By Vern Nicholson
I would like to reflect on my experiences in childhood, adolescence and adulthood and share a few modest insights that I have gained in light of my newfound awareness of myself as a person on the autism spectrum. I hope that my perspective enables the reader to further appreciate some of the challenges and strengths inherent in the autistic experience.
I have trouble remembering much from my childhood. Having said that, I knew that I was different early on, but life was relatively serene. I had no major problems until adolescence. No one knew or suspected that I was on the autism spectrum, including me.
I can share a few memories with you. I began reading newspapers at the age of two. At about the same age I was attracted to drawing car and gas station logos. To this day, I have a fascination with logos, typefaces and design in general: on CD and book covers, billboards, and especially street.
I had trouble differentiating between literal and implied meanings. My parents had asked me "do you want a cookie" enough times that I must have concluded that my new name was "you." So when the hunger pangs struck, I would insistently declaim, "You want a cookie!" My parents would ask if "you" wanted to "go down the street" to play with friends and were most puzzled to find me walking straight down the middle of the road. Here's another one: when I started baking oatmeal cookies, the directions on the box insisted that I butter the bottom of the pan. Though I didn't quite understand how that would help the cookies bake, I obediently flipped the pan over and generously layered the underside with butter. These and other such misunderstandings were innocent enough, but when asked at twelve if I was gay and, assuming that word meant happy, I said yes, my peers were not so forgiving. Their laughter meant something quite different than the laughter of my parents over my baking escapades.
In school I was quiet, studious, and had little interest in athletic activities, childhood games, or having friends. I was not completely socially isolated-that would come soon enough-but I didn't really care whether I had friends or not. I was introspective and drawn far more to my inner world than the outer world. In grade school, my teachers reported that I was bright but prone to daydreaming.
I also had problems with my physical coordination. I recall having a tough time learning to tie my shoelaces. Only after relentless prodding from my parents did I learn how to swim and ride a bicycle. I was awkward and unskilled in gym class. Even my gait was considered rather odd. These days, though my coordination is smoother, I still have trouble with certain aspects of the physical world, such as spatial perception.
The real action took place here, not in my childhood. Much of what I struggle with now can be traced back to that time. Seemingly out of nowhere, once I hit elementary school, I was ostracized and bullied. I suddenly realized that I was different from my peers. Girls who seemed to like me the previous year now shunned me-not that I could tell whether or not they ever really liked me in the first place or what it meant if someone liked you. Awkward, embryonic attempts at dating inevitably ended in disaster. I began to withdraw and experience depression for the first time.
By the time I reached high school, the taunting had abated, but its effects lingered. I experienced an emotional shutdown that I can trace back to a single, monumental event, the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back: after an especially vicious rejection at an end-of-year dance in Grade 8, I made a conscious decision to stop trying socially and not let anyone hurt me-and I meant it. Though it was an extreme measure, I maintain to this day that, in context, it was a rational decision. I had to stop the bleeding by any means necessary; this was the only way I knew how.
Consequently, in high school I was like a robot, out of touch with my emotions, only able to dive into my schoolwork, churn out endless A's, and lose myself in my short wave radio my newfound passion and, not surprisingly, a solitary activity. To this day I have no idea what kind of non-verbal message I was putting across to my classmates, but I surmise that it must have been akin to having KEEP OUT stamped on my forehead. It worked; they all did, and though as a result I had no positive social encounters whatsoever in high school, I also gave them no opportunity to hurt me, and at the time, that was all that mattered.
It is beyond the scope of this talk to continue with the chronology and tell you about my early adulthood, where further germane developments took place. Suffice it to say that it has been a long, slow journey from where I was in high school to where I am now. So, who am I now? Many of my autistic "symptoms" are not as pronounced in me now as they were in my youth. However, I still feel persistently different from those around me. Adulthood has brought with it a keener awareness of the difficulties and obstacles I face, but the solutions are as elusive as ever, and there is an overriding feeling of lagging well behind my peers. I am coping with the same issues that first presented themselves to me during adolescence. The issues that I grapple with-living independently, establishing a secure financial and occupational footing, and finding a suitable relationship-are more common to those in their late teens and early twenties than to people my age.
As an adult, I have learned to suppress or hide what, to me, are important but clearly unusual aspects of my personality. Interestingly, as I read that sentence, I realize anew that on a subtle level, I am still carrying out my mission from Grade 8, and I notice the same set of pros and cons. On the plus side, people have fewer opportunities to hurt me. It keeps the bullies away.
On the negative side, I have internalized these feelings of inadequacy so thoroughly that I do not feel comfortable with my true self. I am afraid to let anyone know the "real" me for fear of rejection.
