Unwillingly Oblivious

After boring his dinner guests half to death with a lengthy interpolation that came out of nowhere, if I may add, on what it was like having Asperger’s, one of Manuel’s guests finally cut him off by saying “I wish I had a medical excuse for being an asshole.”

One night I was chatting with my ex in our apartment in Colombia. We found ourselves talking about home, not the physical place you live in but rather that place that your heart tells you – “you belong here.” I was complaining to her about feeling like I wasn’t fitting in the place where I grew up. I chalked up the feelings of not belonging to reverse culture shock. I had left Colombia, where I’d spent all my life, to study in Australia but had moved back for work. Culturally you could not choose two more different countries to live in. It made sense that the change would create discomfort. However, it was jarring that I would feel so alien and unwelcome in the place where I grew up and where my entire family lived. The conversation went on for a bit until my voice cracked and tears welled up in my eyes as pronounced “I don’t feel I have anyplace I can go back to. I don’t feel I have a place to call home.” I think it may have been the first time I voiced it with such conviction, but to be honest it is a feeling I have lived with most of my life.

Have you ever felt like this? Like you don’t have a place to call home or that you do not know who you are? I don’t know about you but I have lived with an ongoing identity crisis for what feels like forever. It’s not like I am perpetually thinking about who I am, where I am or where I am going. However, based on conversations I’ve had with friends it seems that I think about this a hell of a lot more than they do. I’m sure it annoys some people that at 35 I’m still asking these questions, but the constant questioning is me trying to make sense of the world. It’s exhausting and causes a lot of anxiety and occasionally depression. Of course, for a large part of my life the question has also been, why do I think about this so much?

The penny dropped when I was diagnosed on the autism spectrum in October 2015 at the age of 35. What does this mean? Let’s get some technical stuff out of the way. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the book on from which the definitions of mental conditions comes from) calls the condition Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). In the past there was Autism and Asperger’s but doctors figured that autism is not binary it’s a spectrum. As I write I may jump around Asperger’s, Aspie and ASD, but ultimately I’m referring to the same thing. I’m not providing a definition because others with the condition may be reading this and I would hate to misrepresent or offend any of them with a bad explanation. (Tony Attwood’s The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome has a great lengthy break down of this)

Now, you may know someone on the spectrum and, if you do, you may want to compare them to me or me to them. I get it, it is an impulse we all have. But when you’ve met a person with Asperger’s you have met exactly one person with Asperger’s. ASD doesn’t define a person it just means they see things a bit differently. This to me means that the lens through which I see and interact with the world is different but it does not define my individuality as I am still a collection of my own thoughts and ideas. Because the lens is so unique for everyone on the spectrum I’d venture to say that more so than others, people on the spectrum are extremely unique.

Because I was born with ASD the sensation that I don’t belong has followed me for a while. I would say my entire life but that feels absolutist and would also presuppose I’ve been cognizant since I was a baby which is just a weird. I have found out that I am not alone in this (the feeling not the assertion that cognitive babies are weird). Remember that movie Baby Geniuses? Who the fuck green lit that?. Turns out, feeling that you don’t belong is very common among Aspies. So much so that one of the most popular Autism/Asperger message boards is called Wrong Planet. Over time the feeling has gotten better becoming less of a constant concern and more of an itch in the back of my mind.  It does occasionally bloom back into full-on existentialism when something in life makes me question how successfully I’m navigating the world, and thus my own humanity.

At this point you may be asking yourself what about the way I interact with world could make me feel like this (also thanks and congrats on making it this far, you truly are a patient person).  I don’t know if I can do it justice in a single post but I do want to give you a taste of what it is like. I have several ASD traits but perhaps a critical one is the difficulty in reading emotional reactions in faces, voices or the body. This translates into me not reacting appropriately in some situations, which impacts how people perceive and react to me, on which I base my own perception of how the world sees me. Basically my interaction with the world is like a game of telephone. Let me illustrate.

Have you ever given any thought to how many of the things you say or do are motivated by a smile, a frown, sad eyes, an upward inflection in the intonation of someone’s voice, a subtle body motion? Let me tell you, it is a lot! 93% of communication is nonverbal (crazy, I know).  Fortunately it’s not all of it I miss but a general rule is that the more subtle it is the more likely it is I miss it. Though it is really difficult for me to pick apart what I see and what I don’t. Think of the implications for dating or managing people at work. Think about it this way, you have no idea that you are missing anything. For all intents and purposes you think you’re acting just like everyone else. Sometimes something is off but you can’t put your finger on it, other times people look at you funny or may treat you differently. This happens a lot and you have no idea why, worst of all it has been happening all your life. (Are you anxious yet?!)

Okay, that got really dark really fast which is why I say I can’t explain my world in just one post. The truth of the matter is there are positives and negatives. For the most part there are I things I just I don’t notice. I am, as the title spells out, unwillingly oblivious. It is not an excuse for being an asshole, quite the contrary. I try to be extra nice and extra respectful to compensate for what I can’t see and I am mortified when something inevitably falls through the cracks. Because, as blind as I can be in the moment, in hindsight I can see a lot of my fuck ups and I have a wickedly good memory (thanks ASD!). I may have trouble connecting with the world but that doesn’t mean that I don’t desperately want to connect with it and, trust me. I try really hard to connect with it.

I hope to learn and connect more by writing this blog. You will learn a whole lot about me and you may learn a bit about ASD but mostly me because as I already mentioned we are all so different (think of how dangerous it would be to read Tucker Max and assume you now every bro based on that read, sounds awful, right?). I won’t always talk about ASD, sometimes I may want to talk about travel, other times about eating a sandwich because I ran out of shit to write about so that’s all you get. I hope it’ll be a fun ride for all involved. At minimum I’ll try to keep it interesting.

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