Mimicry. You read just about anything regarding Autism…particularly high-functioning Autism– and you will find the term ‘mimicry’. I am all about Mimicry and have been consciously so since the age of six when began to learn in no uncertain terms from everyone that I was different, and different wasn’t a ‘good’ thing. I moved among other children the way a moth does among butterflies–lost and disoriented, blinded in daylight, unfiltered by glass–the harsh blue sky backdrop that holds none of the soft comfort of the twilight skies I so love-my pale, dull wings useless among such vivid and colorful joy.
“Why are you so quiet? What’s wrong with you?”
I didn’t speak much as a child, though I might be caught singing along to music when by myself. I was good at music–I could remember all the words of just about every song I ever heard at least once. For that matter, I could mimic most sounds, even some people, that I heard. I could understand everything everyone said–even things that didn’t make sense, I still understood the words–but I didn’t really feel the need to join in conversations–even with kids my own age. My childhood was one filled with domestic violence–if I had originally possessed an urge to speak, it would have certainly dissipated in that environment where it was far better not be seen or heard in regards to my father, and my mother was completely distant and beyond reach. I don’t remember being ‘parented’ much at all. I certainly don’t remember being hugged by my parents or shown any real affection though I saw such given to my younger siblings. I was never sure why, nor did I find this to be sad or feel loss over the lack. It just was. I was told often enough that I wasn’t normal and I can remember wondering if I was a ghost. I spent a good deal of time in my bedroom–we moved around a lot, and I always liked it when there was a tree outside my various windows. Lying on my bed for hours and watching the leaves make patterns in the light, casting shadows of themselves on my bedroom walls was a good thing to me.
“Why don’t you go play outside like a normal kid?”
I hated the outdoors. It was so bright outside and I am particularly uncomfortable in the slightest amount of heat. (It didn’t help that I am a redhead and have very pale, easily sunburned skin.) Summers were nightmares for me when my parents just wanted us out of the house. I would lay for hours under a tree in a patch of tall grass flattened beneath me into a circle so I wouldn’t feel the rough ends. I can remember watching bugs move about until it was almost too dark to see outside and we would be called in. I avoided other children during these times, even my siblings,…and tried to be somewhere quiet and shady. The fashion for girls in the late seventies around where we lived at the time was shorts, tube tops with little straps that went around your neck, and sandals. I hated the sandals–they rubbed at the wrong places on my feet and I despised the weird sucking feeling on the bottom of my feet when they would be wet from sweat or a puddle and would try to stick. The tube tops were worse. I was constantly ripping or chewing off the straps–I hated how they pulled on my neck and the material of the shirt was too rough-slick and too tight. Once I found a place I could hide from everyone, I would often take the top off completely (and earned myself a beating for that once when caught)–I had no idea why not wearing a shirt was a problem. I don’t think I understood the concept of body shame (or at least the expectation that one should have it) until I was ten. The shorts were cotton with elastic waistbands, so I could tolerate them fairly well.
I was however always fascinated and terrified of water at the same time and liked to find puddles, ponds, or play near the river. It was the ripples that I loved…the colors and patterns you could make in water–the feel of it. The local shopping mall had a fountain that people tossed pennies in. Occasionally my grandparents would take me there and I would be instructed to sit by the fountain (while they shopped) and be handed a small amount of pennies to ‘make wishes’–I wouldn’t move from the spot, they needn’t have worried. I don’t recall making any wishes–but I do remember the ripples of the cascading water, the color of the copper against the blue tiles of the fountain, and the lovely ‘plop’ sound the pennies I dropped into made.
“Eat what’s in front of you or you will sit at this table all night!”, “Don’t sniff your food.”
Dinner time was a battle I didn’t know I was having with my parents for many years. My father in particular hated everything about the way I ate. I was often told by him that I didn’t ‘eat right’–I chewed too loud, ate too fast, ate too slow, or was too picky. I also sniffed any food I would have on my plate…some smells made me want to throw up. Sometimes I did and got in trouble for it. I didn’t like certain colors of food…and many vegetables tasted metallic or like dirt to me. As I wasn’t allowed to leave the table until I cleaned my plate, I would often fall asleep there until my father would shake me, bid me clean up the table/wash dishes and then send me to bed. I would therefore gorge on foods I did like when my parents weren’t around–only to get in trouble and face food restrictions/withholding as punishment.
