By John Lee Pendall
I’m an Aspie; I was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
I’m actually much higher on the spectrum than anyone—including me—would have guessed. I owe that to skillful “masking,” the art of mimicking behavior one doesn’t really understand and suppressing behavior that others don’t understand.
I’m 33, and I was just diagnosed last month. I spent most of my life at home, living with my parents in a sleepy little village between two creeks in rural Illinois. I left home to take care of my grandma, who has Alzheimer’s. After that, I went back to work and got my own place.
I was alone for the first time in my life, just me and my cat Zoe. Living alone, daring the city on my bicycle each night (because I’m too visually impaired to drive) and working 40 hours a week, I finally started to realize that my mind worked differently than others. It wasn’t just a case of eccentricity—everyone knows I’m eccentric—but of a literal biological difference.
So, I got assessed, and the diagnosis was clear. I wasn’t as happy as I thought I’d be, not at first. Then, after I joined a few ASD social media groups, I started to see what this meant: I can be myself. You can’t treat ASD, all you can do is learn to live with it and understand it. And, if you happen to be a writer, try to help others understand it as well.
You’d be surprised by how many people get diagnosed later in life, and by how many co-morbid mental illnesses can spring up as we desperately try to mask. Masking creates stress, and if you mask enough, you start to lose yourself. Anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and borderline personality disorder are much higher in people with ASD than in the general population, and a lot of that is because we’re taught to pretend.
We’re usually taught that lesson the hard way, by bullies, teachers, or even friends and family. Insults, beatings, ghosting and mocking laughter are common threads in Aspies’ childhoods. We’re pushed to the outside, and we don’t know why. We don’t know what we did to be punished.
We’re all different, all unique, but we have a similar way of “being in the world” that comes from how we process information, and how we feel like aliens shipwrecked on a hostile planet. Some of us don’t even feel “human” at all, we feel like a different species, “the other.” We rarely feel at home.
I’m an Aspie, I have Autism Spectrum Disorder. Aspies are my people, and I won’t put the masks back on.
Not all Aspies try to unmask, but it’s healthy to. It takes a lot of discipline and a willingness to lose things for the sake of authenticity. Authenticity is my nirvana, my Bodhi. Masking can only cause suffering in long run, it can only put us in places we’re not supposed to be with people we’re not supposed to be with. Where we are, who we’re with and what we’re doing are, well, life, aren’t they? If those things don’t line up with who we are within, then how can we ever be happy?
But when we’re ourselves, when we start asserting our inner lives onto the outer world, things start to change—usually for the better. “No, I won’t go with the flow, I won’t lie down and take it, I will scream into the void, ‘I am here!'”
Everybody’s on the spectrum, everyone has some Autistic traits. Have you ever fidgeted or bounced your leg? That’s called stimming, congrats, you’re on the spectrum—if only a little bit. These traits only come together as a “disorder” when they get to be numerous and affect sensory processing.
That said, we call people who don’t have ASD neurotpyicals (NT). Some of us—uh-hem, me—can even be a bit prejudiced. It’s not the kind of bias that comes from a sense of superiority, but of being oppressed for decades by “normal” people while being forced to live an imitation of their nonsensical “normal” lives.
We live in an NT world, that’s why Aspies don’t feel at home.
Even NT researchers give Aspies a bad wrap. We’re painted over and over again as unfeeling Androids with no inner lives of our own. That’s sorta like someone from the KKK doing a study on inner city black culture, or a misogynist writing an essay on feminism. Even classifying ASD as a disorder is a bit ableist because it ignores the fact that society just isn’t all that great.
This workaday world where we get a job to get by and it happens to turn into a career, these fake friendships we keep going to keep the peace, all the lying and suppressing of our thoughts and feelings so as to not make waves, it’s ultimately pointless and ridiculous and we only play along with it because we’re afraid.
All the hoops, all the social cues and bullshitting we go through is even too much for a lot of NT’s. For an Aspie, it’s maddening. I could write a book about the things I don’t understand but witness on a daily basis. We’re taught that all of these things go over our heads because there’s something wrong with us, but the accusers never stop to think that maybe the game they’re playing is just stupid and that that’s why we don’t understand the rules.
Unmasking requires being openly confused, and openly astonished.
Because as confusing and arbitrary as our society is, the raw experience of, uh, experiencing is utterly mind-blowing. 20% of Aspies have synesthesia, a—once again—“disorder” where one string of information is processed by multiple senses simultaneously. If you’ve ever done a psychedelic, you know what synesthesia can be like.
Some people taste colors and see sounds. We can focus on just one thing and immerse ourselves in an entire universe of data. Then there are the patterns, oh my, patterns everywhere. It can be like sifting through the code behind the Matrix, and it’s beautiful, breathtaking, and achingly intimate and surreal.
Sometimes I’ll get off work in the morning and just marvel at the sky. I’m not just seeing it, I’m drinking it, soaking in it. I can feel it. The open blue, the puffy clouds, the morning air—it moves through me, moves through my body and washes away all the muck. This is a precious thing.
When I have moments like that, I want to share them. The neat thing about ASD is that, even though we can’t experience NT life, it is possible to share ASD life with NT’s. This overwhelming, magical, nondualistic world of flowing moments is available to everyone. People on the spectrum also aren’t the only ones who mask—everybody wears masks, and everybody can find a little more happiness in life by learning to take them off.
Editor: Dana Gornall