We Aspie’s or Aspergerians, you can call us either, really make great actors and actresses. But then again, we have to – at least for the first parts of our lives. This article is part of my Life with Asperger’s series.
I grew up in the south as a child, on a small farm that was, at the time, pretty isolated from the rest of the local community. I always figured that was the main reason I lacked a robust set of childhood friends. But even as I grew older, obtained some independence and was able to drive, etc. I still noticed the pattern continued. It would be another decade after college before I’d fully understand the reason for much of my experiences up until that point, but I’d just come to the conclusion for a long time that I was just “weird;” or perhaps more appropriately like I’d hear, “he’s just a little different.”
I was different and I knew it early in life. When most kids at age three or four were probably interested in playing with their toys alone – I was already pondering bigger thoughts about not only my world, but also the universe I lived in at large. I was especially fascinated with machines, space, time, and dinosaurs – which are common interests or passions for aspie kids, even though at the time no one knew or even thought to look up the word “Aspie” or “Aspergers.” I would and could tell you just about everything you’d ever want to know about certain dino’s and I can still confuse most people on anything related to space and time – just by asking them to define either (think about it).
My differences didn’t bother me for a long time in my youth – even though they did make me stand out. I remember more vividly than some might imagine my days in preschool and kindergarten where some kids just didn’t know how to ‘play right.’ I had no problem moving people out of my way who didn’t ‘get it’ or were ‘doing it wrong’ and I never could fully understand why this upset the teacher. I was a good-natured kid and respected authority – but I never could understand. It was probably the threats to ‘tell my parents’ that always kept me in line thereafter. Though being ‘in line’ was a guess to me and I was scared a lot of messing up and making a mistake I couldn’t quite grasp. I didn’t mean to cause anyone to be upset with my actions as a kid, I just wanted to help and show them how it was done. As an adult, in the business world now, I can see what I was doing wrongly then of course, but it still can be hard for me even now to see ‘inefficiency,’ at least from my perspective, and to not try and correct it.
My fear of mistakes would increase post-kindergarten up until around third grade. I was a ‘quirky’ kid and often did thing that even today don’t make full sense to me. I think sometimes I would get sensory overload and shut down and other times I’d simply have too much energy and want to ‘act out’ – but in my own way; usually by causing some form of ‘drama’ around me. Back then, and even through this current day, I can still get excited when there is a bit of drama – as it gives me the sense being able to predict or control (not in a power kind of way either) situations so that I feel more calm. This may seem contradictory to some aspie methods, but certain types of drama always allowed me to feel in control of my environment at times. Usually it would be a form of emotional drama – in the sense I would attempt to bring it out in others. I couldn’t feel what they were feeling, or really even understand it, at least not for a long time – but to invoke it was interesting to me.
Sometimes I would see anger or frustration while other times it would be happiness or joy. Even now, at almost 34, I still have a subconscious habit of tying to invoke emotion. I sometimes think I do it to see what I cannot within myself, at least not in the same way I imagine Neuro-typicals (NTs) do. I believe I can feel emotion, and quite vividly, if not intensely, I might add, but from a more analytical standpoint and usually when I’m on my own after the fact. Sometimes it even occurs before the fact when I’ve played the scenario through my head well in advance. For example, one of my greatest personal fears is loss – particularly of people I love; death itself being what I fear most. When I think of loosing someone I care for, I always feel the emotion intensely then in that moment. Tears will stream down my face, I’ll sob at times, curl up and feel all the pain of remorse for what I didn’t say or do, or try and think back over the happy moments in my life with them. To me, in that moment, my mind has made their passing very real and I feel and experience the incredibly real emotions that come with it.