I didn’t like anything spicy and to this day, I still don’t. I have eaten and still do eat a very bland diet. Most foods I eat are similar in color, mouth-feel, and have subtle tastes. I eat pizza with very little sauce and just cheese for a topping. If I have a burger, it’s just meat, cheese, and ketchup. I’m forty five years old now and you still can’t make me eat broccoli or soup with any kind of beans in it. I can become physically sick and throw up upon smelling things like cabbage or green beans cooking. I can count on one hand the number of vegetables I tolerate and the same for fruit. Recently I have found out I am severely gluten-intolerant…this bothers me as it will further deplete my already limited food choices. Given my extreme taste sensitivities, most gluten-free foods make me sick and/or taste so bad I can’t deal with them. To make matters worse, I love to bake–the feel of perfectly soft dough in my hands and the smell of warm rolls baking in the oven has been a great sense of calmness for me over the years. What will I do now?
“Look at me when I’m talking to you!”
Looking directly at people has always bothered me…or at least it did/does when I am forced to do so–I can’t say that I ever noticed I didn’t until it was pointed out to me. I know I saw people. Outside of those closest to me, I have a lot of trouble putting names to faces. I’m just not good at it and it can take me a long time to link up a particular face to a name. Sometimes I will run into someone at the store and they will start talking to me, addressing me by name and I have no idea who they are! When I was a kid, I know it angered my father….it made him shout if I didn’t look at him and he would often shake me because I ‘wasn’t paying attention’ to something he was telling me. I was, actually–I just don’t think I knew how I was expected to show I was. I would never look much at anyone. People confused me…and I can remember understanding sometime in the sixth grade, that people didn’t always say what they meant–that faces could lie–sometimes voices could lie–and sometimes a facial expression would mean one thing but what someone said or how they said it most likely meant something else. It was very confusing and I can remember worrying about it a great deal. As an adult, I am now more aware that people expect you to look at them when you talk to them…but it makes me very uncomfortable and I fail to do so more often than not. I don’t understand why looking at someone when you are talking to them is so important to NT’s–if they need to cue each other to this degree to understand who is speaking to whom–they must not pay very good attention to others at all.
“Don’t pretend you don’t hear me!”
I heard everything–but I don’t think I must have reacted the way I was supposed to–because I got yelled at for this a lot–as though I was deliberately trying to ignore my parents or siblings. I heard everything they said–I just couldn’t figure out what they wanted me to do about things sometimes. I always seemed to pick the ‘wrong’ thing to do, to respond with. It got to where talking to anyone became an anxiety riddled problem that I would avoid at all costs. Our house, with the exception of my sister who never stopped talking, was usually silent. I could hear my parents talking lowly and watching television when my dad wasn’t at work…but during the day, after school (or when we weren’t attending school) my mother would watch television and I don’t think we would speak the entire day–sometimes days. There never seemed to be a need. I can’t think of anything I would have said to her. I knew she was my mother…we just didn’t have anything to say to each other. She wasn’t mean to me–she just wasn’t there. If anything, we had a shared…I wouldn’t call it happiness but more like…acceptance…in our preference for the times that my father/her husband wasn’t around and, minus his loudness, silence was a balm to us both. When that wasn’t enough, she drank from clear glass bottles.
“Why are you dressed like that, go put on something normal.”
