Damn That Shiny Armor

I was never more myself than when I was six years old—a lively little girl who talked too much, knew too much, spun round and round, and ripped her clothes off to run naked through the streets in comfort. She was still rigid and literal-minded, misunderstanding the world of people around her, but she didn’t notice. She was carefree—free to be herself.

Memories are marked with odd, quirky, stimming behaviors, but they too were just an expression of herself; the way she saw the world, and did things. That little girl knew what she needed, wanted, and what was comforting to her. The young woman I was becoming could not make the same boast. I was rattled and confused.

Adolescence crept up on me, bound and gagged me when I wasn’t looking. Adulthood threatened to choke the life from my soul. Much of my happy stimming behaviors were replaced with mind numbing alcohol. My intelligence was not being fed, and my self-worth began to rely on whose attention I attracted. I was on a downward spiral into the abyss of uncertainty.

I was a weird child, but adults accept even weird children. A weird adult, most especially a woman, no-one accepts—not really.

I married when I was twenty-three years old, and by that time believe me when I tell you I felt OLD, way past the age when I felt my life should have already began and hadn’t yet. While my friends were finishing up college degrees, or beginning their careers and settling into lives of their own, I was still floundering around trying to find something that fit me—but nothing fit me.

When I first met my husband, I was attending a large church in Brooklyn. It was a Tuesday night in May of 1995. I know because I had just finished taking my physical for the New York City Police Department, and had gone directly to the Tuesday night prayer meeting at church. It had been a long day; I had said many many prayers to get me through that physical exam. Everyone should go to church sweaty in a t-shirt and stretchies.

On our way out of the building I saw him, I don’t remember very much else about what was going on around me—damn that shiny armor; here we go again.

He was the complete opposite of me. Dark eyes to contrast my blue eyes, brown hair starkly different than my light blonde, his nose and were lips full, mine pointed and thin, and his olive skin made my marshmallow complexion glow. I don’t know how we met really, I just remember looking at him. He was talking; I wasn’t listening.

When it was time to leave I offered him a ride home in a car that a student of mine lent me for the week. I was working at Arthur Murray Dance Studios in Manhattan at the time, but was getting ready to leave that job because the next police academy class would be beginning in the end of June. Law enforcement, police work, forensics, investigations—that was where my interest really lied, where my heart always laid.

Maybe it was the idea of justice, that naïve belief in the system—good vs. evil; right vs. wrong. That has always been at the core of my being, a passionate morality, a clear distinction between right and wrong; where lines were crisp, and there were no shady grey areas.

He accepted my ride home versus making the long trek from church to his apartment. I am proud to report that he was nothing but a gentleman, and in fact, would you believe he got out of the car, thanked me for the ride, said good-night, and began to walk away from the car! What?

I sat there slightly shell-shocked.

Beep, Beep. B-b-beep. BEEP.

He hadn’t expected me to start honking that horn.

The Autistic College Student and Executive Dysfunction

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

My first semester at John Jay College of Criminal Justice went as smoothly as I could expect. I had no problems with the academics and had straight A’s across the board—easy peasy. But what I did not have was any college friends. For the most part I didn’t mind, I was living back at home after joining another family didn’t work out, and I worked two jobs. Life was busy, and that hid the fact that I was alone.

A full course load at John Jay only took up two weekdays. The remaining three I spent working as a bank teller. On the weekends I worked at catering hall as a cocktail waitress.  I was determined to not have to live back home for very long.

I had trouble staying focused and interested. I majored in Forensic Science, but Chemistry didn’t hold my interest.  So I transferred to St. John’s University in Staten Island where I took several English and creative writing and psychology classes.

Girls all around me where pledging for sororities.  They walked in groups, ate lunch together, and basically kept away from me. I only attracted the attention of boys, this act I already had down pat. Despite the attention I focused on my studies, but St. John’s only outlasted John Jay by one semester.

St. John’s was also a bigger challenge than John Jay. Not because of the academics, because I found the coursework to be more difficult at John Jay, but because the campus was larger. I had a recurrence of my first experience with junior high school and place-blindness.  The additional stress from constantly being lost and late for class contributed to my dropping out of college after a total of three semesters. My brain was perpetually overloaded.

Although, I managed to keep straight A’s during these semesters, it took so much work on my part that I was completely and utterly burned out. The course load and my growing responsibilities overcame me. I could not keep two thoughts together in a row in my mind.

Part of what made college so exhausting was my proneness to get lost in the details. One detail of a lesson, lecture, assignment, or test question would grab my focus and I would lose sight of the whole picture. If one word was wrong in a sentence or oddly placed, I was so consumed by that one small detail that I completely lost sight of what the text said making me have to go back and re-read the entire thing. I could not stay focused.

I suspect that my autism bubbled up to the surface highlighting many of the core deficits that those with Asperger’s Syndrome (AS), Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) share. I clearly had severe deficits with Theory of Mind, but college life made my weak central coherence and executive dysfunction noticeable.

