I’m doing an investigation series of sorts here into my own neurodiversity. I hope to write a book that is part memoir and part interviewing other high-functioning autistic people about their lives and work. The book will do for autism what Lizzie Simon’s Detour did for bipolar–normalize it.
A lot of people tell me to just do journalism on here and not to write personal things because of discrimination from my current job and other potential employment. However, I’m a firm believer in claiming one’s own voice in order to change minds and decrease discrimination or stigma (I hate the latter word). For as Virginia Woolf said, “You can’t write about others until you are open about yourself.” Claiming our voices and our stories changes lives and open minds. As speaker, writer and Founder of This is My Brave Jennifer Marshall, says “One day we’ll just call it talking.” That is why I choose to claim my voice as a self-advocate as well as highlight other’s stories of triumph over a system that so often fails us. I don’t care if an employer finds this post someday. Whether I disclose to them formally or not, at some point, they will figure out about my “weirdness” just from working with me.
I’ve been on a quest to prove I am normal since the seventh grade. Or, maybe it was something I’ve been proving all my life. It all started with my seventh-grade school counselor Ms. Lipman. Ms. Lipman told me that I would have limited career options when I grew up. I didn’t understand what she meant nor why. I wanted to be a lawyer; she told me to go into something with computers.
To understand where I was in seventh grade, you must understand that throughout my early life I have had tremendous difficulty understanding my peers and making friends. I was an excellent student in all subjects except math. I have always had difficulty with math. To this day, I whip out a calculator when I am in a store and need to find a percentage or I ask the salesperson. And, I barely learned fractions. I learned math by drawing a picture of the number problems. It helped me conceptualize it better.
In seventh grade, I tasted a certain freedom. I accidentally auditioned for the school play and surprisingly won one of the leads. Acting was my refuge. It was here that wearing a mask was acceptable, even a way to be funny. I got lots of laughs that year on the stage, especially when I improv-ed. The older theater kids were my haven. But, off the stage, I still got bullied by my peers and I never had many friends. I was the kid who read a book all alone at the lunch table or I simply just ate my lunch in the bathroom.
When I talk about wearing a mask, I meant that when I was a child and young teenager, I always used to wear a smile on my face in every situation even if it was inappropriate. I simply never learned what facial expressions were and how to make them in different situations. I had a young friend Julien, who I met in the resource room while getting help for math, call me smiley. The label stuck and the other kids would bully me with it.
I hated to watch television except for the news or 60 Minutes, another reason I had nothing in common with my peers. But sometimes I would watch a fictional show just to understand how to talk to people, how people talked to each other. I loved to do this with the soap opera Young and the Restless and Beverly Hills 90210. I would then mimic what I saw in certain situations in school. This continued throughout my school years and included movies and other media.
I also created a character in my head who only I heard and saw. His name was Arthur. Arthur looked like Super Mario only in a blue pinstriped suit, with a blue beret. I created Arthur as an objective voice to help me in social situations. Sometimes Arthur got me in trouble by reading a situation wrong or by causing me to act out impulsively. In later years in college, I began seeing psychiatrists who thought Arthur was a symptom of schizoaffective disorder. Many labels were thrown around from bipolar, obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizoaffective disorder. They gave me meds which seemed to help somewhat to take the edge off my emotional states, but never explained the core of the problem. My current psych practitioner I believe has it right: bipolar type 1 with high-functioning autism tendencies.
As a freshman in high school, I withdrew into my own little high achieving world. I created dramas in my own head to explain how people talked to each other and would enact them with my Barbie dolls alone in my room. That’s when I met Mr. Holdt, a professional writer and the writing instructor at my private school. Everyone had to take a class called Writer’s Workshop. I really, really loved it. I still have his Top 40 rules for Writing in an old notebook. I would write essays and poetry about the people and experiences I had in my young life. Mr. Holdt was impressed by my writing and encouraged me to take more advanced classes. Later, Ms. Davis the guidance counselor, recommended me to write articles on high school for our daily paper the Hartford Courant. I also became the editor of the school paper the Jabberwocky and worked closely with the desktop publishing teacher Ms. Katz.
But while I had a burning desire to prove myself in the journalism world, I had this secret interest in psychology. I read books by Mary McCraken and Temple Grandin about teachers who helped special needs students or books written by people with special needs themselves, in the case of Temple Grandin. In sophomore year, I worked at the early childhood center of my local JCC. That summer, I worked with a little boy who was having trouble with peers in preschool. At the end of the summer, he had made a little progress and his mother saw it. She gave me and the other girl who had worked with him a box filled with candy as a thank you.
The next year my mother signed me up to work at a camp at the Elmwood Community Center in the next town over for special needs kids. I did mainly photo copying that summer but I got to see how the adults worked and nurtured these kids. At the end of the summer, the campers performed a play Beauty and the Beast. I can still remember how Jordon, who I had no idea of her disability, sung Tale as Old as Time. To this day, whenever I hear that song, I can hear her voice.
I briefly entertained studying drama therapy and special education in college, but the old voice telling me that I would amount to nothing pushed me back to journalism where I could prove myself that I could ask hard-hitting questions, afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. I raced into journalism with the thought of maybe going to law school or even a graduate program in journalism.
I pushed myself to pay my dues in journalism always taking on more and more stories for my college paper and doing internships at major newspapers. I really liked writing about science and technology and social advocacy journalism. I became the science and tech editor in college. But I could see myself using writing as a tool, a sort of weapon, to advocate for people with disabilities and mental illness.
My interest in mental health became unlike my other high school interests in McCarthyism, GLBT rights, the Holocaust, the psychology of Nazis and haters, social injustices throughout history, Connecticut politics. It became all-consuming. As many of my interests, it became all I talked about and all I studied. Today, through therapy, I have learned to broaden my interests in order to small talk with people. Though, small talk is not exactly my specialty.
I don’t like labels so read what you must from this post. I just thought I should be transparent about my disabilities. They, in no way, shape the person I am or the work I do. I am a competent, competitive, compassionate writer, journalist, and substitute teacher. Someday, I hope to use my experiences to write nonfiction books on my experience in college as well as novels about young adults with disabilities and mental illness. I also hope my teaching experience will make me a better public speaker to offer talks on these issues to other groups and organizations. And, as always, I plan to continue over here on A Mile a Minute.