I have always liked dark colors–and loose fitting clothing. Had I my way, I would have dressed in the roman style my whole life–simple, toga style–only the material would have been black (or a very dark, forest green) and soft as the softest, tag-less cotton t-shirts available nowadays. AND BAREFOOT. I despise shoes and would just as soon never wear them. I dressed in a baggy, uncoordinated fashion–and I didn’t care. I had zero desire to look like others my age whether they teased me or not. I barely noticed anyone my age and between the third and sixth grades had two friends; come junior high–I had one. To make matters worse, I hit puberty at age ten. I had the body of a sixteen year old in the fifth grade–something that got me attention I neither understood nor knew how to handle. My parents did not allow me to attend sex education classes at school (not that I particularly cared)–and they told me nothing of the subject at home. The first time I got my monthly cycle, I thought I was dying. When I informed my parents of my imminent death and why I believed I was about to die, they looked at me like they did when I would say or do something that was wrong. Of course, I had announced this at the dinner table. I was curtly told by my father that I was not dying and that my mother would ‘take care of it’ after dinner. I was not to speak at the table of such things again. My mother later told me ‘how to take care of things when it happened’, and that I wasn’t to talk about it to anyone—but I wouldn’t know for another three years WHY it happened and I never asked–I just accepted that it was like, as so many other things were, something everyone else understood and I didn’t. When my mother took us to the second hand stores to buy school clothes…I chose mostly black or dark green–colors which have and still do comfort me–I can disappear into them….and things that were baggy–often two sizes too big. My mother didn’t say anything providing I wasn’t naked when I walked out the door.
“Don’t stare like that.”
If I wasn’t getting yelled at for NOT making eye contact, I was being yelled at for staring. Staring at people, staring at flickering light in the window via the leaves outside (I have always loved trees and the way light filters through their leaves, so lovely)…shielding my eyes and watching the dust motes dance or just plain ‘checking out’ and looking into nothing as I thought through so many things that always seemed to be in my mind at the same time.
“Stop wandering around at night/stay in bed.”
I never could sleep properly. I have always wandered about at night and can rarely sleep more than four or five hours at a stretch. When I was younger, I am told I slept walk…but I don’t think I did–I can remember clear back to being three years old…and I remember leaving my room for specific reasons. My preferred thing to do was stand and look out of the windows at night. I love the feel of glass. I like looking through glass–and i LOVE (have a borderline obsession with) stained glass. A pair of sheer curtains, moonlight, and a window are all I need for complete peace–unless the sheers are that kind of material that looks soft but feels–scratchy. I don’t like that at all. Another thing I liked at night were the moths. They like glass and light too. I knew this because they would cling to the globe of the porch lights. I liked white moths the best (White being my favorite color–though I wouldn’t wear it) and used to wish I was one. Their wings reminded me of the white sheer panels that my mother always hung in the living room windows. I would love to be a sheer bit of wisp, floating in the night in search of light behind glass…I would enjoy being a moth, but not a butterfly–
In school, it was worse:
“Does not play with others/does not make friends”
“Sits alone and does not play at recess”, “Does not participate in PE”
“Can’t spell or read”, “Unable to write her name/writes slowly and laboriously”, “reads instead of paying attention in class”, “does not turn in homework”, “doesn’t test well”, “doesn’t apply herself”, “does not fit in well with other children”
I could in fact read, and could do so from a very young age. I want to say I was three or four years old the first time I realized that I could read the newspaper or magazine that whatever adult who’s lap I was sitting on at the time had out in front of them–but people rarely believe that a child that young can read. I can remember being told I was bad in spelling–and I remember having trouble writing words down correctly–but reading…reading I almost think I could always do. The very first time I used the telephone in my parent’s house, I was maybe ten–when they were away from home I saw a television commercial for some books that were ‘handsomely bound in imitation leather with gilded pages’…for a low price, send no money now. I called the toll-free number, imitated my mother’s voice to perfection–I knew the bright voice that she used–her ‘phone voice’, and ordered them. A couple of weeks later, a box arrived at the house with my name on it. My mother watched me open it and soon discovered what I’d done. In the end I was allowed to keep the books as my mother had a terse conversation with the company–letting them know they had sent the books to a child. Though she couldn’t imagine why I’d wanted them as, ‘they didn’t even have pictures to look at’…I was nonetheless allowed to keep them. I read them cover to cover many times–both the, “Works of Victor Hugo”, and “The Works of Rudyard Kipling”–it was Kipling’s “The Lover’s Litany” that showed me just how lovely words could be…their flow, their meaning… how a good writer could weave a picture so clearly in a reader’s mind….I was hooked. My love of books would sustain me when education failed me.
