The Flying Christmas Fork

An except from Twirling Naked in the Streets and No-One Noticed…

My father finally grew tired of my embarrassing behavior. Every time he took me somewhere I refused to eat unless I smelled it first, which didn’t guarantee I would eat it, and I sure was not going to try it. More of often than not I wrinkled my nose, turned away, and pronounced, “I’m not eating that!”

I wasn’t trying to be difficult, or rude. I didn’t even comprehend those ideas. I had no idea that my behaviors could hurt someone’s feeling, why would it? My intention was never to make anyone feel bad. It had nothing to do them; it was just that stinky food.

Every Christmas Eve my parents packed us in the car to Aunt Jenny and Uncle Eddie’s house for dinner. Uncle Eddie was my grandfather’s youngest brother. It was a short car ride; he only lived seven blocks from our house.

“You are going to eat whatever Aunt Jenny gives you,” my father announced on our way there. “Do you understand me?”

I said nothing, but the ball that was bouncing around inside of my belly got bigger. There were often many stinky things on the table like artichoke hearts. What if she gives me artichoke hearts? If I don’t eat them Dad will be mad.

Aunt Jenny’s table was set with a red table cloth, fine white china trimmed in gold with matching golden utensils. Napkins the color of Christmas spruce were rolled inside golden leaved holders. Ivory candles rose from holy leaves in the center of the table.

The kids table was set up in the center of the living in front of the Christmas tree. The plastic table cloth had pictures of Santa, reindeers, and elves. There was an assortment of candies in small bowls in the center. The plates were paper, and the utensils plastic.

I never liked sitting at the kids table. Not because I didn’t like the table, but because I would have to sit with the other kids. Kids I did not recognize, even though they always seemed to know me. “Cousins,” is what my grandmother called them, but to me they were strangers. I preferred to sit at the grown-up table.

The strange cousins ran around screeching and laughing as they went by while I sat near the tree worrying about when it would be time for dinner. This time I wanted to sit at the kids table.

Father had me sit right next to him, something he never insisted upon. A heaping load of steaming lasagna was slid onto my plate. Sauce oozed down the sides of the pasta, cheesy strings of mozzarella hung off the sides of the plate. I was able to breathe at last. I could eat that; I liked lasagna.

After waiting for my lasagna to cool down I scooped some up with my fork, brought it to my nose and took a deep breath—breathing in the smells of fresh basil, tomatoes, cheese—

It felt like an explosion. My breath caught in my throat, tears filled my eyes. My hand stung. The fork flew through the air, across the table, and landed with a resounding clank splattering sauce on the table.

“Joseph! What the hell is wrong with you?” Grandma yelled.

“She is going to eat whatever is put in front of her,” he said.

My chest quivered with each sob that started coming out of my mouth. The table burst into shouts and commotion.

“Joe, calm down,” Aunt Jenny said, “it’s alright, she doesn’t have to eat it.”

But it wasn’t alright, it was never alright again. From that night on, every time I smelled my food before eating, which was every time I ate, in front of my father he smacked the food out of my hands. “Just eat it!” He said.

The more he tried to smack the habit of smelling my food out of me, the more I needed to smell it. Eventually, I became immune to the smacks.

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School was a Minefield

An except from Twirling Naked in the Streets and No-One Noticed…

 

“She was the last one in school, and the last one out. She made the whole class wait for her every day.” ~ Mom

I was late every day because my alien leaders, the ones that dropped me off at my mother’s house when I was born, didn’t give her an instruction manual—and she was not a fast learner. We continued to struggle over what I would wear, and what I would eat, which was usually nothing. I didn’t sleep well either so I was hard to wake in the morning, but much easier to wake than her.

School nights didn’t mean much in my house; my parents liked to party. My brother and I stayed in their bedroom to go to sleep while aunts, uncles and friends played loud music, drank, smoked, and played cards.

I tried to sleep curled up in a ball under the covers cupping my hands over my ears trying desperately to drown out the noise. The smell of cigarette smoke and beer made mye stomach sick and my eyes tear.

