19 April 2008

ON Growing Up One Arm in the Straitjacket

There is a spiral, a pattern that embeds itself into the order of the natural world. A mathematical oddity. An improbability. The Greeks saw in it truth and beauty. Today it has applications in the stock market. To most, it is just a pattern unfolding in a patch of dead, scattered sand.

The sand is what gets me. It’s what draws my attention, as does the lone paperclip that catches a small bit of light as it rests in the slight shadow of the nearby desk. The pattern, the golden spiral, is to me the ripple of an ocean wave transposed to a dream. A pure expression unbound by linguistic ambiguities, one that transcends definition and yields to unadulterated communication.

I spent most of my childhood afternoons in class gazing in various directions. Sometimes up the front of the classroom, sometimes the window. Sometimes a wall. Didn’t matter, really. It was the gazing - the thinking - that was the point. However I managed to elude the misperception that I was disengaged from reality as long as I did remains as mysterious to me as is the hidden meaning I am supposed to extract from such written expression as “;)”.

If my teachers didn’t notice anything unusual, my sisters sure did. And while not saying so outright, my mom certainly must have noticed, for all of her exasperated attempts to understand why “simple” things were so much more difficult for me than other things, things that would typically be considered complicated and challenging. I quickly ascertained that I was some different kind of person, a foreign person within the only home I’d ever known. Culture clashes were inevitable, but it was hard for either party to not feel personally targeted, as there was no clear physical indicator that my culture even existed.

Before anyone ever uttered the word “autism”, I was keenly aware that people like me were routinely shoved into institutions under the premise that their lives were not worth the trouble of accommodating them independently, and that such effort would be wasted on individuals perceived to be clearly incapable of enjoying it. I still remember watching a program on TV in the early 1990s, and all the gloom and doom predictions people made for the people featured, the people I pointed at and said, “They’re like me!” with childlike enthusiasm. My mom corrected me, said that I wasn’t like them, as they were severely disabled and would bang their heads. I wondered what made me so different from them.

Whatever my perceptions, the message was clear: there is a set pattern of development that typical children follow like a map with only one road. And if these milestones are not met within given ranges, then that is sign of disease process. Not a sign of having a different sort of body than people expected, not a sign of having a different sort of mind. Not a sign of difference or disability, but of disease.

This as the backdrop of my childhood, I made the unconscious yet purposeful effort to watch myself every second of my life that I was in public. Make eye contact, no matter how much it hurts, just do it. Explaining that the lack of eye contact means you’re paying attention isn’t good enough. No hand gestures, either. And don’t rock, but talk even if it pains you. You have to walk a certain way that is unnatural and difficult, you must keep your head at a proper, normal angle, and don’t let your mouth hang open. If you don’t keep this up, you look retarded, and you know how much your peers belittle the mentally retarded, as if they’re somehow lesser. If a loud noise scares you, or an offending touch hurts you, you cannot shout or move away. You must bear all intrusions, no matter how violent, with silence and good behavior.

I like to try this thought experiment with people who don’t understand how stressful this can be, people who think that if someone is capable of imitating “normal” behavior, that they should act that way all the time. Now imagine that you are a child, and I am a doctor. A teacher. A parent. I tell you that it is absolutely imperative to rock back and forth for most of your waking life, despite your never having had the inclination or the thought to do so. Although too much is forbidden, you may talk sometimes. But only on one subject, and you must never look at someone’s eyes, or even their face. If you do, you must stare “through” and not “at” – whether or not you actually understand this distinction. And whenever you screw up, I am going to correct you, and withhold rewards. After all, these things are good behavior. Only good behavior gets rewards. Bad behavior never gets a reward, because we don’t really want to see that anymore.

When I advanced to seventh grade, the reward for good behavior changed from approval to safety, as if the junior high were operating as a miniature institution. While the total population of the institution was about 500, only a small handful of us were held captive to its most prized tenet of conformity beyond possibility. If someone threatened my life, it was because I could not afford designer jeans. If someone stole from me, it was because I look strange when having a seizure. If someone beat me up, it was because I failed to acquiesce to the moral superiority of my verbally abusive peers, but rather entertained the foolish thought of defending my dignity.

I sometimes like to think I have permanently overcome the flashbacks I still from time to time experience, that I am strong enough to stare my memories in the face as they creep along at my heels and to say “no more.” I sometimes like to think that once these personal emotions are resolved that I have defeated the problem. I sometimes like to think that my experiences were aberrations. As I face school, public transportation, job interviews, dating, adoption and parenting, though, I cannot ever ignore the fact that what has happened to me is a mere appendage of a wider phenomenon. Regardless of my own circumstances, through the collective experiences of the autistic community, I will always have one arm tucked firmly out of sight in the straitjacket.

1 comment:

Bev said...

"When I advanced to seventh grade, the reward for good behavior changed from approval to safety"

Nicely stated, and very true as well. Good post!