Originally school for me was torture. The smells, the people, the kids, teachers, staff….gymnasiums were the worst…cafeterias too. I was expected to pay attention in class. I didn’t. School bored me and the other kids knew I was ‘different’ and would often cause me great distress. I would get in trouble for not being able to answer questions. I would get in trouble for not doing homework that I didn’t even know was assigned. I didn’t test well and would often fail exams on things I knew better than anyone in my class. By fifth grade I was put on the chess team and did very well, though I was the only girl and made no friends. In competitions with other schools, I had done well enough to get to go to the statewide competition, but after announcing our team had made it, my teacher took me aside after class and told me that I wouldn’t be going, that the boy in the rank below me would because it would be too difficult to ‘take one girl with a bunch of boys’…but I would be allowed to go to get ice cream with my team beforehand. It never occurred to me to protest or tell my parents about this conversation. I accepted the fact that the ‘chair’ I had earned was going to be given to a lesser player because he was a boy and I wasn’t. It never entered my mind that this was wrong, besides, I remember wanting to get ice cream. These things happened to me a lot, and it is only now, looking back, that I realize what happened or have even begun to understand the ‘whys’….In sixth grade we had a book fair and competition to see who could read the most books–students would turn in a list every week of the books they read and a paper ‘book’ would be taped up in the hallway outside their classroom with their name and the title of the book they had read written on it. These would be tallied later to find the ‘winner’. I would have won by a landslide, (and our class would have won the pizza party for most books read) but my teacher didn’t believe I had read all the books I turned in on my lists, so he put one ‘book’ up a week with my name on it to show I was participating. I didn’t question this either or tell anyone.
I sang in the concert choir and played the cello in elementary and junior high as well–I couldn’t read music no matter how hard I tried,…so I would just listen, and learned to play by ear (I had perfect pitch, so singing was no problem either). Soon I had entire pieces in my head–I eventually got to play in the Youth and Junior Symphony in my state–but that would end when my father became angry at my math and science grades in school–because I excelled in reading, writing, and history–he felt I was simply being lazy and ‘not applying myself’ in the subjects I ‘didn’t like’–nothing I could say to him could make him understand that I simply could not understand math, much less science. It was just not possible in his mind that someone could do well in some subjects and utterly fail others–and I could not explain this to him either as I didn’t understand it myself. Eventually he did go down to the school and had me removed from all music classes..and I lost another of my ways to escape the world.
As mentioned, I sucked at math, and still do–while I’m on the subject, I just want to state for the record that mathematical ability is not and should not be considered the end all to determine intelligence. The eighth grade was my last completed formal year of education in my childhood years. It was the year before I went into foster care and also the year I received the National Presidential Award for Literature (signed by Reagan). Despite it going unrecognized up until that point, I had become a reader of all things, a poet, and writer. I was reading, at that time, in excess of eight hundred pages a day when left to my own devices–now I can devour multiple books a day and it is not uncommon for me to read three or four novels in a single sitting. Yes I understand what I’m reading, and yes, I remember what I read pretty much forever–not photographically and not usually the author’s names either.
I could never get the handle on math though…algebra was beyond me–it simply made no sense and still doesn’t. HOWEVER, give me some long division and I will blow you away. Long division was and is the only form of math I don’t despise and am in fact quite good at. This makes no sense to me and I have no idea why I can do this–It took me until the eighth grade just to learn the multiplication tables.
I sporadically was sent to various high schools in the ninth grade–but I was never there for more than a few weeks here and there–and eventually, I would stop going altogether. Instead, I would spend all my time at the public library–how’s that for odd? If I was enrolled in a school, I would skip it and head to the library…if I was in an abusive foster home, I would try to be gone all day by hiding at the library. I would often get there shortly after it opened, and stay until it nearly closed. (Walking there would take about an hour.) Eventually I would learn to buy a hot pretzel downtown and smuggle it into the library in my coat. Between that and the drinking fountain there, I was set for a midday meal. Otherwise, I would find a quiet, unoccupied corner in the library and sit down and read. If a librarian became curious about my being around, I would hide–in the bathroom, in various media rooms under tables…whatever it took. Usually no one knew I was even still there–a couple of nights I even spent the night. Oh how I loved my British Literature! If I had a true father, it would be Dickens, a mother–Charlotte Bronte (Jane Eyre and I were twin sisters)…Tennyson was a kindly uncle; and I didn’t miss out on American Literature either…Alcott was my auntie and had I ever met the man, I’m sure Henry James and I would have written wonderful letters to each other. There was never enough time in a day for me to read all I wanted. (I read other things too–histories, books about moths, architecture, and anything else that interested me.)
