I realise, in the week of the twentieth anniversary of my daughters birth…and no more fitting a milestone in which to do so…that we got through it together (and that choice of word is key) because, when she was a child, I always met her square-on as as the child that I am myself. It’s a realisation that has subtly, yet powerfully, altered everything whilst casting such a light of understanding across the whole territory of parenthood.
For years, I told myself that the key to how bizarrely mature and emotionally intelligent she is was that I treated her like an adult from the very outset; never talking down to her in baby voices or patronising her understanding with fob-offs as other parents tend to do. Rather, I was always honest and open with her, fair, logical and uncontrived and she rose to that in ways that made her quite exceptional through all her school days (as teachers so often commented). Yet there was never the typical sense that I towered above her as the “all knowing parent” and her this “little” child (as I wrote about once before).
In additional, I now realise that its more accurate to say that, rather than bringing her up to some sort of concept of adulthood, I met her where she was; just as I meet life that very same way…a new discovery to be faced each day and lets work through it one step at a time. Because, if Im honest, I greet all of life much like that child I used to be and with the self-same enthusiasms and responses I once had (not “as if” I was still a child, as some adults seem to do on a wave of nostalgia but) really, as that persona…in some immersive and quite literal way that does not seem to apply in the case of neurotypical adults.
Yes, of course, I have gathered more “data” from my experiences of life as I matured but, in my essence, I am that same wide-eyed, curious and yet slightly vulnerable being that I ever was and I own that without all the pretence that things are otherwise, as is the NT way.
In other words, I don’t postulate having some kind of super-resilience or insider assurances that I don’t have, nor do I pretend to be life’s master now I am mature, as neurotypicals so like to do once they come of age (only to receive some sort of crashing blow to their illusion when their fail-safe world turns on them at some stage further down the line…at which point their identity goes all to pieces).
In a sense, I have remained ever-so humble in the presence of life and yet, in doing so, have never been truly mistreated by it (only by other people and people-created situations); as though a quite solid, and far from arrogant, understanding was forged by that child version of me with life.
And, if I’m really honest, I am still quite like a child in my inability to get on in an adult world without my husband to shield me from its worst afronts; and often wonder if I can could manage at all if he wasn’t there to be my buffer (my track record isn’t so good) but that has more to do with how NTs have constructed that world to be, with its cultural, financial and social expectations, not to mention the sometimes hurtful gap between my own expectations and those of other people around me, than with the ardors of organic life itself.
What I describe here is “a thing” that is already observed about autism; considered to be one of our failings…that we don’t necessarily “grow up” in the same way as NTs, as though part of our development is slow or even absent and that we miss our “milestones”. Of course, these are only milestones in a NT-devised world…
And yet, the way I regard it is not that they are “more adult” than we are but that they are far better at playing the game of it; afraid to show cracks in its walls. How many NT people come out and say, as they approach seniority, “I don’t feel any older now than I did when I was 20…what happened?”.as though waking from a long-running dream (a delusion) they have been in? Of men in their fifties, they say “he’s like a child…no maturity…never grew up” (perhaps NT men are simply less capable of all the rigid pretence at being “grown up” that the socially fearful women display, or they simply get tired of trying so very hard as they reach that midlife crisis…).
Yet even the most corporate and organised of women have lapses into childishness, and its associated insecurities, when amongst their friends or siblings (I notice…) and, as they retire from life’s gridline structures, allowing themselves to soften, perhaps for the first sustained time in their adult life, its as though they abruptly revert back to where they started. In a sudden swoop that can look like “menopause” or “dementia” or some other sort of “lost grip”, they dissolve back into the children they once were, plus all the terrifying loss of identity that comes with that (not so if you never identified in the first place…); their memory structures and social abilities suddenly all dilapidated as all the reasons to remember and to keep up an appearance fall apart. Now, until the end of their lives, these consummate adults are babied by their adult children, by doctors and institutions and I imagine it can seem like a cliff edge coming up on the horizon (more of a gentle slope in my case). Seems to me, its less a case that they lose all their marbles than that they take down all the walls of pretence after a lifetime of exhaustion holding them up.
For me, there can be no pretence in the first place; I’m simply not wired for it and so I stand back and watch these phases with curious detachment. Just as I once stood on the cliffs, watching in bemused bewilderment as all my peers sailed off for “adult land”, I now watch some of them returning on the horizon, their boats a little tattered or even dilapidated from rough seas abroad and yet I never really left…not after those first disastrous forays of my youth when, it was so very obvious, I couldn’t and didn’t want to keep up with this voyage that seemed like a nonsense trip to nowhere land. I sometimes wonder if I will enjoy a little more company in my later years, as I did in my youth, as those self-same women who left start to rejoin me on the gentle shores of immaturity where I have stayed all these years. I already sense this phase coming as friends and siblings who leave work suddenly remember who they always were (beneath some encrusted layer they took on for their careers or families), reverting to the version of themselves I once knew and which feels more natural; but that all remains to be seen in the years ahead.
Because the “adult” mentality we have cooked up as a species seems to be a smokescreen, as far as I can tell. My daughter asks me when it will happen to her (just as I recall wondering when it would come to fetch me; like some sort of bus I was expecting to board) and I warn her it probably never will. This is it; do with it what you can but far better to have realistic expectations. People just get better at pretending its coming and, then, that they have acquired it; this adulthood thing…all signed-up to its conspiracy, its long-running game of “emperor’s new clothes”, in the name of “getting the plum job”, “being taken seriously” and “settling down” to “responsibilities” but really its all just a mass social ruse, a trick of the mind and a monstrous agreement people enter into “for life”.
