Brain Trust

There is a reasonable chance that I am on the autism spectrum. 

I have never written those words before. But, in the past few years, I have tried to leave clues to this possibility and have been openly sharing with some people that, when I was younger, family and some friends raised this possibility many times. But today, at the expense of putting myself in an awkward situation, I am going to put this possibility out into the world and see what I learn from the feedback.

People who met me in the past decade or so often have a hard time imagining that I might be on the autism spectrum. They see me talking openly, standing in front of hundreds of people giving sermons or talks, laughing and expressing other emotions, and they assume that I don’t match what they typically imagine when they think of someone as being autistic. What they don’t see is the years and years of work and practice and pain that I have put in to appear “normal”. And they definitely have no idea what is going on in my brain when I am in social situations. And the reality is that I don’t necessarily want them to know.

Why say something now?

So if I say that I don’t want people to know the immense work I have put in to show up in a way that they can relate to, then you might be wondering why I am writing about it. The most honest answer is curiosity. As I said above, I would like to see what I learn from whatever responses or informational resources might come my way from making this statement. I guess you could say that I am fishing in the Great Lake of neuro-diversity and this post is my bait.

I hadn’t ever intended to put myself out there as being autistic. My older cousin is autistic and I have watched him be misunderstood my whole life because people generally think that since his brain works differently, he is not intelligent. But he absolutely is. When I was a child, he was the main person I could relate to and work with to measure how I was integrating feedback from people and my environment. When we were kids, it felt like he was the only one who understood me. Back then, he didn’t talk to anyone but his mother really. But when we’d be outside alone at my grandmother’s house, he would talk to me. It was like he and I both lived in these solitary confinement prison cells and we liked it that way. He and I shared a wall so we could talk to each other. And because we both knew what it was like in there and both knew we didn’t want to come out, talking to each other and then being done abruptly without any sense of hurt feelings was easy. The only substantial difference between our cells was that my cell had a small sliding window to the outside world that I could communicate through. So if people knew where that window was, they could get to me and I could call out if I felt I had to. But for the most part, I preferred the solitude.

Eventually I grew to hate that window because it gave people just enough access for them to assume that I could relate to them. I couldn’t. And when it became obvious that I wasn’t “normal” they attacked repeatedly. All I wanted was to be left alone. But because I looked like I was relatable, people would approach me. When I started public school, it was a nightmare for me. I couldn’t wait to get away from the other kids and go be by myself. But people thought I should socialize. However, once I started trying, the feedback was that I did it wrong and I was frequently rewarded with punches and taunts. The funny thing was the meanness and violence didn’t really bother me that much. Sometimes I just accepted it as the willing toll I would pay to be left alone afterwards. But well meaning people kept trying to “help me” be more relatable. My mom even paid a kid named Jerry to be my friend in elementary school. I found out because one day she forgot to pay him and he told everyone about it. Needless to say, our fake friendship melted like the ice cream my mom was buying him to make him talk to me.

After that incident and one where my teacher spanked me in front of the whole classroom with a yardstick for walking in late and tracking in sand from the playground wherein I just stared into the void not responding with a word, a tear, or even a wince, I decided that the best way to be left alone so I could close my cell window as quickly as possible was to learn how to integrate the feedback that the world was giving me. I chose to hide in plain sight under the assumption that if I appeared “normal”, people would be disinterested in me and eventually leave me alone. There’s more I can say, but the gist of it is that it didn’t work. And eventually, because of my “good behavior” I was functionally released from my dear solitary cell. (I think that’s about as far as I can stretch this analogy.)

So you see, this decision to share some of this is a spontaneous to some degree. In fact, I am writing this very sentence on an airplane on my tablet with my thumbs because it just hit me that this is the moment to share this for better or worse. My original intention was to read or sleep—maybe watch a movie or listen to an audiobook. Actually, it was an audiobook that compelled me to write this because through it, I came to the conclusion that this is the time to “come out”—if not to the world, then to myself.

I never wanted to publicly acknowledge that I might be on the autism spectrum because I imagined that if I did so, it might justify in some people’s minds the way they treated me for the first 20 plus years of my life. They might think, “No wonder I couldn’t understand him. It was him, not me.”  And maybe, I’m a little concerned that I might agree with them. I’m not saying that to sound all “poor me” or anything. I don’t feel sorry for myself about anything that I have experienced in my life. I am just aware of the human appetite for “otherizing” people in order to absolve ourselves from taking responsibility for our reactions and emotional fragility. And I am not really about that.

Another reason I didn’t want to come out as being on the spectrum is because at this point and after all the work I put in, I didn’t want people to suddenly start treating me differently based on this information or to engage me trying to figure out if they can “see the signs” that it is true or even try to disprove it. But still, if I want to understand myself, I need to explore this openly. And the fact is that I can’t test the waters without getting wet.

