May 15, 2014
By M. Kelter
When I think about what it means to be on the autism spectrum, I often think back to the first moments that I became aware of the differences between others and myself. It's an awareness that happened repeatedly, in different contexts, early in life; then, on a regular basis thereafter. That's the interesting thing about the spectrum: there is no singular difference that defines you. Every perception and every thought carries with it a distinguishing characteristic. This is true for all people, really. However, it's a difference that is even more pronounced when you are on the spectrum and living in a neurotypical world.
Still, I can pin down the first period of time that I became aware of being different. It was a time when I was very focused on crayons. I was four years old, maybe five. I remember that I liked to pull the paper covering off of each crayon. I would start at the top, and gently work downward and sideways. I’d go about it slowly, trying to get it all off in a single, unwinding tear. With any new box my parents gave me, I would open it, take the crayons out one at a time, rip the paper from each one, and then flush the pile of shreds down the toilet.
The crayons, once freed, were pleasant to hold. The way they felt, sort of like plastic, hard and soft at the same time, was nice. The wrappers, on the other hand, were too raspy and had too much texture. I didn't like those. Crayon-smell was also very intense, at least with a few of the colors. Blue crayons I could smell all day. They had a sort of light, neutral odor that I loved. Red ones were alluring, in a sharp and magnetic way. Green crayons, on the other hand…they had to go. They smelled awful. As soon as I opened a new box, I had to take the green crayon out and hide it. Sometimes, I would hide it under a couch cushion or throw it into the trashcan. On at least one occasion, I opened the front door and hurled it as far as I could. This confused my parents. I either had no reaction to the other colors or have forgotten what the reaction was. Blue. Red. Green. Those were the standouts.
I soon learned that mom and dad hated the paper shredding. They would look on, perplexed and ask, “Why are you tearing up your new crayons?” I found this to be a strange question. I was obviously improving the crayons, yet they found my efforts to be destructive. I did my best to educate them. I responded with words. Then lectures. Then dissertations. They responded with reprimands. Then polite nods. Then silence.
My explanations were falling flat, which was deeply confusing. Words had always seemed so completely sufficient. I trusted words. I was an early reader, precocious. Yet, something was happening…words were failing to bring my parents and me together over an issue that, to my way of thinking, couldn’t have been more obvious.
Confusion began to settle over my heart. What I couldn’t have known at the time: other people were not having the same perceptual experiences. The scents and wrappers didn’t bother my parents. They weren’t bothering my teachers or other students. It didn’t matter that I could explain (without hesitation) what I was doing. I could not explain why.
Whatever age this was, where the crayons were an issue…this is my first memory of language and reality clashing. This is when a subtle tension began to whisper in my ear, “Something is off-key. Something is happening.” It was a jarring moment because it was my first awareness of being out of sync with others (or of them being out of sync with me). It became a pattern that I would see over and over in my life: having an experience, finding out others were reacting in very different ways, and then having to problem solve why that was happening.
Not long after that first awareness of my differences, I entered the social world. This began a whole new phase of struggling to make sense of myself. Maybe around the age of six or so, I began making efforts to create friendships, to mesh with others. For reasons I couldn't understand then, all of those efforts backfired. Instead of making friends, I seemed to push people away. Childhood gave way to adolescence and, at no point in time, did making friends become easier. I tried everything I could think of...making jokes, sharing stories. I was too awkward to make those connections happen. On the good days, I was merely rejected. On the bad days, bullying would ensue. Over time, it became increasingly clear that I was experiencing significant social delays; friendships, romantic relationships, these things would prove elusive even as I left adolescence and entered adulthood.
Again, life felt out of sync. Attempts by my mind to superimpose itself on the world faltered, endlessly. It was only at the age of 30, after I'd received a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder, that I was able to look back and piece together what was happening. The diagnosis brought self-understanding. I could finally make sense of these various challenges, both with sensory issues and social pragmatics. I finally began to live a life in sync; not with others necessarily, but with myself. That's okay. That's a start. Every day brings new challenges, along with new opportunities to navigate the complexity of the social world. It's a challenge I've learned to enjoy, now that I'm operating with a stronger sense of self, a self more in sync with it's own unique lens on the world.
About the Author
M. Kelter is a writer for Autism Parenting Magazine. At his personal blog, "Invisible Strings," he writes about his ongoing efforts to decode the social world.