“Can you blame others for not wanting to talk to you?” asked my former shrink. “If I weren’t your therapist, I certainly wouldn’t want to have a conversation with you.”
The above statement reveals more about our culture than it does about me. It’s taken me nearly a lifetime to recognize this.
I spent most of my childhood wanting to outgrow myself. My hands lurched like fist-sized hail; I wanted them to flow rhythmically and unobtrusively like rain. My eyes bounced across humans and objects and air molecules; I wanted them to rest, to focus, to remain stationary and fixed on someone else’s pupils. Other kids played, milled seamlessly across playground spaces, talked and gathered and hugged and wrestled and laughed. And I watched, on the outer edge of the grounds, wondering what was so horrible about me, so loathsome and vile.
The fallacy in my childhood mind was the I. I wanted to outgrow myself — or so I thought I did. Since toddlerhood, well before I’d even been diagnosed with autism, neurotypicality was represented as some idyllic idol, something both to reminisce and worship. But I was never an agent in wanting this; the desire was pressed into me, branded figuratively and literally into my stimmy skin. My third-grade teacher somberly informed my parents that I had the social skills of a three year old. Playground bullies chased me with lit cigarettes and shocked my bare arms with exposed batteries from a disposable camera. Pastors prayed over me. Doctors floated one possibility after the next, ideas ranging from cerebral palsy to OCD to lactose intolerance. There was something wrong with me, something seriously wrong with me. I was variously a robot, a brat, a genius, an idiot, a retard, a loser, a spaz, and — my relatives’ personal favorite — a mental midget. And who would want to be friends with any of that?
And yet, despite my supposed neurological vomit factory, there was “hope.” Hope that I would someday cease to be me. Everyone wanted it for me. And like any faith-based narrative, I needed only to want it for myself. If I worked hard enough, if I trusted enough in God / gurus / shrinks / parental units / educators / the kids who liked to beat me up at recess / random sages from the interwebs / former Playboy bunnies / the power of B-12 and multivitamin supplements — if I trusted in these things, NT Melanie would arise from autistic Melanie’s ashes, dressed sharply in a cute pink outfit with a denim pairing. She would saunter over to a bar counter. She would order vodkatinis in a sexually suggestive voice. She would know absolutely nothing about the Electric Light Orchestra.
These things were both desirable and achievable, according to NT Lore. You don’t make eye contact? Nothing that intensive therapy and humiliating classroom exercises can’t pound into you. You walk briskly and present with an odd and rigid gait? We’ll pantomime your disordered body movements and laugh at your friend-defying pace. You find typical conversations and other social ephemera inaccessible? We’ll sic three or four bullies on you, and they’ll punch sociality into you while on the playground.
This was my narrative. Or rather, this was their narrative, a narrative I convinced myself into telling. I memorized it. I rehearsed it aloud and silently. I’d sit on the bus and gaze longingly out the window. I’d invent plot lines and visualize my transformation into an NT character, a character with friends in greater number than my record collection. I’d imagine the new me, the me with Hollywood-white teeth, the me I would become if only — yes, if only, if only —
I am now a college professor. I am now nearly three decades into my life. There is no if only — there is simply only. I am only me. I am singular, I am autos, I am neurologically atypical, I am a stim fiend, I am stiffer than ironed polyester, I am only, only, only me. I am autistic, and my narrative is one of reclamation and protest, of the Electric Light Orchestra and occasionally misused prepositions. My narrative is parallel and stimmy and developmentally pervasive. Being autistic is not unacceptable, the narrative affirms. Being ableist, however, is.
As any autistic knows all too well, NT Lore persists. It persists with my ex-therapist, which is reason for his ex- affix. It persists with many colleagues. It persists with students and relatives and doctors and so-called friends. It persists with society writ large. And sometimes, in moments of despair and crushed spirit, it persists with me. In these moments, I summon my aut pride self. I summon my pervasively polyester narrative, the one that sports tie-dye aut gear. It tells NT Lore to STFU.