My college diploma arrived today:
It feels good to check “college graduate” off my list of Important Life Accomplishments, but I got something far more important out of college than a degree.
I got Asperger’s Syndrome.
Not literally, of course. I was born with Asperger’s, but I managed to get through more than four decades of my life without knowing it. The process of attending classes made me realize how different I am from most people. Until I ventured out onto campus, I’d carefully structured my life in a way that let me avoid having to face my differences too often or too blatantly.
I’ve been my own boss since I was 19, which has allowed me to decide who I work with and how. I make the rules. I decide what’s acceptable workplace behavior. Walking around in my socks? Yes! Bringing my dog to work? Why not? Eating lunch in my office with the door closed? Totally normal.
By ensuring that I was the one making the rules, I wrapped myself in a cocoon of relative safety. If I didn’t want to do something, I delegated it, hired someone to do it, or avoided it.
Taking classes at a university forced me to follow someone else’s rules if I wanted to succeed. I was judged on not only my academic work but my communication skills. My ideas were subject to scrutiny. I had to make presentations and work in teams. There was no locked door to hide behind while I ate lunch.
This was a lot to put up with. On the other hand, I really wanted to get a degree, to prove that I might be a little late, but I could make it through college.
I did my best to fit in where I could. When things got rough, I sucked it up and muddled through, telling myself that as a ‘returning student’, most of the young people in my class were going to look at me funny anyhow.
It’s hard to say when I went from thinking “I’m a little odd” to “maybe there’s something systemically different about me.” The process was a lot like putting together a puzzle–connecting pieces here and there, assembling bits of the scene but not being able to see the whole picture until dozens of those little connections are made.
A few of the key puzzle pieces:
- The sociology class assignment that asked me to describe a time when someone’s body language didn’t match their words. My initial response: What body language? When we shared our answers in class, I discovered how unusual it is to not instinctively notice body language.
- The way professors so often asked me if I had a question or looked at me while asking something like is everyone following what I’m saying? I didn’t know it at the time, but I often frown (a sign of confusion) when I’m concentrating.
- The universal look of surprise I got from professors after the first test or paper was graded. I rarely speak in class and when I do, it’s a crapshoot whether I’ll completely misinterpret a question, give an off-the-wall response or get the right answer. But write a 30-page paper about the economic impacts of environmental regulation? Yeah, I’m all over that.
Everything Becomes Illuminated on a Random Winter Day
It wasn’t until I came across a feature story on Asperger’s Syndrome last winter that the puzzle pieces started to reveal the bigger picture. While I’d heard of Asperger’s, I’d never considered that it might be something that applied to me. Sure I could see myself in the some of the symptoms, but who didn’t? It was easy to explain away the similarities.
I’d told myself that having Asperger’s was similar to being shy–like a really bad case of shyness–which made it easy to write off. I wasn’t that shy was I? I had a job, a child, a husband. I interacted with people when necessary.
I carefully avoided the qualifiers. I had a job that I’d structured around all of my little neuroses. I had a child to whom I’d stopped saying the words “I love you” as soon as she was old enough to talk. I had a husband who was growing increasingly frustrated with my often cold, controlling behavior. I interacted with people when necessary and no more.
There is a certain element of good fortune that allowed me to get away with all of the hacks and workarounds I’d devised to compensate for my deficits. Through a combination of luck and a willingness to take risks that a lot people wouldn’t, I’d managed to create an environment that capitalized on what I could do and masked all of the things I couldn’t do.
Being in school upset the delicate balance I’d worked so hard to cobble together and suddenly it became hard to avoid the qualifiers.
When I read that feature story, I felt like the writer was talking about me. Not about someone like me, about me. I don’t know what made that story different from the others I’d read about Asperger’s (and there had been many–my fascination with AS alone should have been a big red flag that my subconscious was trying to tell me something).
Maybe I was finally ready to see the big picture and I’d assembled enough of the little clusters of puzzle pieces to make that possible. Whatever the cause, the result was a feeling of lightness–like Asperger’s Syndrome was this giant bucket that would hold all of the things about myself that I’d found confusing and painful and shameful and frustrating and hard. Maybe putting those things in the bucket would mean that I wouldn’t have to juggle them anymore.
Intrigued, I did some more reading and it quickly became obvious that Asperger’s is more than a collection of social and communication problems.
There were dozens of little tells that were undeniably me and had nothing to do with being shy or introverted. The way I often talk too loudly or too quietly. The intense interests in unusual topics. My blunt honesty. My heavy dependence on lists and routines. The way I don’t recognize people “out of context.” My discomfort with compliments. The list was long enough for me to finally admit that it might be a good idea to get evaluated.
As hard as that admission was, once it became clear that I have Asperger’s, my first reaction was relief. It explained so much about my life that I’d thought was my fault–for not trying hard enough or being good enough. It wasn’t an excuse but it was a hell of a good explanation.
Armed with that explanation, I’ve immersed myself in learning more about how my brain works and how that impacts my life. As I’ve learned more about Asperger’s and about myself, the initial relief has given way to a rollercoaster of emotions: anger, grief, resentment, fear, surprise, confusion, acceptance, joy, optimism and increasingly a deep, liberating sense of quiet.
So yeah, the diploma is nice, but what came with it–the knowledge that I have Asperger’s Syndrome–is something that’s changed my life.