I look like someone you might trust to hold the spare key if we were neighbors. We could eat at the same restaurant or cross paths in the grocery store. We might forage the same yard sales. I look like I could be someone you know.
You might not believe me if I told you I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at age six. Unnoticed, I often overhear your discussions on what to do with us. I have heard your opinion on DSM changes. I saw your puzzle piece tattoo. I listened as you equated my label with violence, called people like me “unemployable” claimed it is irresponsible of us to have children, suggested we would be happier in institutions. I heard your retard joke. You never guessed an autistic might be listening.
I look “normal.” That does not make me part of the over-diagnosis epidemic if it exists. I thought two classmates of vaguely similar appearance were one person for my first six weeks at Decatur High School. That was one of my many embarrassing adventures with face-blindness. Tone of voice is a second language in which I am barely conversant. Instead of words, my mental landscape is structure. It is a good configuration for rhetorical skills, speed-reading, and semantic memory. I think of my full course-load at Agnes Scott as people born rich consider money, rarely, with the dim awareness that others worry about such things. I detest noise. I cannot read nonverbal cues. What I can do is pretend to be you.
I started playing tuba at twelve, but passing for allistic* is my longest running show. It takes more practice to fake facial expressions than make a forty-pound horn play sixteenth notes. Tuba can be self-taught. Learning to pass took me years of practice with a special method: every time my family went out in public when I was a child, the ride home was a lecture on my failings. I was upbraided for gait, demeanor, eye contact, manner and content of speech. The reward for perfect success was a moment of rare parental affection.
As in music, I learned my part in life. I look you in the eye and smile. I have been taught to move through the world without making you uncomfortable. I modulate, adjust, check you for uneasiness, measure myself against memorized parameters every waking moment so you can pass me on the sidewalk without seeing disability.
You value me because I am useful in some ways now. You assume I will be more so when I finish my education. I run in your circles sans any illusion of membership. As I understand it, we have a deal. You tolerate me because I do things well, or soon will, and have learned not to make you squirm. I give you undying gratitude for allowing me to live on the fringes. I can almost accept this state of affairs. We are often colleagues, occasionally friends.
In other cases, I prefer to avoid you. My discontentment with our agreement is the fine print. Autistics who cannot or will not mimic you well enough to preserve a status quo in which you are not confronted with the way we are, whose gifts you consider less handy, are lucky if you deign to place them in decent group homes.
No one likes malcontents, but I have to be one of those neurodiversity people. I can look at individuals who need services and see a common humanity that demands action. As much as you bemoan my lack of empathy, I wonder why you struggle to see it. In the future, you can expect me to be less quiet and grateful. Assume I will bother you, knock on your door, make the problems of people like me moral issues.
When I was a child, you thought “getting over” my special interests was good for me. I think it might help you to spend less time obsessing over normalcy. I may not worry so much about passing. It would do you good to work through your problems with diversity. Tomorrow, I might not smile. I might not look you in the eye.
A version of this essay was originally published at www.thinkinclusive.us.