The original edition of this post was written for Tumblr last August. Until my post on “ASL for Autistic Adults in Tight Spots” (see previous post), it was my most-Tumblr’d piece.
This edition is updated to reflect the intervening gain in self-knowledge &etc.
An incomplete list of things I have been told all my life are personal failings and/or signs of immaturity that I would eventually “grow out of,” but that actually turned out to be my autism.
1. Not being able to remember faces. Even if I have seen them many times before. I have actually failed to recognize members of my own family when I have run into them in unexpected situations (grocery stores, movie theatres). I now alert my students at the start of every semester: even if I manage to match names and faces inside the classroom, I will probably fail to recognize them entirely outside it.
2. Struggling to put names with faces. Even if it’s a person I’m supposed to know well. Not that this one affects my daily life much, because:
3. I cannot address people by their names. I can talk about people using their names, but I cannot talk to people using their names. I refer to my Girl Scouts collectively as “ladies.” I have never even addressed my husband by name – he is “hey, hon?”
4. Being utterly unable to sustain eye contact while I talk. I can maintain eye contact with great effort when someone else is talking to me, assuming they don’t expect me to listen at the same time. The busier my surroundings are, however, the less able I am even to do that. I cannot, however, look someone in the eye and speak to them – not in any environment.
(Incidentally, this is why I actually enjoy teaching and speaking at conferences: the audiences are large enough that nobody expects me to sustain eye contact with any one audience member while talking.)
5. Having great difficulty focusing on the “main event” in any busy situation. A speaker, my dining partner, action on a stage or screen or field – I can’t maintain focus on it. I can pay attention to it, and I can recall extraordinary amounts of information from it – when I was a kid I could recite from memory entire stories or TV show dialogue I had heard only once – but I can’t sit and watch it devotedly. I have to look at All The Other Things Too. In photos, I’m always the person who’s looking at something off to the side of the frame while everyone else is smiling at the photographer.
6. I cannot fake facial expressions. At all. The difference between a fake-smile and a real one, or a fake-angryface and a real one, is instantly and obviously apparent, even to me. I take horrible photos because I almost never find a reason to smile genuinely at a camera. I have a case of Resting Bitch Face so severe that strangers in public will actually cross the street to avoid it – I cannot recall the last time a stranger told me to “smile!”, even though I read visually as a very feminine teenager.
(I do not suffer from Resting Bitch Face, however. I enjoy it.)
7. Losing spoken language. Sometimes, someone else will speak and my brain will utterly fail to interpret the sounds they make as spoken language – even when I’m fluent in the language I know they’re speaking. If my brain has failed to interpret sounds as language once, it is highly likely to do it the second and third times as well, making it futile for me to ask someone to repeat themselves. On the phone, this is so bad that I use Google Voice solely for its visual voicemail feature. Google Voice’s visual voicemail accuracy is bad, but it’s better than my brain does.
8. This goes both ways. Sometimes I’ll try to speak and what will come out of my mouth does not resemble spoken language in any of the languages I actually speak. I usually laugh, but it’s embarrassing as hell.
8.5. …But it only goes one way with sign. I almost never bungle reading someone else’s ASL or SEE…but my fingers will inevitably bungle any fingerspelling in my response, even if it’s something I’ve spelled a thousand times. Like my own name.
9. What my brain cannot understand in spoken language, it makes up for in my experience of written language. I don’t even know how to describe the way in which I experience written language. I have color-grapheme, touch-grapheme, and taste-grapheme synesthesia, but I also experience written language as multidimensional. Imagine living inside the most intensely sensory three-dimensional multi-colored idea map you can muster, then multiply exponentially. That’s how I experience written language.
It took me years to learn that my experience of language is the reason I don’t misspell things – even in English, where spelling has conquered a small island and would have established an anarchy except there were too many rules. Even homophones, to me, are so utterly different from one another I cannot imagine confusing them. ”Their” and “there” are, to my brain, nothing alike. They’re different colors, they taste different, they feel different, they occupy different spaces in the Matrix. I can’t imagine mixing them up any more than I can imagine mixing up a hammer and an egg yolk.
10. Sometimes, I literally cannot make words come out of my mouth unless my hands are moving, my back is to my audience, or both. If I’m emotionally overwrought, I must turn my back in order to speak.
(Nobody in my family has yet figured this out. If I’m lying on my side having a meltdown, everydamnone of them will stand or sit on the side I’m facing, instead of the side to which my back is turned. What I need them to do is precisely the opposite. That’s why I’m lying on my side, to give them a place to stand or sit from which they can still be helpful!)
11. As much as I love going out with certain people or to certain events, and as much as I love performing, I cry when I get home. Or off the stage. Every single time. Especially after performances; I love them, but they take literally everything I have, and I melt down immediately after.
The longest I’ve ever had to be “on” before I could melt down was seven consecutive hours, when I was a Girl Scout camp counselor.
12. I can’t draw. I don’t mean this in the “ha ha I make stick people” way most adults mean it. I mean that my brain cannot interpret shape, light/shadow, or color in any way that it can transmit to my hands. The harder I try, the less anything I’m looking at actually makes sense; the less my brain interprets it as anything that actually exists. I even need help blending my makeup, because I often cannot tell if my concealer is actually concealing, etc.
13. I learned to dress myself by following rules in books about style. I wrote down the rules for my coloring (I’m a Winter), my height (short), my proportions (petite, long-waisted, long-legged, half-size shoulders), and my shape (hourglass a bit on the pear side) on index cards, which I carried in my purse on every shopping trip until I had memorized their contents.
Learning to style myself properly took me fifteen years of concentrated practice and strict adherence to the rules. I am only just now starting to venture into trying on things that don’t strictly adhere to those rules, and I still never buy anything unless (a) it follows the rules or (b) I have been reassured by someone whose style I trust that I do in fact look good in the thing.
14. This is also how I learned to cook.
15. The texture of my food matters much more than its taste. I will actually eat just about anything if it has an acceptable texture. I will refuse to eat foods I normally love if the texture is wrong. I have boiling and steaming things down to a science because a few seconds can literally mean the difference between a meal I can eat and one I can’t. The worst food texture in the world for me is damp bread.
16. The texture of clothing is almost as bad – but even more than having the right texture, clothing has to have the right smell. I can even smell the differences between so-called “unscented” laundry detergents (the only kind I can stand to use). Naturally, I wash everything I buy. I let my dry-clean-only pieces go for years sometimes between cleanings because I have to let them air for a month after I get them back.
17. I am hyperlexic, alexithymic, and nonverbal. Sometimes, I am two or three of these things at once.