In the morning, navigating the sea of sleeping bodies sprawled out across the living room carpet surrounded by empty beer bottles, and half spilled over ashtrays brought on the vomit. Vomit brought on the screaming.

My screaming was because even then I hated to vomit; although I should have been used to it, and my mother’s screaming because now there was a mess to clean up. Now? There was a mess to begin with! Vomit was hard to get out of mustard-colored shag carpet.

Mornings sucked, school sucked, and we were late. At least I no longer needed to go see Mr. Hiler for a late pass; he was liar.

I was never in a rush; that much is true, but I certainly did not intentionally make the whole class late coming out of school every day—not intentionally.

The end of the school day was always the same.

“Pack your things, and line-up.”

Line-up I had down. I was number three; Toni was number one, Laura was number two, then me, and Shayne was number four. Line-up: check. It was the pack your things part, the part that needed to be done before line-up that was the problem.

My desk was a wreck. The small space inside the metal-framed desk reserved for books was jam packed with my things. Papers were shoved inside, crumbled and torn. Pencils fell to the floor when I pulled on something I thought I needed to pack up, and was followed by an avalanche of debris that scattered across the floor making my head spin.

The mess, the chaos, and the lack of things having their own place made me feel sick. My brain ceased to work; I ceased to respond. I just stood there staring at the mess that I had no idea how to begin to clean up.

“We are not leaving until Jeannie cleans up this mess and packs her things.”

I froze. There is that word again—things.

I made several attempts throughout the year to pack-up my things. All of them were wrong. I never arrived home with any of my textbooks, and couldn’t do my homework. I spend the nights crying because my homework wasn’t done, and the morning being screamed at because my homework wasn’t done.

Going to school without my homework meant writing, I must do my homework, twenty times on the blackboard. I longed for the end of the day; longed to be out of the clutches of the classroom.

“Jeannie, pack up your things,” the dreaded words seemed to echo throughout the room.

The whole class grumbled while I stood there staring blankly at my desk. They knew we were not leaving until I got my things together. The mother’s waiting outside would be angry and grumbling that everyone always had to wait for me.

“If someone doesn’t help Jeannie pack her things, we are going to stay here all day.” Ms. Montouri said.

I didn’t know what to pack.

Shayne, number four, rushed over to help. He helped me shove everything into my book bag, and slung it over his shoulder. Shayne wanted to go home.

From that day on Shayne helped me pack, or rather he packed my things for me. Actually he packed everything, and carried it because then it was heavy and I couldn’t lift it. I had to drag the book bag along, slowly.

When Shayne packed my book bag, I was able to do my homework. He packed the textbooks; I never did. The teacher told me to pack my things. The textbooks did not belong to me; they were not mine. They could never be my things; they were their things.

School work was easy, but navigating the school day without stepping on a landmine was not.

The Princess, Her Socks, and Her Late Pass

An except from Twirling Naked in the Streets and No-One Noticed…

 

“You tried on ten pairs of socks every morning before deciding which pair you would wear” ~ Mom

I hate socks. I hate the way they feel on my feet, the way they bunch up in my shoes, and how the seams rub against my toes when I walk. Socks make me hot. When I’m overheated the first thing I need to do is rip them off—now.

To make matter worse my mother liked to buy thin nylon socks trimmed with lace. Not many materials irritate me more than scratchy lace. The thin nylon socks made my feet sweaty. My feet slid around inside my hard patent leather school shoes. They were not good shoes for a clumsy kindergartener.

When I finally found a pair of socks that I could wear, they usually did not match. Mom insisted that I just didn’t like any of the socks, but if that was the case then why did I need to try each pair on? Why did I need to see how they felt on my feet? Wouldn’t I have just flat out refused to put them on because I didn’t like them?

By the time I was dressed, and my three year old brother was in the carriage, we were rushing to make it to school on time.

“You could not make Jeannie move fast.” ~ Mom

Every morning the three of us set out to walk the five blocks to school. We headed up the avenue in the opposite direction of Grandma’s fabric store. We walked past the pork store, my favorite candy store, which was still closed and covered with a steel shutter, past the bagel store, the Becker’s carpet shop, and across 61st street with the crossing guard waving us onward.

