book serves as part of an effort to answer those questions.
One open question I have is, “Am I autistic?” And if so, “What are my autism-related weaknesses?” Now I’m pretty sure I know the answer to the first one, but a map of my executive function would be helpful.
The medical system can answer this for me, but not in a timely fashion. It’s been a year waiting thus far.
Rather than wait on the medical system further, I decided I could run an experiment to validate my self-diagnosis of autism: write a book highlighting my experiences and have the readership diagnose me based on shared experiences or modalities of thought. Assuming there is readership.
The input to that experiment is what follows. A sometimes awkward book that looks like it needs an editing pass.
That’s probably because I couldn’t find an autistic editor.
I’ve explicitly avoided editing too much because I want it to be closer to my stream of consciousness or initial instincts. Grad school taught me to write the “right” way and I don’t want to subconsciously wash the text to someone else’s idea of language, in case autistic communication shines through in writing.
I worry I’ve edited the book too much.