Central coherence is the ability to focus on both details as well as wholes. People with autism appear to have a heightened focus on details rather than wholes, a cognitive style termed ‘weak central coherence’. Compounding the problem was my inability to complete tasks, stick with a plan, and work towards a long term goal. I struggled with the sequencing needed to complete the more complex tasks that working your way through college required—an example of executive dysfunction.

Executive function pertains to the way in which people monitor and control their thoughts and actions, which includes processes like working memory, planning, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control. Executive function is responsible for your skills and ability to goal, plan, sequence, prioritize, organize, initiate, inhibit, pace, shift, self-monitor, emotional control, and completing.

When a person with autism is experience executive dysfunction, they experience impairment or deficits in the higher-order processes that enable us to plan, sequence, initiate, and sustain our behaviors towards some goal, incorporating feedback and making adjustments along the way.  My constant failure to complete was evident in everything I tried to accomplish.  It spilled over from my school life, to my personal life, and right into my adult working life.

I had tremendous difficulty trying to figure out what was wrong with me, why I could never seem to finish anything I started.  Shifting activities was a challenge, and I was terrible at pacing myself.  I had two speeds—full speed ahead, and stop; there was never anything in between—all or nothing.

My father thought my going to college was stupid; that I was wasting my time and his money only to learn nonsense. He said all I needed was street smarts of which I had none, and college was not going to teach me that. Maybe he saw the dysfunction that I did not, or maybe he saw something that he could not describe. But maybe he could have described me as something other than—stupid.

Going to college was stupid; I was stupid; all my ideas, thoughts, and dreams were stupid, and something to be mocked, something to be laughed at—a joke.   A joke that I did not think it was funny.

Financial aid didn’t cover the additional tuition expenses that transferring to St. John’s University brought, so in addition to my aid, and loans, I needed my father to sign for a parent’s loan. He did for the first semester, whining and complaining how it was a waste of time. But after that he refused and if I wanted to continue the finances were my problem.

He never repaid that parent loan, and a few years later the IRS confiscated his income tax return to repay the debt. Would you believe my mother brought it up again—21 years later? Remarking how I wasted money on something I never finished.

Being a college failure, and now a drop-out, I was thrust into the adult working world.  Surely, with my intelligence, and bubbly smile I would be successful there.

Love or Obsession: When a Person Becomes an Aspie’s Special Interest

 

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

 

According to the DSM-IV diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s Syndrome (AS), having an “encompassing preoccupation with one or more stereotyped and restricted patterns of interest that is abnormal either in intensity or focus” is a core symptom of AS.

I’ve had many special interests/preoccupations/passions/obsessions through the years beginning as young as three years old. My three year old self was completely preoccupied with baseball; my fifteen year old self—boys, or more precisely a boy.

That is not an unusual preoccupation for a fifteen year old girl, but what we need to look at is the intensity and focus. When focused on an interest or area to the exclusion of everything else, and everyone else in your life, is this not considered obsession? For the autistic person our obsessions and passions are soothing, calming, a place to hide, decompress, regenerate—a place of quiet peace. But what happens when your special interest your obsession is a person?

Love can be joyous and healthy but obsession can be seen as unwanted attention, smothering affection, and in the extreme…stalking. To make matters worse, the mind-blind teenager will usually never know if she steps over this line. How much is too much exactly?

The first few months were perfect. We cruised the neighborhood with the windows down, wind in my hair—and his, which was possibly longer than my own. My friends faded into the background of my mind, nothing else mattered, no-one else existed. I was in my one friend, one person allowed in my life at a time mode—other people were far from my thoughts.

I went to school—ok to the candy store, went to work, and hopped into this car at night to drive around. I wanted to stay roaming the neighborhoods like that all night long, but he needed to meet his friends. Every night around eleven o’clock he dropped me off at home and left to hang out with the guys.

At first I tried to be accommodating, to make him happy. I needed to be home before midnight or my father would flip out anyway I told myself. But as time went on it became harder, and harder to let go—to understand this strange need for his friends. Why not just stay hanging out with me? What was wrong with me? I began to take it personally, not understanding that others may have feelings and needs different than my own. I couldn’t see it; I couldn’t understand it; his behavior made no sense to me.

“If you loved me, you’d stay!”

On New Year’s Eve we had a fight. He didn’t stay. I called and left messages on his voicemail like a crazy stalker, hung-up and redialed again. The return calls never came. What did I do?

For the next few months I could think of nothing else.

He wouldn’t even speak to me, giving me no reason at all.

I began dating someone else, just to keep my mind off things and keep myself occupied. Make no mistake about it; he knew all about my obsession with my ex-boyfriend, and how I desperately wanted him to dance with me at my sweet sixteen. Why that boy hung around me I’ll never know.

It had never occurred to me that I was hurting someone’s feelings, how could I if I was truthful with them? He knew that if my ex showed up at my Sweet Sixteen party, that it would be the end of things. I told him I would let him dance with me on my birthday if you know who doesn’t show up. I was still holding out hope. I’d invited him, and I thought maybe just maybe he would show-up and surprise me—and he did.

The night was a blur after that, we were back together and that is how it would always be, wouldn’t it? I’d never considered any other scenario in my head—ever.

These relations were all encompassing; I wanted to spend every free moment together and assumed that he wanted that too.