My name is Elizabeth. I’m 37 years old, and live in Rockville, Maryland (just outside Washington, D.C.). I’m a paralegal at a small law firm. I like the work because it’s mostly solitary, focused on small manageable tasks like preparing and filing paperwork, and proofreading and doing research. That I have a steady job at all is a big accomplishment for me. I struggled through most of my twenties. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had no career plans after leaving high school, or college. I liked writing, and doing things on my own.
My first excursions out into the working world were disastrous. I didn’t know how to handle the social aspects or issues with my boss. At one of my first jobs, I got in trouble for “slacking off”, because I’d finished my tasks for the day. I didn’t know that I was expected to ask around if there was anything else I could do. If that had been communicated to me, I would have done so. But that I was just expected to know made me angry.
My mother told me that when I was younger, a doctor thought I was autistic. She put me in day care because she thought being around other kids would force me to become more sociable. It didn’t work. I didn’t speak to my teachers unless I wanted something (one teacher shrieked in surprise when I asked to use the bathroom, after being silent most of the year), and on the playground, I went straight for the swings, I think because they were solitary, and I could soar above the other kids playing, when I didn’t know how to join them, or was even sure if I wanted to. Years later, when I was 18, my mother read an article in the New York Times detailing a forgotten subset of autism called Asperger’s Syndrome, and said it described me perfectly. I was officially diagnosed by a psychologist one year later.
I found a book by Tony Attwood, and found that much of it described me. I didn’t know how to respond in social situations, I “thought in pictures” as Temple Grandin described it (when reading, I always have an image in my head to correspond to the words on the page), I was sometimes “too honest” (my mother frequently yelled at me because I didn’t understand why I wasn’t supposed to say certain things), and I had obsessive interests that served as my sole conversation points.
There were several signs from early in my life that I was “different.” I stimmed (I still play with my hair and tap my fingers and pace when I’m stressed or need to process information), I had severe echolalia (I still find myself repeating words, only now after studying how to act I know to only repeat the words in my head), I loved routine, and hated surprises. My mother said she used to have to count down when we had to go somewhere. “We have to leave in ten minutes…we have to leave in five minutes.” Otherwise, I would have a tantrum.
I still have meltdowns. Sometimes at work, I get overwhelmed by too many tasks and too many noises that I have to hold my head and make everything still for a moment. I want to scream, but I know I can’t. I’ve gotten in trouble at work because I forgot where I was, and started cursing under my breath when I was in the middle of a meltdown. But I’m learning how to handle them. I now know to leave the building if I feel one coming.
The idea that there are things that everyone is “just expected to know”, and how frustrating those expectations are for someone with autism, is something I wish more neurotypicals understood. My father once yelled at me because I didn’t hold the door for someone coming in behind me. I thought they could open the door for themselves. I didn’t know the rule about holding the door for anyone behind you. I don’t understand why eye contact is the measure of sincerity and good communication, since all it does is make me uncomfortable. Looking at someone’s face actually makes it harder for me to process what they’re saying. All my life, I’ve had my sincerity doubted because of my voice’s “tone.” I didn’t understand why my tone mattered. I still don’t. I thought all I had to do was say the words that corresponded to the message I wanted to convey. I always thought my words were enough. I didn’t realize that I had to attach a corresponding emotion to each word, like neurotypicals need color coding on each word to attach an underlying meaning.
I also wish neurotypicals wouldn’t claim they understand how I feel when they clearly don’t. When you claim you understand, your confused and hostile reactions to my atypical reactions to a world that confuses me are all the more jarring, and insulting. If you don’t understand how I feel, but want to, just say so. If you’re honest like that, I can tell you’re coming to me from a place of genuine curiosity, and I will be happy to explain how I see the world as best I can.
In addition to autism, I’ve struggled with depression for most of my life. I’ve wondered if the two conditions are related. I was born into a world that rejected me for not fitting in, and not understanding it when they didn’t bother explaining anything to me. So I thought I was fundamentally wrong, leading to my depression and isolation. I’m quiet not necessarily because I’m shy (though I can be), but because I feel I was shamed into silence by people who told me, either explicitly or implicitly, that everything I said was wrong. So I stopped speaking. It wasn’t until I found people who understood and were patient when I took a social misstep that I felt comfortable talking again.
So I lost potential friends, got in conflicts with bosses, didn’t forge connections to people who could have helped me navigate through life, all because I didn’t know the “right” way to communicate. So the fact that I have a job that pays well, and can live on my own, is something I never thought I would achieve. Sometimes I feel like I’m behind. In my late thirties, I’m proud of being at the spot where people ten years younger already are. But it feels good that, after years of the world telling me I did everything wrong, that I was defective, I can live my own life, do things for myself, and even make friends. It just took me a little longer. Because I did not start from the same place as everyone else. I had to learn social cues and rules like someone else has to learn a foreign language. I knew the words, but not the meaning imbued by a shared social context that I got left out of. As a teenager, I remember thinking that I must have missed classes at “life school.” But I feel like I’ve finally gone to life school, and though I’ll never know the social language with the depth of a native speaker, I picked up enough to get by.