Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Autistic Christian, part 2

In part 1 of The Autistic Christian, I'd shared about my life from birth to high school. This part will be about adulthood, relationships, and employment for the autistic person. Part 3 will be the Autistic Christian. The Lord made me this way and gave me spiritual gifts uniquely formed and perfectly suited for an autistic person to glorify Him. I don't normally like to talk about myself. Rather, it's all about Jesus. But I've looked for resources about the autistic Christian and have found very little. What I did find was not helpful. Therefore, in the interest of perhaps encouraging someone else, I'll speak about my experience.

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Toward the end of high school I'd had a growing awareness of other people in relation to myself. To put it more bluntly and truthfully, I became aware that other people existed. More than that, they mattered. Autistic people know there are other people, of course, it's just that we aren't aware of our own impact on them nor of them on us. My constant headaches and stomach troubles were physical manifestations of the nervousness, worry, and stress I felt being among people. I can't make conversation, my conversational topics differ from most people, and I hate chitchat and greetings/goodbyes. I am unable to screen out most stimuli, so colors, emotional faces, sounds, and lighting impact my ability to speak casually. All this adds up to the fact that I am unable to understand how to interact successfully. Cognitively I was unaware of the fact of feeling the stress, nor did I understand why I felt like I did. Hence, the physical pain.

It's like Spirograph.
Spirograph: Wikipedia commons
Spirograph was invented in 1900 but released as a children's toy in 1965. As an autistic child, I saw people each as one of the above designs, and as an island unto itself. As an older teen and young college adult, I began to understand that I was but one point or dot within each design. I was part of a complex system, traveling in circles, crossing paths with others, and I impacted them and they impacted me. This was a problem.

In choosing which college to attend, I had different criteria than non-autistic people. I wanted to go as far away from my home base as possible, yet stay in New England. I wanted the distance because I thought that all the bad memories and crushing events were because everybody where I lived was the problem, and if I went to a new place, all would be well. The staying in New England part was because I instinctively recognized that going to a completely new geographic area would be too much to absorb. There would be a new climate, new accents, new flora and fauna, new foods, etc. New England was safer. I chose a state university because I wanted a large population of people around me. It is easier to hide in a crowd than in a small group. So I chose University of Maine, college population 11,000.

College was a shock. It was a shock because I had all of the same social and emotional problems I'd had in Rhode Island. The problem was me and I can't outrun me, but I didn't know it at the time. So I kept on having headaches and stomach aches.

In addition, it was shocking because now I had to do for myself what my mother had done for me for 18 years: feed me, get me clothes, and provide a safe haven into which to retreat. In this aspect, autistic kids are the same as NT kids. We all have these first-year college issues, just different flavors of them. Feeding was the least problem. I lived in the dorms, and I bought a cafeteria pass. If I showed up at the right time the lunch ladies would feed me. Even with my food issues I'd find something to keep me alive. Because stores were too overstimulating and malls (just being invented then) were anathema, I decided I'd keep the clothes I had and be very careful with them. Of course, I hadn't counted on gaining the "Freshman 15" so when my pants got too tight I found a small thrift store in the opposite direction people usually went to get clothes. Instead of Bangor, I went to Old Town.

The safe haven was an extreme issue. It was a time of America's colleges and universities being overcrowded. At the end of WWII a baby boom occurred. My generation (1960) was the tail end and we were the last of the big post-war baby group to go to college. I was in an overflow dorm room off-campus with two other girls. I'd never lived in the same bedroom with someone before. Suddenly there was no safe haven.

An Autistic person absolutely requires a place to go and reduce stimuli. We literally cannot screen out all the world's noise, smells, sights, sounds. It all goes in and through us like we're sponges under a fire hose. But in my room there were two other girls playing music and covering their beds with bedspreads in horror colors (for me, it's orange), the entire dorm was a teeming mass of loud, drinking, horsing around kids.

Thankfully the overcrowding evened out by mid-semester with kids moving or dropping out and I was moved on-campus to a room with an older roommate who had friends in other dorms where she went most of the time. Phew.

Academics were a dream because once I got the basic required classes over with I could elect what I wanted to study. For me that was liberal arts, English, history and the like. My hunch about hiding in plain sight was correct, no one noticed me. Lecture halls were large with 200 or more students and I didn't have to say a word, just show up and listen. I was used to being on my own and managing my time so structuring study times wasn't hard. I didn't engage in extra-curricular activities so that was that. By sophomore year I felt that maybe I could do this living in the world thing.

