If you spend enough time in group therapy you gain a kind of second sense for whatever particular ailment landed you in it. It’s akin to being in a funhouse, each mirror image distinct but recognizable enough to provide you some reflection of yourself and illustrate the ways in which, through different eyes, you jut out from the world’s flat background in strange (and sometimes wonderful) ways. My rehabilitation from willfully oblivious, difficult autistic child to not-quite-there adult was long and involved much in the way of physical therapy, special education, and exposure to a revolving door of earnest but graceless psychology grad students. But the purpose of such measures was not particularly important to me as a youngster. I was not engaged with them except as means to break away from the monotony of the normal school day. It was only when placed with others like myself that I realized my peculiarity, and cognizance of such peculiarity in others.
The irony of having radar for autism when the very condition presumes obstinacy to others has not been lost on me. I’m unsure if I should be giving myself more credit for being perceptive (my spectrum case being relatively “mild”) or resolve that reading such surface-level details is less a talent one is born with than a skill to be honed. You can’t fully trust such a sense, of course. Sometimes a man who forges chain mail is just a man with a strange hobby. Sometimes a guy who doesn’t make eye contact, won’t return phone calls and owns every piece of Highlander fiction there is to own is just an asshole. These are possibilities. But when you come out of that experience of realization and refashioning, of going into the forge imperfect and coming out with the right shape but your flaws tempered instead of removed, you learn the telltale signs that differentiate your tribe from the merely eccentric.
There is, first of all, a hesitant detachment in the way a body is carried. The autism spectrum, as it’s now called, is typified first and foremost by a certain kind of deafness to human communication. The common term is “mindblindness,” but I think hearing provides a better sensory analogy. The extent of its severity is variable, but there is always some range of frequency that is unreachable, and the possibility that vital messages might carry in those frequencies and be lost is a stressful prospect. The nervous autist thus carries himself (and it is most commonly himself – I have known women on the spectrum but their disclosures have always been made in strictest confidence) in a peculiarly shrinking or rigid way, as if to protect a blind spot. That blind spot works both ways – on the one hand I fitfully perceive what approaches me, but I also tend to misjudge the ways in which I exert myself upon the world. In some sense I am left not knowing my own strength, and given the delicacy of social relations, my hesitance to move freely is unsurprising. It’s one of many reasons why I think the avoidance of eye contact is so common – to fully engage is to take up space, and to take up space is to both expose one’s throat and blindly charge.
The second tell is in one’s speech. I have two modes that I recognize in myself and others. There is the conversational mode, which is to say the unprepared mode, whereby the blind spot is exposed and one simply tries to make do. Scripting comes in handy here, lest one simply speak his mind in torrents and mumbles, or (more commonly) fall silent. And there is the public mode, the prepared effort, the professorial voice, mannered and declarative in ways bordering on excessive. There is an emphasis both on grammatical structure and enunciation, and it feels clumsily deployed, often showily or needlessly archaic. Ours is a language that seems to have been gleaned from pages but rarely spoken, it comes out of our mouths propped up. My radar tends to ping when I meet someone whose speech feels written, pulled from a technical manual or journal article.
When I was younger I drew from my southern family’s languid cadence in regulating my voice. I tried where I could to hedge declaratives, space my words into a loping gait, and allow a borrowed Tennessee drawl to wash over my rigid and off-putting grandiloquence. When I reached an obstacle to my speech I thus leapt over it. It is speech that paces itself by the exhale of breathe, the last words of a statement squeezed of its air. I sometimes worry that as an affect it is no less obvious than Michael McKean’s Law School Professor. I have an unshakeable tendency to use oblique language even in conversation and put hard emphasis on the wrong point in a word pair (“Let’s go to the movie THEATER,” “we’ll get ice CREAM.” etc) but I think that in general, I pass. At my best I want to sound like a TV detective, someone whose distracted manner belies his focus. In some sense all people inhabit their own panopticon, but the metaphor of the one-way mirror somehow seems more apt when social feedback isn’t where it should be.
When I moved into studying IT (I like to think of it as a homeland of my people), one of my professors gave the tell through his voice. When I was young I liked to play cards – I labored greatly in trying to replicate the methods of dealing that were so smooth and pleasurable to watch in media, a sort of effortless skill that I envied. I daydreamed often of having some talent that I could simply walk into a room and deploy, like belting out a consummate tune on a piano or producing a lighter by sleight of hand – something that sidestepped my obvious difficulties and presumably established me as a person worth knowing. I found that I couldn’t do it, that my movements were too rigid, lacking the smoothness in the wrist, and the light effortless touch of the fingers. I overthought it, tried too hard. When my professor spoke I heard in his voice my difficulty with a deck. You could hear the concentration, the feint toward a natural facility with speaking that wasn’t quite there. Being autistic in public is being “on” but never being entirely natural. To an incurious spectator it might seem pathetic or discomfiting, but I think there’s magnificence in managing outside one’s element. To ford those rapids takes a lot of poise. The untrained eye just doesn’t see it.
