The Accidental Autist: Empathy Made Me Do It

by Grayson

I remember, as a young child, how I lived in my own world. Of course, back then I didn’t frame it that way. I was just living, just being me. The realization that I was not functioning sufficiently in the larger, outer world came in stages as I aged and people began to expect me to behave in accepted ways, of which school is the quintessential playing field.

School threw my differences into stark relief. It would be inaccurate to say I noticed this right away. I still lived, quietly satisfied, whole, happy, in my own world. Only as schoolmates taunted me, pushed me to the ground, laughed at me, and called me retard, did I realize I was doing something wrong. Only as teachers corrected me, prompted me to speak up, called me to attention, did I realize I was not behaving correctly.

Because I have always been a loving, empathic child, prone to internalizing others’ expectations and attempting to fulfill them, I began to work on fitting in. Paying attention in class. Learning to use words and intonation the way other children used them. I made it my supreme aspiration to behave appropriately, to meet their expectations of normalcy. And I succeeded quite well.

I learned not to rock back and forth. I learned not to make the face that “makes you look retarded,” as my friend J called it with exasperation. I eventually learned not to call my parents at 10 PM during a sleepover and beg to be taken home, when sensory overload from all that was unfamiliar had me in terror. I essentially learned how to recognize what was normal and what was weird, and I banished all things weird from my repertoire. I suppressed my own needs in order to provide what I saw others wanted from me.

This process, most intense in childhood, continued through adolescence and into adulthood; it continues to this day, though for years, of course, it’s been a question of tiny modifications, miniscule tuneups.

I also learned not to trust everyone, not even every adult. I learned to fear being seen as different, because sometimes it upsets people so much they hit you or destroy your things. Gradually, I learned that my right to live independently hung on my ability not to offend, weird out, or otherwise upset people in a position to decide my fate.

From an exterior vantage point–and, to be honest, from my vantage point for most of my life–all this was progress. I fit in. People were happy with me. I met expectations. This made me happy.

But the other direct result of this process is that I lost touch with who I really am. The person I experience as me, deep below my verbal self, below my connection to others, below my sense of time and persona, is inaccessible to me on a daily basis. She is buried under all the accumulated behavior that allows me to function as a familiar blip on others’ radar. I can only reach her when I am completely alone, in complete silence, with enough time stretched out in front of me that I can forget, for the moment, what needs to be done to keep daily life running.

Needless to say, this confluence rarely occurs in my life. Until recently, I didn’t even realize I needed it. The weird otherness of my early childhood had been tamed, banished, erased (I liked to think); the things about me that had upset other people were now gone. There was no hidden me.

Oh, I knew I needed “down time,” and I knew to avoid too many social engagements back to back. I’d learned that full-time work was a recipe for depression. I knew that, much as I wanted and loved them, mothering my children was somehow too much for me. Where other people whistled a cheery tune, I whimpered and folded into a ball, overwhelmed. All these things meant there was something wrong with me; that part of me that upset people was still there. My otherness. My supreme failure to be a regular person. I just tried to keep my meltdowns from imposing on others as much as possible, and to get back in the saddle as quickly as I could.

I now realize that what’s been wrong with me is that I’ve been living an impostor’s life. I don’t mean no part of my life has been real, of course; it’s all been as real as I could make it. As real as it could be, building on an externally imposed foundation. I’ve been really trying my damnedest. My love for my husband and children is real. My interest in my friends, my fascination with mathematics, my love for language are all real. My deep passions for tolerance, for embracing diversity, for honesty, justice, and fairness, are all real. Everything in my life is as real as it can be. I present myself as accurately as I can; it’s just that what I dish up is passed through a “normalcy filter” before it reaches the surface. And there, I strip it of everything weird; I make it cookie-cutter, acceptable, expected, usual. I add in all kinds of things that aren’t important to me. All in the service of making people happy. That’s where it all started, and that’s what continues to drive it today: I see what people want, and I try to give it to them.

But the thing is, the real me doesn’t meet expectations. She is different. If I’m ever going to reclaim her, I’m going to have to let go of my need to be a good girl who always does as she’s told. Not that I’m looking to raise hell and break rules; I’m talking about seeming weird, odd, freaky. Making people uncomfortable by just being the way I am. This idea scares me.

About the Author: Grayson is a woman on the autism spectrum who describes herself as “a brainy, quirky, synaesthetic, forty-something wife and mother of three.” This piece first appeared on her blog, Falling into Place, and is reprinted here by permission.

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8 thoughts on “The Accidental Autist: Empathy Made Me Do It

  1. Mados says:

    What a beautifully written post.

    Anyway, it sounds perfectly normal to have a ‘normality filter’ to run all behavioural impulses through before acting, to filter out the stuff people won’t understand. I think everybody has that, and everybody longs to be more genuine, less filtered. That’s how it is to live inside a culture with its concepts of normality and weirdness.

  2. CelticRose says:

    There’s a quote that’s usually attributed to Dr. Seuss that I use in my forum signatures: “Be who you are & say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter & those who matter don’t mind.” It’s very true — if you just be yourself your true friends will love you for who you are and those who don’t are generally not worth the effort.

  3. Catherine says:

    Thanks Grayson. I have a similar story, and now I’m over 60, with the demands of raising children day-by-day complete,and the need to make a living ended, it’s a relief to finally have the space to allow the inner me to emerge more and indulge my need to have large quantities of alone, quiet time.

  4. Sybil says:

    wow…I can see myself in ALOT of this post, especially that paragraph that starts “I now realize what’s wrong with me…” Shockingly, I’ve only just realized this recently and I am 54! It IS difficult to “be yourself” when you are so accustomed to editing yourself.

  5. Alienhippy says:

    Thank you for sharing this, I can relate to so much f it.
    Love and hugs. xx 🙂

  6. peSHIr says:

    Hate to “just add a ‘me too!'” here, but this post resonated with me a lot as well. Like my website link tells, I only recently made the leap to an auto-diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome after “working my way up to it” the last couple of years. I’m now 37 years old, finding out about and reading weblogs and books on the subject.

  7. Grayson says:

    Thank you all so much for your positive comments! How rewarding to connect with others on something so personal–and to be told it’s beautifully written! Thank you for that, Mados.

    CelticRose, what a fantastic quote. It’s in line with my long-time favorite (and constant forum signature) from Emily Dickinson: “Much madness is divinest sense to a discerning eye; much sense, the starkest madness.”

    Catherine, I long for the day my kids are grown–I love them very much, but the demands of family make it impossible for me to get the alone time I need. That’s because I need DAYS at a time, not just hours here and there. My husband and I have been on a long, emotional journey to figure out how to get me what I need–really need, to survive–in the next decade, before the nest empties, without any of us suffering. It isn’t easy, and we’re not there yet.

  8. Sue says:

    Wow, Greyson you write so well. Thank you so much for sharing this and being so open and vulnerable. I often wonder about whether Aspies feel angry at having to fit into this stupid world. Do you feel angry that you have had to do all of this “fitting in”?

    It’s funny, I can see SO MUCH of myself in you but I don’t think I’m Aspie. My partner is, but I’m more of a highly sensitive person, but I need and crave time alone every day because I can’t hear myself otherwise.

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