I'd said in part 1 that high school dating was too stressful and was fraught with issues I couldn't handle. Social conventions like conversation are hard for me to engage in. Small talk and chitchat are ridiculous wastes of time. Conversational greeting and closing language is superfluous. Talking about any subject except the one I'm currently entranced by is not gonna happen. I'm a dream date, right?

I met a man in the first dorm I'd lived in and by sophomore year we moved in together. (I was not saved by Christ until I was 43 years old). That was occurring societally a lot by 1979, 1980. People lived together. We found an efficiency apartment adjacent to the campus which was cozy, found some bare furniture and a 9 inch tv, and with cable's invention, we were all set, domestically.

I nixed the veil. Nothing can be on my face
An autistic person does have emotions, we just express them differently. We handle relationships differently. While it is hard to feel empathy or sympathy, we do feel extreme loyalty to those with whom we decide are safe to love. My kindergarten teacher was one. The one friend in high school was another. Now this man.

I finished college and we got married. Of course I'd chosen someone unsuitable for me. You saw my decision-making process for college. It was the same with relationships. I had a wrong set of criteria. I thought people were basically mix-N-match, all the same and any relationship could be handled logically. Anyone who is married knows this isn't true.

We moved a bit south in Maine, found jobs and began adult life. My goal was to get a Masters and a PhD and teach college. Several of his family members were teachers and they encouraged me to get a job substituting while I saved up for graduate school. It turned out I could teach well and connected with children admirably.

An autistic person lives for information. Information is king. We seek patterns in the world. Discovering about Fibonacci's sequence was a delight. Reading Flatland was an eye-opener. I thought if I chronicled it enough that a pattern would emerge. I felt if I knew enough I could control things. The most loving gift I could give someone was information that would help them. That is one reason why we talk a lot to certain people. Here is how a situation might go. If a co-worker has a sick child in the hospital, and I knew that the child loved Legos, instead of the usual comforting chitchat non-autistic people say like "I'm sorry your son is in the hospital, how is he doing?" I might say,

"A new Lego man was just released by Hasbro last week."

In my mind, if the sick child loves Legos, and I tell the mom that a new piece was available, she might go to the store and buy it and give it to her son, who would then become happy. I see the connections clearly but most often, the person I'm trying to converse with doesn't. What I say is just a weird non-sequitur.

In 1982, after one month of general subbing, my principal asked me to substitute for a 5th grade teacher who was going to be out for the rest of the year. (She had cancer). The next year he gave me a job as a kindergarten parapro. A year after that, I had earned my teaching certificate and taught first grade.

Being regularly employed is hard for the autistic person. Social rules mean getting along with a large array of people, many of whom are different from you. It means not speaking up when something is stupid, especially to your boss. It means doing things that are not useful, if you want to stay employed. It means being nice in the way the world wants us to be nice. That meant putting a lid on talking about our favorite subject, not telling your boss he's wrong, and even our humor isn't appreciated. Once one of my bosses told me that my humor at staff meetings wasn't understood or accepted by my peers and basically to shut up.



For the record, I got the hippo joke. I thought it was funny...except he should have said stones, not marbles. It is one of my autistic traits to constantly correct or edit. Things have to be right.

An autistic person adheres to certain qualities above all else, or at least I do. I have to be careful about making generalities because autism is a spectrum and my placement on the spectrum is different from another's. My peeves are correct information, justice, truth, and patterns.

In this paper, "Living the categorical imperative: autistic perspectives on lying and truth telling," it is stated of autistic people, "Lying is a common phenomenon amongst human beings. It seems to play a role in making social interactions run more smoothly. Too much honesty can be regarded as impolite or downright rude. Remarkably, lying is not a common phenomenon amongst normally intelligent human beings who are on the autism spectrum. They appear to be 'attractively morally innocent' and seem to have an above average moral conscientious objection against deception. ... From a care ethics perspective, on the other hand, a way should be found to allow the high-functioning persons with autism to respect the feelings and needs of other persons as sometimes overruling the duty of truthfulness."

Ha ha, you can try, academic person, but nothing overrules the duty of truthfulness.