In contrast to my earlier years, I am now able to get along reasonably well in the everyday social world. I still experience some degree of anxiety in certain types of social situations, but I've experienced no major disasters, perhaps because I studiously avoid those situations where I know I do not do well. Some aspects of social discourse remain puzzling and ambiguous to me. It all flies by so fast, and on so many levels, that I can't properly process it. In addition, I continue to discover gaps in my social knowledge and vocabulary resulting from living a self-imposed, sheltered life. But I've learned enough to fake my way through it without any major fallout.
Life on Earth
I wish I could have been given some inside information that would have helped me to get along better in the slippery social world that you earthlings inhabit. (For those of you who don't get the reference, it has been said that autistic people often feel like visitors from another planet, busily trying to acclimatize themselves to these strange earth customs). Anyway, for most people, these gems of wisdom that I'm about to discuss are apparently truisms, not mysterious secrets; however, they have been incomprehensible to me for years. Even though I have finally started piecing them together intellectually, I still have much trouble putting them into practice. I mull over these enigmatic secrets in the same way that some of you might contemplate the profound mysteries of religion and philosophy. Bear with me while I share a few of my "discoveries" about life on planet earth with you, things that many of you have probably known intuitively since grade school:
It's Useful to Have Friends. First of all, it brings joy and comfort to associate with individuals who share, at least to some degree, your outlook on the world. Having friends helps to alleviate loneliness. Also, belonging to a social circle increases your chances of meeting potential partners, or so I've heard. However, most importantly, I have learned that if you have no friends, people infer all sorts of nasty things about you and react accordingly by pushing you away.
It's Important to Feel Good About Yourself and the World. One of my therapists once gave me a great quote: "Optimists and pessimists are both right about half the time, but optimists have more fun." I am not an optimist by nature, and I continue to struggle with this one. However, I have come to believe that the crucial difference between the good days and bad days lies not in the lack of cloud cover in your outer world, but the amount of sunshine in your inner world. So I actively try to cultivate good days by lighting the lamp in my own mind and letting it shine outward from there. It's not easy to do.
Confidence Is the Expressway to Success. If you are going to develop one trait and only one trait, this is the one. Apparently, one "projects" confidence-or not-and most people can somehow sense the degree of confidence a person has in themselves. And, once this level of confidence has been assessed, you are treated accordingly, particularly in certain types of social situations. As far as I have been able to tell, confidence is a universally attractive, highly desirable trait. Or, as one therapist told me quite succinctly once, "neediness is not a virtue." For me, confidence is still an elusive quality. I've flirted with it now and then, but I don't know how to make it stick around and work for me.
First Impressions and Appearances Count, Big Time. As a child, I had no idea that the clothes I wore made any kind of statement whatsoever. I now know that my clothing choices definitely made a statement, and unfortunately for me, it was the wrong one. I am now learning how to dress in a way that is both socially acceptable and an expression of my emerging individual style. I've learned that dress and appearance convey many things: group membership, attitudes, social class, personality, and so on. To make matters even more complex, dress and appearance can also interact with the confidence thing. A friend of mine once told me that truly confident people can get away with wearing anything. Armed with all this information, I still don't quite know how I want to dress at times, but at least now I understand why the fashion industry exists.
Life Is Ultimately Practice, Not Theory. As a person who tries to make sense of the world through the fanciful constructions of his own mind, this one hit me particularly hard. I have come to realize that often there are no clear, linear pathways from A to B to C, and certainly none that can be taken via the mind only. There's no step-by-step instruction manual for life and particularly relationships. One has to get out there and do in order to make any progress. It's no accident that, in my unending quest to figure out how to successfully interact with earth people, I majored in psychology and sociology in university. I learned a lot about these academic disciplines, and much of it was quite interesting, but I must confess that I didn't learn a lot about life on earth and my place in it, which, after all, was my goal. This high comfort level with theory and utter bewilderment with practice has been an underlying theme in my life. Allow me to illustrate using a sports metaphor. It's as if, for years, I've been trying to learn how to play basketball by poring over endless volumes about the rules and strategy of the game. I became quite good at theoretical basketball, but until I stepped on the court, dribbled the ball, and took my first shot, I did not even begin to learn how to play basketball. At some point, you have to put down the books and get out there and play. This is easier said than done for me, and I continually have to re-focus my efforts in this direction. I still think too much and do too little. After all these years, I feel like I remain on the sidelines, watching earthlings play basketball, too afraid and unsure to participate myself.
Now that I've taken you on this exciting voyage of discovery-wasn't that fun-let me bring you back to the whole point of this exercise: These are the kinds of things that I wish I had learned, formally or otherwise, in school. I stumbled through my youth not knowing any of this. It is my wish that all young people on the autism spectrum could learn to apply insights such as these, as well as many others that I'm quite sure I haven't yet discovered.”