Then there is, of course, the stereotyped interest, which I’ve written about previously. It is perhaps the most enduring element, acknowledged or not, of the “high-functioning”* autistic within the wider culture. Simply described it is an enthusiasm that borders on the peculiar, in terms of its thoroughness and the attention to which it is paid. The stereotyped interest tends toward the intense and arcane – that is to say, what separates you as an engaged autistic from a normal enthusiast is the encyclopedic scope of your fascination. It is hardly surprising that before the advent of the internet, one could buy comic books and baseball cards from the same enthusiast’s shop. Such passions involve accumulation, taxonomy, mapping. The stereotype of the “savant” from Rain Man and beyond pegs us as having a knack for high-level systemic thinking and its applications, but this is not always the case. We may not take to things for reasons that are any different from a typical person (sometimes I find myself disappointed by my utter rapture in something both impractical and strange, like the history of carnival wrestling jargon). But we tend to be, in my experience, collectors and esotericists, often at the same time. The consumptiveness of our interest is sometimes hard to overstate. It’s what makes us so infamous.
One of my most vivid memories from grade school group therapy is of another boy whose every conversation would inexorably bend, sooner or later, to the Transformers’ “Beast Wars” TV series that he loved. By that age I had stopped talking so much about my interests to people other than my friends, either out of shyness or acknowledgement that other people were generally uncaring about what constituted the perfect late-game Fallout character build, in my opinion. That was just how such things went. Some of us are shamed into quietude, our fixations relegated to private rooms and endlessly circular arguments on message boards. But even then, the right (or wrong) question in polite company can open the floodgates. I can’t count the number of times I realized after the fact that I’d overwhelmed a conversation once the right chord was struck.
The consumerism underpinning most facets of geek culture abets our detection by some degree – when I was young, a boy decked out in all-Pokemon-everything was unmistakable (I hated Pokemon. It seemed to supplant and obliterate the naturally diverse and vibrant array of fascinations among my kin, like an imperial regime). A cynic might look at the convention-industrial complex as a caucus of sorts, and there’s something to be said for immersing in one’s passions in a more literal than figurative way, but there’s no woodwork that we emerge from. The industry came to meet us, not the other way around.
I would be remiss to issue the standard caveat, here, that intuition can never really hold up to good old fashioned clinical diagnosis. That I was made official does not give me a special mandate to condense and describe this rather complicated concept. But one can, and indeed many have, contest that the very mention of a “spectrum” admits a large degree of imprecision. Time was, the “spectrum” was a conceptual grouping of defined diagnoses nominally delineated by their present symptoms and severity: Pervasive Developmental Disorder (Not Otherwise Specified), my house on one end of the street, Asperger’s roughly in the middle, and full-blown autism at its most (supposedly) severe at the other. Now through the DSM V, the grouping itself is the diagnosis.
There’s a classic bit of baseball humor that post-structuralists tend to be fond of – three umpires discuss their approach to calling pitches. The first says “I call em like I see em”, the second says “I call em as they are”, and the third says “They’re nothing until I call them”. The implication in this context is that a psychiatric diagnosis like spectrum placement is imposed, not discovered, and thus serves as a means of roundly regulating public behavior, or erasing traditions of indigenous mysticism, or furthering other incalculably grand and nefarious cultural-systemic projects that segregate and silence. If that is indeed the case, then my glib deductions are as legitimate as any other diagnostic measure. But when the concept is pitched to me I feel what I imagine it’s like to be the patient of a behaviorist, being told that there is no mind, only reflex.
To wit, however obvious the institutional confusion over what constitutes an autist, it seems patently obvious to me that there are meaningful differences between the people I’ve known off and on (and between points upon) the spectrum. I was not made up to sell drugs. And though I can scarcely be blamed for seeing through the warped lens I was born with, a laissez-faire approach to my disorder can result in more than inconvenienced teachers. There are aspects of subjectivity that I may never understand in other people, but people are subjects nonetheless. That is real and it must be contended with. My fundamental uncertainty can make me gullible, skittish and rude. It can also foster intense loyalties and prevent me from taking others for granted. From the fond (and sometimes bemused) ways in which people I know speak of spectrum kids other than myself I imagine that’s fairly common.
I can’t honestly claim that the signs by which I identify those like me have any real utility (first-look assessments of character and temperament are probably less useful than they’re made out to be in general), but the personal benefit of scoping out such people is therapeutic in a sense. A life of interiority can easily chafe and irritate when you’re set adrift in the wild, and even the indirect signage of similar lived experiences seen in the wider world soothes to some extent. Like a common coat of arms glimpsed in a tattoo or a symbol worn about the neck, they give life to the idea that at some point in time someone felt and thought the things that you have when you had nothing but your own counsel, and they maintain their potency in memory even as when you relate to one another as ships passing in the night.
* It should be noted that such terminology is not without its vocal critics. I use the “functioning” distinctions based from my experiences within groups and interactions with other spectrum people, and their self-described degree of difficulty with like experiences and interactions.