I learned however that bosses or co-workers don't appreciate it when you tell them they are doing it wrong. While some lying is expected, ("Yes, you look great in that dress!") it is impossible for us to do. If you ask me a question I'll answer plainly and truthfully. ("No, that dress is a waste of money and you look fat in it.") I remember my mother asking me what I wanted to major in and be when I graduated. I said "Maybe a diplomat." She laughed so hard she doubled over. I was offended at her laughter and I asked why she thought me being a diplomat was so funny.

"Because you're the most tactless person I ever met."

This week a sick co-worker said "I feel terrible." I said, "I know. You look horrible." I still lack tact but there are occasional successes when I DON'T say the thing I want badly to say. Not that time though.

My old school with some of the school's cheerleaders.
I taught 4th grade at that time
Teaching was a good profession for me because I could deliver information to children, who were also brutally honest, but the colleague and boss thing was problematic. So was the husband, we divorced in 1986. He had an affair and left to marry another woman. During the in-between time of finding out and not yet divorced, it was easier for me to live with the adultery than his  deception about it. The lying was the deal breaker. I cannot abide liars. If information is king, and truth is to be told above all else, then I have no patience for false information. The worst thing you could possibly do to me is lie.

In 1990 I quit teaching. It was the last time I was regularly employed in a system or corporation (my brief foray into retail was a huge fail) until 2008. I lived by reducing my expenditures and freelancing, either writing or research. I also married again in 1994, this time to a rich husband. We divorced in 2004, but at least it kept me alive until I figured out how to live on my own. This is a constant struggle for an autistic person, especially because employment is so difficult to maintain. As a result, we often go into relationships for the wrong reasons. Parents of autistic kids, watch for that. LOL, ALL parents have to watch for that, don't they. Autistic kids are the same as NT kids in many ways.

For the third time, (1978, 1986, 2004) I was adrift in a world I didn't understand and didn't understand me. I wanted to be where there was truth and justice above all else, where relationships would be based on externally known and mutually agreed upon truth, relationships were based on mutual trust and an unalterable set of rules, where the rules were laid out clearly and concretely, where I could speak the truth and it would be appreciated, and where the subject I study would never be exhausted. You see where this is going: Coming up, part 3: The Autistic Christian.

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The Autistic Christian, Part 1
The Autistic Christian, part 3

What is Autism?

3 comments:

  1. Thank you for sharing your story. I regularly read you blog and have a son with Asperger's about to enter college, so I find this very interesting. Incidentally, I have long ago delighted in the way that God has made him and love his honesty :0)

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  2. Elizabeth, your personal testimony is very powerful and I commend you for sharing this with your readers so that others may gain insight and encouragement in their personal struggle in a fallen world.

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  3. Elizabeth, thank you so much for writing this. I can not tell you how much I appreciate it. After I read the first part yesterday, I just sat one the couch for at least ten minutes just trying to absorb it. My husband kept asking me, are you ok? What's going on? I couldn't explain why this hit me so hard, so I just forwarded it to him and said you HAVE to read this. And ,honestly, I'm still trying to process why it had such an impact on me. I don't think I have Aspergers, but so many things you said I related to .... Things I've never been able to describe to anyone else, but were so dead-on how I feel (or have felt). It startled me a bit.

    One funny thing I'll share with you that happened to me as a kid. I think you'll understand. In 1st or 2nd grade, the teacher stepped out of the room for a few minutes and we were left with no supervision. Very quickly things got loud and ,in my mind, completely out of control. I remember wanting to run down the hall to get someone. The teacher eventually returned, I ran up to her with my hands clasped over my ears, and emphatically told her my ears were KILLING me. She said something like, "Oh honey, I'm so sorry. Let's go call your parents to come get you."
    She thought I had an earache! And I couldn't find the words to explain to her otherwise. I was completely at a loss for words. So, shortly thereafter, found myself at home, in bed, with warm olive oil in my ears! Which is what they used to do back "back in the day in WV." Isn't that hilarious? The funny thing is, which you may or may not relate to, is I still feel a little guilty to this day that I didn't tell the teacher I wasn't really sick. I, too, am a stickler for absolute truth ����.

    Please know your blog is such an encouragement! I agree with the others who said you should write a book. Thank you so, so much!

    Diana from MI

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