The next time I would set foot in school, I would be thirty eight, almost thirty nine years old. That, in case you are wondering, is a twenty-four year gap in my education. I don’t remember exactly why, but one day, I just decided I wanted to go to college. Wanting to understand what made people do the things they did, say the things they did, and act the way they did–I decided I wanted to be a psychologist. I went to my local community college and asked what the requirements were to go to school there. The fact that I had no diploma or GED didn’t seem to matter, so long as I could ‘test in’. I made the appointment, paid the test fee, and was shown to a computer in the testing room. Not long after (I finished relatively quickly) I came back to the room and waited. I was giving a slip with my scores on it. I had tested extremely well in everything but math–math I completely tanked in. Regardless, I was allowed entry to college having met or exceeded the other test scores needed. (I was told I could take ‘extra classes’ to ‘make up the math’. I enrolled the next available term–but soon changed my major after getting a recommendation by an English professor that I take a creative writing class with a particular instructor that, my professor thought, would be a good experience for me. It was the best advice I’d ever been given. The instructor of the class I was referred to would become my mentor–I changed my major to English with an Emphasis in Writing, and never looked back—-at least not until lately when I have begun to wonder if my love of creative writing is yet another way I have of avoiding the world…I don’t know, but I’m thinking about it…and probably would still like to work in psychology–not that I will ever be able to do anything.
Despite achieving honor roll (all but one term in which I had taken a required Speech class–Interpersonal Communication Skills, in which I got a C grade), I would never achieve my AA degree–because of math. Despite having all A’s and one B in all my other classes–Literature, Poetry, Writing, Humanities, Foreign Studies, Sociology, Psychology, etc…etc.. I could not pass math–because I couldn’t pass math, I couldn’t get into science classes–because I couldn’t do math or take science, I was unable to fulfill the degree requirements–and therefore, could not graduate. The fact that I would never use either math or science in my chosen career, which was to be a professor of English Literature/Writing…didn’t seem to matter to anyone. I left college convinced more than ever that something was wrong with me–that I would never fit in anywhere–that someone like me simply couldn’t belong; there would always be someone to tell me I couldn’t do something because I did something else ‘wrong’.
For as much as I gained in college in terms of writing and thinking, my foray into higher education cost me more than another stab at my self worth…it cost me my marriage as well–but that’s another blog for another time. For now, all I guess I really want to say with these little snippets of what I was ‘taught’….is that I learned all the ways I was wrong, all the ways I didn’t fit, didn’t belong–each one of these experiences, and so many more, taught me how to act more like someone I’m not; to hide in plain sight. I learned that to be different was to risk censure… So now, I only come out at night when no one is around, when it’s safe,…when I can spread my pale oh-so-fragile wings and seek behind the glass the light that everyone else seems to embrace and take for granted– but I will never touch for myself–because I am different, and you can only see me if you are in the dark too.
During the day, when I sometimes have to be among you–you would be hard-pressed to pick me out of a crowd and that’s only IF you noticed I was there to begin with. I have gotten so good at ‘the mask’…that I can pass as one of you to all but the most observant. I watch you every day–and I learn how to pretend to be like you–because while I can accept you–you lack the ability to accept someone like me,…and I’m not sure why. What I do know is that for all NT’s talk about Autistic people having no empathy, being rigid and set in their routines–it does not seem to always be us who lack empathy, require others to meet rigid standards and cooperate with their routines–NT’s do a fine job of that themselves and I for one–an Autistic woman–FEEL SORRY for those of you who miss the amazing people all around you as they hide behind their masks so that YOU feel comfortable–so that YOU don’t have to be flexible,…because we know that YOU often can’t empathize with what you don’t understand.
Drops her mask and flutters away…