“Jeannie you’re going to be late,” mom said. I had stopped short in front of the side entrance to the school. My mother turned to the right heading toward the schoolyard where the kindergarteners entered, and I turned left.

“You can still go in through the schoolyard,” mom said.

I said nothing, stayed the path, and marched around the corner heading for the front entrance; Mom followed.

I stepped inside the door just when the bell rang.

“Good Morning, Jeannie.” The woman’s voice said from the small desk that sat just to the left side of the entrance. I kept walking.

Mother was still wrestling my brother out of his carriage when I started climbing the towering steps. When I reached the first landing I stopped and stooped down.

“Hurry up, Jeannie. Your late,” the woman’s voice came from below.

“I have to fix my shoes.”

When I was satisfied with my adjustments, I continued my assent to the first floor, and marched to the main office.

I walked straight passed the ladies behind the desk, around the counter, past the school secretary, and into the principal’s office.

Mr. Hiler was a huge man; he towered over me, his head reaching almost to the ceiling when he stood up.

“Hello Jeannie,” he said walking out from behind his desk. He handed me a small piece of paper all ready and waiting for me. I hopped up into the seat in front of his desk.

“She still won’t come in through the school yard,” mother said. She was slightly out of breath from toting my brother up the stairs on her hip.

Mr. Hiler smiled; mother did not.

“Why won’t you come in through the schoolyard?” he asked.

“She just wants to be late, “mother said.

“I have to see Mr. Hiler for my late pass.”

“You wouldn’t need a late pass if you went in the other way,” mom argued.

“I need to see Mr. Hiler for my late pass!” I said in a slightly louder voice than before to make my point clearer. Mom’s face turned red. Why does her face turn that color?

“It’s alright, Jeannie can come to see me whenever she likes,” Mr. Hiler said. “Now off to class, Mrs. Divine is waiting for you.”

I smiled, and walked out of his office scowling at my mother as I went by. Why didn’t she understand? She knows I have to get my late pass.

To my mother, I was just being difficult; I wanted to do things my own way. I had a mind of my own and no-one was going to change it—ever.

This scene played itself over and over again. The leaves dried up, snow fell, flowers bloomed, and days changed. My patent leather shoes changed into snow boots, and my boots to sandals, but the routine never changed. I marched to the front entrance, up the stairs to the landing, fixed my shoes, walked into the office, ignored the ladies, and drifted into Mr. Hiler’s office to retrieve my late pass. Then, and only then, did I go to see Mrs. Divine, my kindergarten teacher.

Mr. Hiler’s words, Jeannie can come to see me whenever she likes, proved troublesome for years to come.

Looking back I now know my morning sock routine was due to tactile sensitivities. I needed to find a pair I could tolerate. I know this because I am the same today about my socks. But what about the rest of my routine? Was my pause to fix my shoes on the landing born from the socks and shoes being irritating? Why did I only fix them on that landing—every single day without deviation for the entire school year?

I could not stray from that routine. I suspect that it was the routine I adopted on the first day of school, and that was how every day of school thereafter had to go. Yes—I was late on my first day of kindergarten because of the rocks in my socks that no-one could find.

As an adult I find myself adhering to very similar patterns of behavior. If I unpack boxes from a move and put something away it is very difficult for me to move it. That becomes its place, and it always lives there even if it is not where I want it. It is important for me to unpack and arrange my things thoughtfully the first time because wherever I place the toaster is where it is going to stay. That initial placing, the initial routine becomes set in stone.

The Little Encyclopedia and the Stinky Cheese

An except from Twirling Naked in the Streets and No-One Noticed…

Consuming Information and Hyperlexia

Before 1994, Asperger’s Syndrome did not exist as a diagnosis in the United States. Autism would not have even been considered if a child was verbal, least of all very verbal, or if a child was not intellectually challenged.

I was verbal, too verbal. I was smart, too smart for my own good.

