Autism and Me, Part Two: Coping Strategies Good, Bad, and Atrocious

Remember that Asperger’s didn’t exist in the 70’s and 80’s. Autism was for little boys who rocked, hit their heads against things, and didn’t talk. There wasn’t a spectrum. There wasn’t even a concept beyond the binary of “Autistic” and “Not Autistic”. Heck, it wasn’t even until the middle of the 80’s that someone suggested the correlation between vaccines and Autism.

I was a kid when the MMR vaccine came to my neck of the woods. I queued up like everyone else for the thing despite having had measles and rubella. I never caught the mumps, and I think I’m glad of that. I was a child for the era in which measles could kill a kid. Hell, I had schoolmates who thought I had died, the year I caught all the spots. They were greatly disappointed that I was still alive, but that’s not the point of this particular diatribe.

Despite the lack of diagnosis, despite the lack of a vaccine to “make me” Autistic, despite the presence or concentration of fluoride in the water… [I was a tank water brat until seven, I think] I am Autistic, and I always have been. Autism didn’t “steal away” the “real me” and replace me with a changeling child like the Fair Folk in the barrow… No. I am and always have been Autistic.

My mother is certainly on the spectrum, though she refuses to collect a diagnosis for her own reasons. My dad was on the spectrum just a little less, and never got a diagnosis either. Their diagnoses were of “peculiar” or “weird” or a collection of insults from the cornucopia of ableism. For the more obvious symptom set, people had “r*tard” as both slur and diagnosis to deal with.

In another era, myself or my children would have been thrown into an institution and left there to rot because we weren’t ‘normal’. But I digress. Again.

I was not a normal child. Even if I had put in an effort at performative normalcy, I think the effort would have been spotted as a sham. As a child, I despised prevarication and deception in all social forms, though I could understand why deception was necessary for -say- Doctor Who or Star Trek. Those things were obviously pretend for entertainment and I could deal with that.

…I was also allowed to watch procedural dramas like Quincy, which involved autopsies and death and good old-fashioned murder. I still love that kind of detective work. There’s nothing like it for morbid fascination.

What I could not deal with was people lying to me, trying to get me to believe or do things so that (a) I would get into trouble, and (b) they could have a good laugh about that. I did not like two-faced people. I did not like people who treated me like an idiot because I was that slightest bit odd.

I did not deal well with the people who sought me out just to hurt me.

What they hoped to accomplish – I can only guess at. You can’t bully the weirdness out of someone, no matter how hard the effort is. You can’t force a person to be someone or something they’re not. The fact that I refused to force myself to conform angered them, that’s true, but… it wasn’t my fault they got angry about it.

I learned early that there were some things that could not be helped. We were a low-ish-income household and certain things took priority. Bills above fashionable clothes, for instance. We kept our own chickens because free eggs and the occasional free roast chook. We kept cows, initially for the milk, but also for the eventual beef that we slaughtered and butchered ourselves.

This… for reasons I can not fathom… was even stranger to my peers. There was a rumour that my little family of three ate an entire cow carcass off the bone, leaving the skeleton hanging off the block and tackle. Which, of course, came back to me just so they’d see how I’d react.

I learned pretty early that attempting to correct them was wasted effort. They could live in a dreamland where beef and chicken came in plastic wrappers at Jack the Slasher’s all they liked, and pretend that eggs magically appeared in cardboard cartons, too. No matter what I said about it, they would continue to believe whatever let them spread the worst stuff about the School Victim.

Denial was as good as confession and confession – no matter how sarcastic – was better than gold for them. I could never fathom what could lead them to such a twisted conclusion, but this is the kind of thinking that leads to Flat Earthers and foil hat conspiracy theorists attempting to shoot down contrails with mind lasers.

So my first real strategy was: Give up and stay quiet.

If it didn’t matter what I said, why should I say anything. Attempts at communication were pointless, so I stopped attempting. Of course, this only encouraged them to get worse at it, use That Voice on me [covered last week] and -of course- get violent.

I could not get violent back. Whenever I defended myself, it was me and not them who wound up doing lines or getting The Cuts [barbaric tradition of capital punishment. Students were struck on hand or leg with a cane or a ruler] so simple retaliation was out of the question.

Therefore, my next strategy was: Hide.

I found the places where nobody went. I lurked in dark corners or inhabited spaces where nobody would dare attack because there were persons of authority within easy shouting distance. They could call me a coward for that, but the truly cowardly were the ones who wanted to attack without consequence.

Not that that stopped them all the time. They could get to me between the classroom and my destination of relative safety. They could get to me when the supervision was busy with a distraction. They could get to me after the supervision had knocked off for the day.

And, when the schools instituted policies that forbade such safe retreats… they could just get to me. But that happened much later.

At some point, during this endless, daily stream of verbal and physical abuse, some of my peers thought they could make me cry by calling me ‘weird’. Really. They thought that not being ‘normal’ was the worst thing in the world to be.

That was the origin of my one successful strategy: Laugh at them.

If they called me ‘weird’, then I would own it. I loved it. I relished it. I laughed at them about it. Of course they found worse things to call me, worse things to do to me, but that? That was one of my rare victories.

I wish I had had the wits to disarm their volleys like that all the time. Ah, for a time machine and a decent script…

When my high school decided that students should confine themselves to the footpaths at break times… I had never been more vulnerable. Attack could come at any angle. It frequently did. The school policy may have eliminated petty vandalism, but it never stopped a single bully from their affairs.

My last strategy, one I still don’t understand, was: Become invisible.

I can skate under someone’s radar. I can evade notice. Practice and pressure made me quiet, but this was the last ingredient I needed to just… fade into the background. With nowhere to hide, I learned to hide in plain sight.

It was not effective. People I never wanted to notice me… could pick me out from sixty feet away. People I wanted to see me… rarely did. I had to work to attract wanted attention. Just like I had to work to avoid the unwanted stuff.

As the song says, I’ve been insulted, disrespected… I’ve been mistreated. I’m willing to bet money that all the people so offended by my existence back in the day have completely forgotten both who I am and what they did to me. If I turned up on the red carpet tomorrow, I will suddenly have been their best friend forever and so forth.

It’s taken me a long time to shrug off their hurtful words. It’s taken me literal decades to move past the inherent resentment for the systems that were, for the imperfect people in power who could not -or would not- see what was going on.

I have never recovered from one simple hypothetical. If I had died in those years, if I had somehow perished from a combination of abuse and depression… most, if not all of the student body would have cheered.

That’s a pretty horrible atmosphere to be soaking in whilst one is still forming oneself.

I mean… I’m glad I made it. I’m glad I’m somewhat successful now. I’m glad I’m approaching some semblance of mental stability, but… god damn, people! That is not a healthy way of viewing a living, breathing person with hopes and dreams and whatnot.

I did not deserve any of that horseshit, no matter how weird or strange or poor I was.

Coming to that realisation… Waking up to that simple fact? It’s what convinced me that I would never take a cure for Autism even if they managed to find one.

I never want to be that unthinking. I never want to be that uncaring. I never want to be that dead in heart and head.

I’m never going to be them. I never want to be them, either.

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