The Shapes of Autism
An office. Two chairs facing one another; a desk off to the side.
I glance at the clock...we're only half way through the session. I breathe out, rub my face.
The psychologist sitting across from me- an autism specialist- says, "What happened is that, as a child, you were not developing body language. And there was no diagnosis at that time. There were no services available. As the kids around you began to socially develop, you struggled to keep up. Lack of body language...lack of non-verbal cues...this made social interactions confusing. And that was happening because you didn't know. Okay?"
I don't say anything. It's quiet for awhile.
She continues: "Now you know. Now you can begin to make sense of some things. And we can begin to talk about what to do next."
I'm 30-years old, have been depressed and socially isolated for many years.
I tell her, "I taught myself body language when I was in high school. I learned a lot of tricks. And it's pointless. You're just going to teach me stuff I already know...stuff that doesn't work."
Calmly...patiently...she says, "No. I'm not. I promise. Because what you're referring to is mimicry. And I won't teach you anything that conceals who you are."
She waits for me to respond. I rub my eyes, too angry and emotional to respond.
In a quiet voice she says, "I won't help you hide."
I saw this one day, while sitting on a park bench:
The shadow of a tree swaying in the grass. In the tangle of dark limbs, there were shapes: faces, objects, animals, more faces.
It was a beautiful display. I felt lucky to see it.
But I felt something else as well.
That it could make so many shapes, so effortlessly...
I felt a little hurt, a little angry.
I started making my own shapes when I was around 15 or so. Practicing postures, gestures. Staring in the mirror, trying on faces. I was terribly alone, suddenly aware of my body language deficits. I wanted friends, connections, people. So I began to experiment with body language.
One of the exercises I tried: I would look in the mirror and make a face. Then I would look away for a few minutes, walk around. Then I would look back at the mirror, see if the expression was still in place. It was a problem, back then, keeping a facial expression in effect for any length of time. This was the duration exercise I invented.
I practiced walks, stances, eye-contact. Slowly, I turned myself into a marionette. The hope was that I could learn to puppet myself through a social world that I found to be incomprehensible.
It was practice, all part of an effort to seem more like others. It was an urgent need, because it seemed obvious that this is what the world wanted: for me to hide my differences, for me to transform into something I wasn't. No one said, “It's okay to be yourself.” The pressure was to forcibly seem normal, at all costs.
And so I studied body language.
Mirrors, movements, memorization.
A shadow on the grass, lost in the play of shapes.
It didn't work, of course. The goal of the marionette was to connect with people. Instead, I found myself feeling more alienated and detached than ever.
Instead of expressing any true sense of self, the body language routines expressed pure mimicry. I was moving, interacting, but not really there.
I didn't understand that by trying so hard to seem normal, I was achieving the opposite of the connection I sought.
Eventually, after college, I stopped trying. I began to cut ties with people...to isolate. I began to work a graveyard shift, to sleep during the day.
I began to hide from the world.
Years later, in the same session from above...
The psychologist says, "If you taught yourself body language, it means you can learn other coping strategies as well. Ones that will help. You won't believe this yet...but things can improve."
I seethe, pull my hair.
She says, "I know that's difficult to accept. But as long as you're here...I'm going to help you. We can do this."
"No," I reply. "It's not difficult. It's impossible. It's just easy for you to say these things because they're words. You're nice, but words don't mean anything. They're just...words. They're empty."
She nods, says, "That can be true. That's why I'm not just offering words. I'm offering ideas...actions...outcomes."
She pauses, waits for me to reply. I don't say anything.
She continues. "You've been socially isolated for a long time now; not buying that solutions are possible. I get that. All I need is for you to be here. To talk. To give me time."
I bristle, agitated.
Normally, she is reserved, respectful of my silences. She generally sits back, waits them out. But today she learns over sideways...puts her eyes into my life of sight, so that we're making eye contact.
She says, "I give you my word, M. We can do this. I don't give up."
I look at the floor, unable to respond. I don't believe her. I don't trust her.
This is 2006, a few months after receiving a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder.
I didn't know then what I know today: that she was right. I didn't know that change - and a better life - was possible.
I spoke with this psychologist for a few years. What I learned from that discussion: definitions of normalcy do far more harm than good. Forcing difference into conventional shapes creates pain, not progress. Acceptance is a far more valuable goal. When accepted, when treated with respect, autistics can not only feel more comfortable... we can flourish.
M. Kelter was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum at the age of 30, after years of social isolation. He now writes about life on the spectrum, focusing on: childhood and adolescent experiences with mindblindess, depression, as well as his ongoing efforts to decode the social world. The best part? He is now up and about and having fun. He is currently writing at: http://theinvisiblestrings.com/