Baseball stats were not the only bits of data that I consumed and stored. I consumed books. I memorized them, and don’t you dare read the storybook to me and think you will skip over anything. If I had already heard the book, you were in trouble.

My father used to read to me, but many times tried to skip over things thinking I wouldn’t know any better. After all, I couldn’t read—or, could I?

I would promptly point out where he missed along with what page the text appeared on. Long before I entered kindergarten I didn’t need him to read to my any longer. I taught myself to read.

I honestly could not figure out why we were “learning” to read in school. I already knew how to read; therefore, all the kids around me knew also. We were just wasting time.

“We thought we had a little genius on our hands,” my mother said, “but you were just a little bitch.”

What is hyperlexia?

Hyperlexia is an ability to read way above what is expected for the child’s age, and is accompanied by a below average ability to comprehend spoken language. The hyperlexic child usually learns to speak through rote memory and heavy repetition. This child appears (and is) very intelligent, but often fails to comprehend the context of her words, or fails to comprehend their meanings and social implications.

I was not a quiet withdrawn child; in fact, I never shut up—ever. I rattled off my newly learned facts to anyone who would listen, and to those who wouldn’t. The interesting part though is I would only talk to adults. Children had nothing to contribute to the conversation, they thought I was odd. Sometimes they ran from me, or they ran off to play.

Adults on the other hand thought I was brilliant. They laughed at my little speeches, and thought it was cute when I recited lines from TV shows and music lyrics to answer their questions. Well—most of the time.

There were times when my tendency to quote others to convey my feels landed me in a heap of trouble. As “grown-up” as I sounded at almost four years old, I still had my bottle. It was something I was absolutely unwilling to give up. The doctors were not concerned, and actually encouraged my parents to allow me to have it as long as I wanted since I ate next to nothing.

“Milk is food,” Grandma said.

So why would I need to eat anything else. My father didn’t share this view.

When he insisted that I eat the dinner my mother prepared, I, as always, refused. This time he persisted.

“You are going to eat it,” he said.

“Why?”

“Because I said so, now eat it!” I had somehow made him angry, but not as angry as he made me. Maybe he shouldn’t have played so much Billy Joel music around me; he should have seen this coming.

“You cannot tell me what to do. It’s my life!” I said. “Go ahead with your own life, leave me alone!”

I ran up the stairs, clutching my bottle in my hand.

My grandparents lived upstairs. Grandma says milk is food. I don’t need to eat my mother’s food, I have my own.

This time Grandma was on their side. She wanted me to eat. I sniffed the pasta, I sniffed the meatballs, and I sniffed the cheese and then I wretched.

“No! I don’t want your stinky cheese; I don’t need your stinky cheese; I have my bottle. Milk is food.”

That was the last time I saw that bottle, or any other ones. So for the next year I lived on peanut butter.

There were times when my speech and comprehension appeared advanced. It may have appeared to my parents that I was being obstinate and difficult—that I only wanted my way. But the truth is I had no idea the real implications and meanings behind the words I recited from the song, My Life. It just appeared that I applied it correctly at the time.

Since I was already able to read, I often used “scripts” to speak to people. I recited passages from books that seemed appropriate at the time. I sang song lyrics, or in this case, screamed song lyrics at others. I also repeated what I heard adults saying applying to my situations haphazardly. Because I was smart, everyone assumed that the words were my own, my thoughts, and that I knew exactly what I was saying. I am sure I did not.

The Baseball Obsessed Pre-Schooler

An except from Twirling Naked in the Streets and No-One Noticed…

 

“I don’t have any narrowly focused special interests, no all-consuming obsessions—not during childhood.”

I protested my diagnosis, but only for a moment.

     I knew all the players; I knew their numbers.

I knew the line-up; I knew all the stats.

I knew the TV airtimes; I didn’t miss a game.

I knew the route to Copperstown, NY, where the Baseball Hall of Fame is located, although, we never made the trip. I had a map.

Baseball was my obsession. I was four years old.

During “practice,” the times that my father and I played ball in the driveway, I was coached by one of my three baseball men. Dad and I threw the ball back and forth.  When I threw to him I was pitching and Catfish was right there telling me how to stand, where to look, and how to lift up my leg like he does on the mound at the stadium.

