As I look back on my life there are two distinct eras; the era of not knowing I was on the autism spectrum and the current one of knowing. At presentations I so often get asked, “Our child is 14 and we know he’s on the spectrum but we don’t know if we should tell them or not.” There’s many different lines of thought on this matter be it that “everyone is different so what does it matter” to “it’s best not to put a label on a person.” So what is the right answer? We’re off to a flying start in this series because, well, there isn’t one. First, I have to make the obligatory statement that it is of the utmost importance that you remember this saying of, “If you’ve met one person with autism then you’ve only met one person with autism” because it very much applies to this. Each person is going to react differently and I’ve heard reactions in the extreme of both ends of full acceptance to full denial. That being said here is my story.
Before I was diagnosed I was confused. This was sort of the inspiration to write Finding Kansas as I was in the process of accepting, but before that time I was confused as to why I always reacted differently to things or events that my peers would react to. While I was confused it wasn’t something that was always on my mind because my mind was always on my Kansas so I didn’t think too much about it except if something went wrong.
When I would try and socialize and things didn’t work out I had only one thing to blame and that was myself. This is what I tell anyone who might think that they are on the spectrum, or those that know that their child is on the spectrum, I let them know that the dangers of not knowing can become self-destructive in a way because the conclusions we will draw are, “I’m just a failure” or, “I’m just not likable” to even, “everyone hates me.” From these thoughts we may try harder and it’s a vicious downward spiral as we try and compensate for something we don’t even know we have and we fight a battle against an unseen entity.
Of all the periods in my life that I wish I would’ve known that I was on the spectrum it would have been my third job at the video game store. It’s been just over a decade since I wrote the chapter, “Work” in Finding Kansas and I know so much more about what happened back then than when I first wrote about. Anyway, I was 18 and working at a mall in Saint Louis. I gave the world’s worst job interview (honestly, it was beyond bad as I couldn’t make eye contact much less look at any part of the manager and I said “I don’t know to every question”) but managed to get hired somehow. It took a few days to lose my shyness towards customers but I had a game to play and that was to become #1 in all the sales categories. I became single-minded and the only thing that mattered was the job at hand. Here’s the thing though; when one is in their teens working at a mall in a big city the breakdown of a job is this, now I must say I disagree with this bit it is 20% how well you do your job and 80% how well one gets along with his or her coworkers.
I was oblivious to this rule that one needed to socialize with the coworkers because I went to work to work. Mingling with coworkers, idle chat that didn’t result in a sale, and thinking things outside either alphabetizing or sales tactics were strictly prohibited. The only thing that mattered was the job at hand and I sound like the model employee, right? Only if! The friction started out small as the manager and others all get it in their minds that they were going to, “bring me out of my shell.” This always made me think of a turtle, which I most certainly am not, and besides that why do I need to bust out of this imaginary shell? I was doing fine as I was the sales leader. What I didn’t know what that, as they tried to destroy the shell, my resistance to this and my unresponsiveness to their questions about me made them wonder about me. Was I mean? Cold? Uncaring? Ruthless? Did I think that I was better than them? Was I a snob or standoffish? All these were questions asked by them and what did I do? I kept selling games. The friction grew and grew and I had no idea why. I can remember driving to work saying aloud, “Please, please, please just leave me alone today and let me sell.”
About six months after starting the job I left because of the friction and it didn’t have to be this way. I was just one-and-a-half years away from my diagnosis and if I had known, if I had only known I might have been able to explain who I was and why. And if public awareness and understanding had existed then then perhaps they’d have known that I wasn’t doing any of this behavior on purpose. I actually did wonder what my coworkers were like and I always thought I was friendly enough, but in the end the only person I had to blame for their hostility was myself. I became afraid of getting any sort of job for a while thereafter because I was sure I was going to fail for reasons unknown, but since I was me and since every time I tried to be part of a group or the like be it in school or at a job it always ended in a flaming heap so I gave up.