I’m 2. My Mom tells You I’m disappearing from her, into a world of my own. She tells you I cry a lot and that our connection has weakened. But to You I seem perfectly happy, so You tell her not to worry.
I’m 3. Mom is learning by trial and error how to avoid my meltdowns. She creates structure, routines and predictability to help us through the days. She doesn’t even consider going back to You. After all, Your professional assessment is that I’m a perfectly happy child.
I’m 5. The boys at Kindergarten want to see my private parts and I don’t know it is wrong, so I pull my pants down and loudly recite all the types of potatoes that I know.
I’m 6 and preschool terrifies me. Every real-time situation is akin to a launch into free fall. At home I scream and scream in endless tantrums. Once, Mom tells me I’ll ruin my voice if I keep screaming. The knowledge I’ve destroyed my voice haunts me for many years.
I’m 7 and bullied. Mom tells me they’re jealous of my intelligence and I believe her, because surely she must know. The ping pong table becomes my imaginary boat, and I sit there nearly motionless, playing out scenarios in my head. At after school care I’m glued to the reading couch. It’s safest to never look up.
I’m 8 and Mom finally asks You for help again. You tell me to count to 10 instead of melting down. You tell me that the other girls will stop being mean if I just try to be a bit more like them.
I’m 10 and scared, even though the bullying has stopped. I focus on being The Best at school. I have lived with constant anxiety for years, but don’t know life could be different.
I’m 13 and the social gap between me and others widens further. I’m isolated without knowing it. Excellence matters more and more, but also becomes harder and harder.
I’m 14 and exhausted. I can’t keep up. I’m isolated. My performance is dropping. I’m anxious and scared. We finally get Your attention, and You make sure I get therapy and follow-up. I’m supposed to talk about my childhood but I have nothing to say.
I’m 15 and hospitalized, because I’ve become The Best at being dysfunctional. You tell me I have to make up my mind: life or death? I don’t know the answer and the question makes me confused. Someone thinks I have an empathy disorder called Asperger’s and I don’t believe it for a second.
I’m 16 and in a state of constant panic. You say I want attention and instruct those around me to ignore my expressions of despair. They follow Your instructions, because You’re a professional, until a different professional discovers an anomaly in my brain. Suddenly, You say it’s not my fault. You say I’ll probably never live an independent life.
I’m 17. I meet a therapist who helps me find my very first words: “I am lonely”. I feel lonely. I feel unseen, isolated, voiceless. I have never been able to communicate. I have never known what my emotions are. There is only anxiety. I can’t believe I’ve never ever realized this myself.
I’m 19. I have now worked with the therapist for several years to learn to recognize emotions, and for the very first time I experience something that isn’t anxiety. It’s sadness in its purest form. It’s beautiful, and so very painful. My emotional repertoire is growing.
I’m 20 and begin to feel glimpses of true happiness. Every day, I analyze my behavior with a great deal of attention and logical thinking, and slowly reprogram my reactions to become more adaptive and appropriate. The wordless rage and anxiety disappear.
I’m 21. I lift my gaze and realize I have never faced the world outside before. I discover that, if I concentrate, I can see the people’s faces. If I concentrate on my body and the world at the same time, I can make the world slow down and perceive details in the chaos. I can truly begin to interact with others. I go on my first independent vacation. I have my first glass of wine. I look at my wristwatch and spill the wine on the pavement. My friend laughs and says “that’s classic!”.
I’m 22. I’m nearly ready to fly. Despite my transformation I still can’t stably organize my time or regulate my food intake. I get scolded for a lack of motivation, for wanting to regress to a less responsible stage. I try hard, fail, try harder, fail, get scolded, and eventually try to hide the failures, thinking I’ll work it out alone. Motivation is not something I’m lacking.
I’m 23. I’m happy and well-adapted, despite some hidden glitches in my functioning. I move far away to get a college degree.
I’m 25 and exhausted. It’s hard to keep up. It’s hard to fit in. I don’t understand why I keep being misunderstood and made out to be a warrior-type, competitive, aggressive, neurotic… But I’m still happy, especially when I’m alone. My baseline is happy, even though I admittedly spend more time away from baseline than I do around it.
I’m 27 and break down from the pressure. I barely make it to the finish line, but graduate as an A-student.
I’m 28. I start another degree, and get physically ill. Yet, I keep going, more and more isolated, and less and less sure of myself. My place in the social world is shaky. Performance-wise I’m doing fine. Studying is my only real interest.
I’m 30 and fight for my own happiness and health. My social confidence is completely corroded and I’m slowly giving up the thought of being part of the social world. I have some serious doubts about life.
I’m 32. I move again, to accept a job after graduation. I’ve decided that I’m weird and try to accept it. I struggle with everything and am juggling a paradoxical mixture of happiness and stress. It’s very confusing, but I blame outside stressors.
I’m 34 and have removed the worst stressors from my life. Slowly I realize that the social isolation, misunderstandings, organization issues and perception problems remain, no matter what I change. I can’t just keep blaming stress. There must be a constant in this equation, and that constant – logically speaking – must be Me. A door opens.
I’m 36 and have finally realized I’m autistic. I don’t just have traits – I have severe limitations that impact every day of my life. I get evaluated and diagnosed, and start a process of re-evaluating every aspect of my existence, grieve the loss of old ideas, and celebrate the seed of real self-acceptance that I feel has been planted.
I’m 38 and meet You again. You don’t know that I’m autistic and you don’t know we’ve already met. “Everyone wants to have autism these days”, you say casually, and I chuckle collegially because the situation demands it. You take another bite of your cinnamon bun. “Any plans for the holidays?”, I ask and take a sip of my coffee.