When Dad threw the ball to me, I was a catcher. I did not stand up straight like other children did to catch the ball. I crouched down as per instructed by Thurmon. I positioned my glove between my legs, adjusted my imaginary face place, and prepared to catch the ball.  I was extraordinarily talented according to my “coaches,” my “friends.” I was not a modest child.

Since I needed pitching and catching coaches, it makes sense that I chose a batter from the team to coach me when it was my turn to hit.  Reggie taught me how to stand with my feet squarely facing home plate, where to position my hands on the bat, and continually reminded me to keep my eye on the ball.

I wonder what my father’s role in all our baseball playing was.  Did he know he was just the guy who needed to throw that ball to me, catch when I pitched it back, and run after the balls I hit with the bat like Lou Piniella did in the outfield—or like Graig Nettles, number 9, on third base? My coaches taught me everything I needed to know about baseball—at least in my mind they did.

In return for all their help, my three baseball men accompanied us on family outings, ate dinner with us, and I often was reported making them hot dogs for lunch. This is also when my extensive baseball card collection began, Yankees only of course.

1979 was a sad year for baseball. Thurmon Munson died in plane crash, and Catfish Hunter retired. Two of my three baseball men were gone. My imaginary friends did not outlive their physical lives, or the Yankee baseball careers for that matter.  But—1979 was the year the Yankees picked up Dave Righetti.

Dave Righetti; number 19.

Righetti started pitching for the NY Yankees in 1979, and although he did not become one of my imaginary friends, he rapidly became my favorite player.  In 1981, Dave Righetti was assigned number 19, the day of my birth, thus started my lifelong obsession with the number 19.

I was wrong. I did have special interests and all-consuming obsessions even when I was very young.

They Missed It; They Missed Me

An except from Twirling Naked in the Streets and No-One Noticed…

 

An Introduction: They Missed It; They Missed Me

     I am a survivor; an autism survivor.

I have been torn down, pulled to pieces, and have had my heart ripped from my chest slammed on the floor and stomped into the ground. But—I am still here to tell about it.

I grew up in a world before autism advocacy; born twenty years before Asperger’s Syndrome was acknowledged in the U.S. I now hear talk about autism being an epidemic. There are more autistic children being identified than ever before.  I’ve heard people say that they didn’t see many autistic children when they were growing up, but I am here to tell you that we indeed were in your mist.

My parents did not notice, my teachers were blind to it, and my doctor’s misdiagnosed it. When they noticed me on tip-toes, they made me a ballerina.  When I twirled round and round, I was only dancing. When I had imaginary friends, they said that was just what little girls did.

When the light bothered me, I was allergic to sunlight. When smells over whelmed me, I had a sensitive stomach. When I only ate a few select items, I was picky. When I could not stray from my rigid routine, I was hard-headed.

When I thought I was smarter than my teachers, I was obnoxious. When I couldn’t stand certain fabrics touching my body, I was being a princess. When I cried and screamed, I was spoiled.  When I rocked back and forth, I was concentrating. When I sat alone, I was in my own world.

When I couldn’t keep up, I was not living up to my potential. When I didn’t think the way others did, I was just too smart for my own good. When I didn’t connect with my peers, I just didn’t care about them. When I misinterpreted situations, I was inconsiderate. When I asserted myself, I was inappropriate.

When the children’s screaming hurt my head, I was a bad mother. When I could not keep them on a schedule, or keep the house in tip-top shape, I was lazy. When I could not stick to a budget, I was irresponsible. When I couldn’t understand, I was stupid.

When I stayed in my pajamas for days, I was depressed. When I was overwhelmed by the world, I was agoraphobic. When I was tired and frightened, I had an anxiety disorder. When I realized something was wrong with me, I was making excuses.

The one thing my entire life’s experiences screamed, the one thing that was consistent, was that everything was my fault.

No-one recognized my autism; no-one saw that I had Asperger’s Syndrome. How could they? Asperger’s Syndrome, Aspies—I – did not exist; not yet.