An essay posted to Facebook the week before starting my PhD.
I’m moving to start my PhD on Sunday, and I’m getting real sentimental about it. I’ve spent the past week or so surrounded by a lot of amazing people, and it’s helped take the edge off what is admittedly an immensely stressful period. As a lot of you know, I’ve dealt with both the advantages and disadvantages of Autism Spectrum Disorder, and people on the Spectrum tend to have exceptionally rigid ways of doing things. Change doesn’t come naturally to anyone, but it can be so singularly painful to people on the Spectrum that most of us choose not to deal with it all.
A few people lately have asked me what Autism is actually like, and it’s been hard to come up with an answer, but I’m gonna try.
For years now I’ve been grappling with how to live the life I want to have, in relation to my own abilities, and I’ve come to the conclusion that all of my choices represent a dichotomy between security and opportunity. Naturally, the ideal life balances the two options, but in order to get to that point you have to spend excessive spans of time relinquishing your security, and that’s what I’ve made the decision to do. It seems a little ridiculous, coming from me, but the big point of change came five years ago, when I started undergrad, and if you look at how I’ve evolved over that time period you’ll find that there’s a measure of wholeness between my childhood self and the person I am now, and I want to continue that process.
The biggest element of it comes down to self-expression, and the ability to communicate. I dealt with a lot of issues on that front that really started to fade away once I started school, but it took a lot of effort and lot of things I didn’t feel comfortable with. The ability to talk to someone on a level of equals – not letting them dictate the conversation, and not turning them away with your unrelatable ideas – came as part of a grueling push. I did not feel comfortable talking to people. For the most part, growing up, I avoided people so I wouldn’t have to, something that continued into my first year of college.
It gets hard to share yourself with the world when you’re afraid of constant opprobrium, and for a long time I felt that I spoke a different language than other people. Those who talk politics with me may have noticed that I have a distinct style of talking about my points of view within the context of another’s – for example, if talking with a right or left-wing idealogue, I’ll place my own views in the context of theirs, assuming that their initial assumptions about a worldview are correct, whether or not they are. This actually developed as a means of communicating with people in a way that wouldn’t, essentially, scare them off. And when I stopped scaring people off, it got a lot easier to talk more, and now I deal with the problem that I can control conversations a little too much and I need to find a happy medium.
But, basically, I can talk now, and that’s good.
The second major thing is the tight comfort boundaries. People on the Autism Spectrum are overly sensitive, to noise, to light, to textures and general environments. We therefore get penned into tight confines designed to suit our sensibilities. People often marvel at my well-documented sleep issues; one reason is that I just never feel tired, but another is that the slightest noise, from anywhere in my vicinity, can keep me awake for hours on end. Public spaces often feel downright painful to me when too many people surround me. I used to commute, for work, to New York City, and the bleating sound of throngs clamoring through Grand Central still pounds against my ears now. Sunlight hurts my eyes, hence why I prefer rainy days.
On top of that, we’re over-commited to routines, and constantly doing things the same way. Because of that, it gets easy to choose a small piece of territory to call your own, and hardly ever venture outside of it. As such, leaving home has always been difficult for me, and I don’t mean moving away so much as literally going outside, but that’s also something that’s improved immensely over the past several years. It took over two years to start feeling comfortable at Purchase. I don’t think it’ll take that long this time.
The third thing is about relationships, and having them. I’ve known a lot of Autistic people who don’t go out, and don’t make friends, because it’s too difficult. I’ve always been afraid of winding up that way, and I’ve always done my best to insert myself into social settings whether or not I felt comfortable with it, and here I feel I’ve had my biggest success, because I didn’t have a lot of friends growing up. Most of them were people like me, who had similar difficulties, and were in large part pushed together with me by school social programs, or parents’ networks. Which is not to diminish those people, of course, but just to remark how I struggled to meet people independently.
In high school, I hardly ever spoke to my friends outside of school, and it came as a bit of a shock to me that people actually did that. I always reserved time outside of school to recuperate from the strenuous events and I assumed everyone else did the same. I also never did *work* because I was too busy living a sort of refractory period. By now, I’ve met a lot of amazing people and formed myriad bonds with them, and I hope to carry those with me as I venture off. Remember, as I always say, that we do not have to be Maoists – the future does not erase the past, and meeting new people does not mean you forget the old.
The past couple years, I’ve encountered this phenomenon that random people will come up to me and have conversations with me, at a pretty frequent rate – a lot of these, I post humorous facebook statuses about, but I asked a few people why they thought it happened and they all told me it’s because I’m approachable. And I wasn’t, growing up, so this is kind of mind-blowing to me. Knowing how much I’ve imrpoved on myself, I get a little overzealous sometimes and become hyper self-critical when I can’t do something quite right or I feel I’ve fucked up something major. I’m always afraid of stagnation, too, so maybe there is a bit of a Maoist streak in me, but I’ve always commited myself towards balancing the past, present and future.
The passage of time seems so daunting to me that I feel a religious sort of awe for it. At every moment, there sits a choice between ascension and decay, to change for the better or the worse, and more often than not change for the better entails a great deal of difficulty we’re not comfortable with. But the only option other than change is isolation, and isolation is nothing but self-destruction. I’ve come to the conclusion that, if I can’t find a logical reason not to do something, I should do it. If the only thing preventing me from acting is a sense of fear, then it should not stop me.
When I was 16, I grew out my hair because I felt safer that way; the longer the locks grew in front of my face, the less I felt attached to the world. Everything seemed too chaotic and painful to deal with, and whenever I didn’t have an obligation to humor auhtority figures with my half-assed involvement, I hid myself.
When I was 19, I cut my hair. Or, more accurately, a roommate of mine with no experience in cutting hair randomly decided he wanted to be a barber one day and practiced on me, but the point remains that I made a choice to join the world. For all the tumultuousness, it’s offered a degree of fulfillment that I couldn’t have gotten if I had shielded myself. As Bill Watterson once wrote, “the world isn’t so bad if you can just get out in it.”
So, it all comes down to that dichotomy, between security and opportunity. There’s a lot I still need to work on, there’s mistakes I’m still making and I’m not always fond of the way I treat people. I have faith, though, that I will iron those out over time and if it takes a little extra effort, I’ve never minded steep odds.
I haven’t mentioned, yet, all the good things Autism has done for me, and I wanna stress that I relate a lot of my skills back to it, too. I have a bit of a savant talent for writing stuff, and my commitment to routine has gotten me pretty good at various abilities, like music. So a lot of my success is due to the thing that hampered it, to begin with. It’s not all dour, is the point. But the point of writing this out is to mostly focus on the challenges, since the upside is somewhat self-indulgent.
I want everyone around here to know that you all mean a lot to me, in some way. I’ve really appreicated the support I’ve gotten over the PhD, because God knows it was an intimidating decision, even if it was an easy one. Everyone deserves to be surrounded by people who want them to be happy, and it amazes me how many people aren’t. So I’m going to treat people like I want them to be happy, and I’m going to be a part of this world. I’ve always worked under the assumption that the things I like about myself are inalienable, but the things I don’t are malleable, and whether or not it’s true it’s a good thing to think.
In the end, I might be in awe of the future, but for once, I’m excited for it.