Monday, February 18, 2013

The Space Suit

The past few weeks have been like getting a pair of glasses for my brain.  The confirmation that I am verifiably "on the Spectrum" has allowed me to look back on a great many things with a clarity I've never had.  What seemed mysterious personal failures have proven to be challenges that are fully expected under my corrected diagnosis.  I still have plenty of personal failures that I am fully willing to own.  The difference is that the "failures" I never fully understood are now correctly categorized.  Moving them out of the failure category has nullified the shame and regret that once engulfed their memories.

I love a good analogy.  It took me well into the writing of this entry to settle on my metaphor for what I'm currently experiencing.  When stranded on a planet that is not one's home, science fiction tells us that appropriate protective wear is among the most pressing necessities.   Witness, if you will, the construction of my "space suit".

It's interesting to note is how much of what people know as "me" is actually a learned set of behaviors that now operate automatically.  This also explains how I am able to so quickly reconfigure parts of my "user interface" to fit my surroundings.   Getting to this point was a long, arduous, trial and error process, where trial was unintentional, and error was unexpected and painful.

From my childhood into my mid twenties, my interactions with others underwent frequent criticism.  To avoid the discomfort of criticism, I changed the interactions that were the subject of scrutiny.  I was criticized because I seldom smiled.  In my mind, I needed a reason to smile.  Why go to the effort of smiling when it represented nothing.  It seemed pointless.  Still, friends, family, even complete strangers felt little reticence in confronting me about my lack of smiling.  My thoughts, feelings, and even faith were brought into question.  None were satisfied with my explanation  though to me it was honest, and followed linear reasoning.  I learned to smile more.  I determined when others felt it appropriate for me to smile, and did so.  Eventually, the behavior became almost automatic.  Nothing about 'me' changed.  It was a necessary adjustment to the user interface.  The critics were satisfied, and silent.  The latter was the only result I actually cared about.

In serious interpersonal interactions I was called cold and unemotional.  I learned to show people what they wanted to see as well.  In conversation, I learned to listen to others and feign interest in the topics they wanted to discuss.  I suppressed the urge to speak at length, and in extreme detail about my own interests.  I kept discussions of my own interests shallow, light, and to me, pointless.  Upon learning that my sense of humor was "angular" at best, it too was cloaked behind a more acceptable facade.  I gradually became more palatable to "the natives", to the point where to all but the truly observant, I appeared to be almost indigenous   By late 30's, my space suit had also become a very effective form of camouflage.  My suit had become so refined that most believed I was a native.

Even I had begun to forget about the suit I wear.  My "diagnostic upgrade" brought it back into sharp focus.  The doctor told me "you hide these things so well that most will never know".  She saw my suit and she saw me in it.  I was a little flattered that she liked the suit I'd made.   That was affirming.  Very few actually like both the suit and its contents.  Few ever see beyond the suit.  Of those who do, even fewer stick around for subsequent looks.   

In the days that followed my visit to "the head shrinker", I found myself becoming aware again of what behaviors were the suit and how they differed from its contents.  I caught myself forcing a smile when greeting a coworker that I don't even know.   The smile was the suit.  Combining this realization with my new diagnosis brought me to an interesting epiphany.  I don't allow in myself those things which I allow and encourage in Nathan.  Never have we criticized him for facial expression, etc.  We've kept forcing him into social norms to those things that are absolutely necessary for polite interaction.   We make few demands on him to express his feelings beyond what is natural and comfortable for him.  We are doing our best to keep him from building his own space suit. 

This brought me to a second epiphany.  I don't have to wear mine.

What were once criticized as personal failures in me are now explained as the expected characteristics of a "Highly Functioning Autistic Person".   The question remains, can I ever take off the suit.  I'm not sure.  The risk of exposing myself to the open criticism of "the great unwashed" is frightful.  I like the peace the suit has bought me.  Will I take it off?  We'll see.  For now....

Screw Y'all!!!!   I ain't smiling!!!

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