I've been reading the book Neurotribes. I haven't finished it yet, but I've enjoyed it. Or maybe enjoyed isn't quite the word. I've been haunted by it. I've been frightened by it. I've been powerfully reminded of everything about myself that I grew up being ashamed of. I've been reminded of my strengths. To explain why this book has so much power to me, lets imagine you are reading a choose your own adventure book, where you choose when and where to go in a time machine and learn what kind of life you would have lived in a different time and place.
Imagine for just a moment, that you choose the time machine switch to learn how it would have been like to have lived several hundred years ago in Colonial America. You step off the time machine, and discover the alternate you who lives in this time line invariably ends up being imprisoned and tortured on the presumption of being demonically possessed. Wow, that ending is scary. Flip back a few pages and now instead turn the dial and try out about 75 years ago in many places in the United States. That should be safer right? Well, instead of being tortured to drive out demons, instead you are imprisoned in a home for the feeble minded and are forcibly castrated to prevent you from spreading mental degeneracy through your presumed sexual perversion which would presumably lead you to father more degenerate perverts like you. Wait, who is defining perversion here? Ok, 75 years can't be all that crazy maybe lets try Europe this time. Oops, landed in Germany. One day your mom drops you off at the local hospital because you're sick and the doctor determines you are life not worthy of life and human ballast to be thrown off the ship of state to allow the noble Aryan workers to have a higher average standard of living. You die of starvation and exposure outside the back of the clinic, are secretly cremated along with hundreds of other "defectives" and then a note is sent home to your parents explaining you died of natural causes and a bill is given to them for your cremation. Ok, so this time machine trip is getting kind of scary. Try again and again and again. Over and over, you are institutionalized, forced to endure absurd medical treatments like an experimental rat, and are abandoned by parents who presume somehow its all their fault and they need to let you go to move on with their lives. Had enough with the choose your own adventure story? Lets zoom back to the present.
But, you ask, how could that possibly happen to someone as bright and as accomplished as you? Easy. I was a very late talker. Apparently I had such a need for perfection that I practiced talking in normal phrases in what I thought was secret and managed to keep the secret so well that I shocked my parents by moving from speaking no more than one or two words at a time to speaking in full sentences all at once. I was a late reader, not independently reading much of any of the normal children's literature until the 3rd grade, when I immediately picked up the Hobbit, Asimov's Foundation Series, Lloyd Alexander, and C. S. Lewis. I read compulsively from then on. I had strong sensory needs, throwing tantrums if my clothes still had the tags attached, unable to eat foods with mixed textures, or pay attention in class if anything was wrong about my sensory environment such as being too hot or cold or too loud. My special ed instructors and school counselors knew there was something wrong that made it almost impossible for me to hold normal conversations and that my ability to instinctively see things from other points of view was limited. I was the little kid who sat in the same exact spot in the lunchroom every day even if the table was completely empty, which it often was, because I had few or no friends and changing my routine to sit somewhere else would break my established routine. So yeah, the insane asylums with their unique loving brands of torture, castration, experimentation, or, in the case of Germany, euthanasia would have been waiting for me if I had been born in most of the past.
In the grand scheme of history, the science of autism is only more recently emerging from being a speculative endeavor filled with fads promoted by over sized personalities. It is still semi normal for advocacy organizations supposedly working in my interest to spend time talking about how much better the world would be without people like me because I'm supposedly such a heavy a burden on everyone around me. It's still semi normal to hear of religious leaders trying exorcise the autism out kids It's only recently that I could receive a diagnosis that was terribly specific to my situation at all. It's only recently that technology allowed robust communities to be formed for people like me. It's only recently that those communities have fostered support networks that make it easier to develop any kind of positive self image.
As I'm getting further into Neruotribes the story keeps becoming more and more positive, with more emphasis of now society has improved. But if a story like what I've ready read through doesn't leave you haunted and at least a little emotionally exhausted, you might not have read it the first time.
5 weeks ago