Last but not least, I am concerned that by identifying with being autistic, others whose neurologically diverse expressions are more pronounced than mine appear to be may be more misunderstood by this admission. I don’t have interest in being any sort of proof to lazy people that if people put in the work they too can be “better”. Besides, I am not “better”. I just learned how to speak in the dominant social language. My brain still functions as it always has. I feel the same way about this as I feel about people who think I am proof that “a black can pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” Someone said that to me a couple years ago after hearing that I was reared by a single mother. That’s not what happened though. No one pulls themselves up by bootstraps first of all. Besides, remember what my initial motivation was–to be left alone. I had no interest in the approval or acceptance of the so called “normal”. By the way, I suspect that normality is a myth.

Now before I go any further, let me come out and say that I have not been diagnosed as autistic by a medical professional. This, in some ways, is a self diagnosis. Though, due to the fact that my mother often wondered out loud about this possibility; one of my closest friends in life has asked me—with all seriousness—if I have been diagnosed; and growing up, I was often accused of not having feelings or understanding social cues (Though I did have them and knew the cues. I just had no interest in them.); I am experiencing this as more of a self acceptance.

But, it’s not just for those reasons that I am sharing this possibility. It is also because of the audiobook I referred to. When I hit play on the audiobook, I never expected for it to discuss autism.  The title is Create Your Own Economy: The Path to Prosperity in a Disordered World by Tyler Cowen. I got it because I thought that it might offer me some insight on how to either make the most of the financial resources that I currently have access to or teach me about how to get access to more financial resources using my gifts or talents or something like that. But, so far in the first hour of listening, it has said nothing about either of those. Rather it talks about people who are on the autism spectrum but can “pass” and how the brain of someone with autism works. 

As I listened, I was surprised to hear so many things that reminded me of how I showed up in the world for so many years and even now when I am too tired to translate, I will return to that baseline. I was reminded of a former girlfriend telling me that I was an alien who didn’t have feelings when I didn’t react to some of her emotional promptings and of encounters I had with others who felt that I was weird or a nerd, or the weird brother like my sister would jokingly say from time to time. So much of the book was describing me. But what was most startling was not the surprise that this book was dedicating so much time to autism.

The real surprise was that before getting this book, I had returned Jenny McCarthy’s book, Louder Than Words, which is actually about autism, without listening to a single minute because I was concerned that if I listened I would confirm my own and so many others’ suspicions about how my brain works. I told myself that there was no reason to open that can of worms. After all, I was already taxing myself by reflecting on my relationship with my father. No need to go deeper. Instead, I decided to learn more about finances. But obviously, the Universe had a surprise in store. Hence why I am writing this post.

Days before writing this, I asked God if I was indeed autistic. I asked not necessarily seeking confirmation, but simply trying to make sense of some of my experiences in life. But here I am, without looking for it, listening to an audiobook that still hasn’t said a word about economics that has seemed to have given my answer. So receiving this I figured the next logical step was to call myself out.

So if you have any thoughts or resources, please feel free to share them. I am just trying to learn.

***BONUS CONTENT***

This is my 5 Star Amazon review for Create Your Own Economy that I titled, Positively Deceived in a Good Way.

I picked this audiobook up from the library because I thought it was about what the title suggested. As I listened to the first hour, I was confused and surprised that the author was not getting off the autism train. So much so that it prompted me to stop listening to it and write a blog post confessing that I too am very likely on the autism spectrum.

I am not going to explain my story here. But, I will say that were this book available 30 plus years ago and given a title that actually matched the content, it would have served me well. And perhaps it could have saved my body from some of the physical abuse that it received in various environments.

I have no idea why the author chose this title. I can see why people would experience it’s content as a misrepresentation if not a flat out deception rather than the welcome and providential surprise that I experienced it as.

Were I attached to learning about what the title contributed to me assuming was the subject matter, I would have never finished this book and would have given it a one star or less review rather than the five stars I am giving it.

But as it turns out, I didn’t get the book I wanted with this book. But I did get the exact book I needed. Serendipitously, I grabbed this audiobook after returning–without even listening to a minute of it–Jenny McCarthy’s book, Louder Than Words, which was specifically about autism. I initially grabbed her book to begin exploring my own brain functioning. However, after looking at my high school yearbook and reflecting with a friend about how si many people from my neighborhood thought I was “different”, I decided to close that can of worms and instead listen to a book about what I thought was entrepreneurship.

So you can imagine my surprise when I settled in my plane seat to listen to this book and discovered that in some way, I ended up listening to something that was an even more acute treatises on “high functioning autism” than what I may have ever received from McCarthy’s book.

So while I will say that the title of this book is a failure of representation, the content–at least as far as I’m concerned–is a triumphant success in terms of introducing readers to consider the world and gifts of neurodiversity. If he would reconsider aligning the title with the content perhaps the author would receive more positive reviews and serve more people in the process. If you are “positively deceived” by this book’s title as I was, I encourage you to keep reading or listening. With a discerning ear, I’m sure that many would find that this book is a contribution to your relational knowledge base.

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