I suppose I will not forget the 12 year old girl who months ago who caused me to suspect I was living on the autism spectrum. Her creation of a world of her own making, seemingly talking to herself, at times pacing the floor, was the behavior that mirrored my own. Unlike her, I was more selective of where I paced and talked to my imaginary characters. She is on one end of the spectrum and I on the other, but it is the same spectrum.
I’ve lived with Autism all my life, but I didn’t know its name until after the 12 year old and I crossed paths. Now that we’ve been formally introduced, I am aware that it doesn’t leave my side. I recognize it playing its invisible role as I go about the business of living. It is my constant companion and it is invisible to those around me.
I am sitting in a church classroom. I am a first time visitor. It was no small task for me to come into the room where there was no familiar face. The people seem nice enough though. But the hour is up. It is time to leave but the teacher isn’t done yet. Her talking becomes static noise. I stifle my impulse to leave. I imitate the “proper” behavior of those around me. I want to “stim” – rock back and forth, boggle my knees, pace the floor – but that would draw unwanted attention. Finally, she’s done and the class is over. I head out the door breathing a tremendous sigh of relief.
I’ve played this scene countless times. My symptoms are for the most part invisible. The turbulent storm with its pouring rain, lightning streaks, and thunder claps are all inside of me. I don’t announce to the group I’d rather flee than to continue pretending I am fully engaged. I try to stifle the impulse to stim. I work hard at pretending to be “normal” until I can get to that safe zone where I can take the mask off.
I sometimes work in a special education classroom with children like the 12 year old. Their symptoms are visible. Their parents yearn to hear their child say “Mom” or “Dad”. Just any word would be a monumental milestone. The children are oblivious to their constant companion. They can stim to their utter delight and be oblivious to the so-called “normal” people around them.
It is different for me because I’m on the other end of the spectrum. As far as I know, I learned to talk on the same schedule as my peers. I did well in school grade-wise. Since I wasn’t graded on my social interaction skills, that never came up. Some of my teachers might have suspected something but not enough of a something to warrant seeking a diagnosis of whatever that something was.
I suspect there are a lot of folks out there who are living on the spectrum who don’t know they are. It took me 58 years, the right job as a special education aide, and a 12 year old to introduce me to my lifelong companion who is no longer invisible to me.