Here’s a brief example, though a bit of a digression. For as long as I can remember, dating back to my very young childhood days, I would often find myself crying in bed at night thinking about the loss of family members in the distant future. From the day I was born until June 2009, I didn’t loose any immediate family members. Technically, my great-grandparents did pass away when I was very young, around three of four years of age, but given how young I was, I didn’t yet understand what was happening. But as I grew older, I began to realize the mortality of not only myself, but of my living family members – particularly my mom and dad, brother, aunts and uncles and my grandparents. I cried a lot for them many times in my youth and into my adolescence. As an adult, even after I was in my mid-20’s, I would occasionally still break down into tears or a deep sorrow when thinking about the future and their passing. This may strike some people as strange, or not, but each time was so very real to me. And so then, when my Grandfather was told his cancer was back in March 2009, I began to feel what I knew was to come. It was a hard time for me, not only because I knew I was going to loose him but because I had separated from my first wife in February of that same year. When he passed away just a few short months later, I was there by his bedside holding my grandmother. I probably came off to others as ‘strong’ in that moment, as I didn’t shed many tears and I didn’t show the range of emotions many of them did. But I had felt it for months and it was like my brain had already experienced what had now come to pass in reality. I still look back and think to myself I should have ‘felt’ more at the time, but then I remind myself of the countless years I cried to sleep over that exact moment – and in a strange way, it all makes more sense. I don’t know why we Aspie’s do this forward and backward thinking, but we certainly do – and we certainly FEEL emotions.
Returning to my main points, I can distinctly remember third grade being a turning point for me. Many of my peers in school were getting to that age where they could recognize my differences more easily than before. I couldn’t hide as much as I once could. I would either form close friendships or being completely singled out – and normally, it was the later. I got picked on pretty bad from third grade all the way through middle school, even some into high school. Looking back makes me both tense and sad… I still don’t understand it all.
As I progressed from grade to grade however I learned how to act more ‘normal,’ talk more ‘normal,’ and generally be more ‘normal.’ I wasn’t a perfect actor and with the rise of the Internet, I eventually would become more reclusive – seeking out ‘friends’ online than in real life, but when I did put on my actors mask, I was pretty good and apparently I must have been fairly convincing too. Even today I have people who will swear to me I’m, “just as normal” as they are. I smirk and say, “OK.” I know these are the people who will never see or want to know the ‘real’ me. It makes me sad to know that fact really, but I also know what it feels like to not be accepted and to be singled out or looked at funny. I never want to feel that again, so I’ll do most anything to avoid it. I’ll act for days on end if I have to, just to avoid it.
At the end of the day, I’m an actor for most every person in my life – customized just for him or her as they need me to be. The more normal I appear to them, the more content I feel in my own life because I feel I ‘fit in.’ I guess it’s my way of getting it ‘right’ and being as close to ‘perfect’ as I can be for the world. I know I’m foreign, so I, and countless others, act and do our best to never show our more eclectic personalities.
I’m an NT actor for my family, my friends, and my co-workers. Each gets a slightly different version, which makes for real confusion when they’re all together; fortunately the later is rare. Even my spouse will often get my NT side, even though she’ll often say she wants to see more of my Aspie side; I’ve learned that’s not exactly accurate. My Aspie side is incredibly passionate, either in the heat of a given moment or in the chase of a large dream – and so it’s hard to let that come out except in small doses. I can tell it often overwhelms her, as it does most people – so I try and keep my NT mask on most of the time.
Don’t get me wrong about my NT side, as it’s a very real part of who I am now. I have almost 34 years of NT training that have given me a very true part of myself in that world. Yes, it’s a stressful part of me because I don’t fully understand the stage upon which I live. I do feel foreign and often confused, especially when I return in the quite of my mind to my full aspie state. I’m a stranger in a strange land.
Though a lot of people will look at me and claim that I’m ‘normal,’ or couldn’t be an Aspergerian, I just want to say that we all know appearances can be deceiving. I’ve learned quite a lot of the NT world works this way, and that to fit in, I had to be just as good an actor as the ‘normal’ people within it. But I’m still very much a man who lives with Asperger’s. I’m just a really good actor. You’ll never see my bad days and you’ll never see me struggle after the fact (or before the fact) with some of the problems I face when I know I’ve ‘screwed up’ somehow.
You might think me fake… and that’s fine, it’s your right. And while I’ll never take a bow for these actions of mine, I think it’s only fair you consider what would happen to me if I didn’t put on my mask. The NT world would eat me alive; just like it did for so many years in my youth.
So, I’ll play the 'game'… I’ll play my part. But… Aspie I’ll always be. And you know what? I’m proud of that because I like who I really am. I just hope, one day, everyone else around me will to.
“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson
More to come,
Read more from my Life with Asperger’s series.