Which is why, in my autistic case, it never happened. As is typical in autism, brain synapse “pruning” fails to take place and so we are left with a tree of many branches; you know, even those really fine, twiggy ones that some people would consider to be messy and to “get in the way” of their topiaried existence. Yet it’s what makes us who we are; tirelessly curious and into everything, with our thoughts and our sensations. It means we can take longer to process things; so, we are less than great face-to face or put on the spot (as in social situations) but, give us time to consider and we are quite masterful at times…and we enjoy a wonderful “best of both worlds’” scenario where we have both our adult and our child selves in situ, side-by-side. including all the pleasures. As put by one woman quoted in the book I am currently reading:
“Perhaps people sometimes mistakenly think that because the childish parts of my mind have not atrophied, that the adult parts of my mind have not developed, which is incorrect.” (Women from Another Planet?: Our Lives in the Universe of Autism – Jean Kearns Miller.)
She continues, at a later stage in the book:
“Most NT children’s way of organising sensory information is either inherently similar to their parents’ or, perhaps by watching and perceiving their parents’ reactions to things, their mind wiring comes into line with that of their parents. This did not happen with me.”
Referring to this another woman adds:
“I think our odd-maturing-schedule might explain many of our differences, and our tendency not to make the same assumptions and judgments NTs do. Also to be nonconformists, because of learning so much about the world for ourselves from first-hand experience, before learning about faces and the human-social-world attached to faces. So that by the time we did learn those, we didn’t get so addicted to what other people think or do, because we’d already experienced such a lot for ourselves. And because we by then didn’t easily fit in their social world, this became a self-perpetuating cycle. We autistics and cousins may have a real advantage in knowing things first-hand (though a disadvantage socially). Knowing things because someone tells us it’s so is for us a secondary thing, coming later in our lives, and also shakier since it’s based on opinions versus direct experience”. (Women from Another Planet?: Our Lives in the Universe of Autism – Jean Kearns Miller.)
Without most of this pruning to fit a primarily social model of reality, socially motivated behaviours simply passed me by from the outset, as with most people on the spectrum by the sounds of it. I believe a factor, in my case is that I spent the first five years, pre-school, at home in the exclusive company of my mother during the daytime hours; a mother who, I now believe, was on the spectrum and with whom physical or eye-to-eye contact was minimal, plus I preferred to play alone. When others were learning to read faces and attuning to their fellow human’s behaviours like a flock of starlings…you move, so I move the same way, etc…those of us wired differently were looking all around us with widely interested eyes, and many other (typically underestimated) senses, and were happily busy in our own little world of great big fascinations.
That’s not to say we didn’t observe, thus familiarise ourselves with, social behaviours (autistic girls can become quite the anthropological experts of this behaviour; like noticing it becomes a kind-of hobby); but we are left play-acting our role in it rather than relating to it at a very deep level. We don’t take in the social behaviours as NTs do, which is to make them part of their very fabric as human beings; something that, possibly, happens due to all the eye contact that goes on in their case, like the eyes are some sort of transmitter of data relating to rules and inherited belief systems. It’s like we skip that whole module of “classes” in our social training process and this alters our trajectory for life.
So, suddenly, when those basic social classes are deemed to be over and no refreshers ever available, since all the other kids had learned to atune to each other’s set of acceptable social behaviours and other non-verbal, societally determined rules, we were left behind; lagged in a time-warp of almost painful honesty and directness with ourselves and the rest of the world. There is simply no interpreter interface to tell us what to do or think; we “go direct”. Like a child that had skipped school on the very day the plaster-cast of life’s largely pre-determined shape was attached to all the other kids to keep them in check, we were apparently left “broken” in our direct interface with the sensory world rather than all neatly boxed up in a set of beliefs that was meant to determine how the rest of our lives played out.
It’s one of the reasons we are so socially unacceptable; we give the game away…this farce which pretends adults know what they are doing, that they are switched on and capable; so very sage and organised. It’s somewhat like the smokescreen that is puffed up by politicians and corporates when, really, they are just silly children, playing an overly elaborate (and damaging) game. To me, it’s all distraction from the real “stuff” of life and I would rather seem childlike enough to pull back from its silly games, to do the real processing of what life is about, than take part. I honestly believe it enables me to go in deeper and to reach layers of understanding that would otherwise elude me. As I read in my book last night:
“Einstein wrote, about why he was the one to develop the theory of relativity: Because his “development was retarded”, as an adult he asked questions that “only children ask … Naturally, I could go deeper into the problem than a child.” (Women from Another Planet?: Our Lives in the Universe of Autism – Jean Kearns Miller quoting T G West from In the mind’s eye: Visual thinkers, gifted people with dyslexia and other learning difficulties, computer images and the ironies of creativity).
As none-players in the adult game, we bumble along in our own way but somehow I seem to have bumbled my way to being the parent of an adult daughter and she’s doing just fine; her expectations, perhaps, set at a different (more realistic?) level than some of her peers through a degree of frank and respectful parenting that not so many get from the outset. Meanwhile, I continue on, the child in an adult body…still wide-eyed and bizarrely innocent yet, in my way, more curious and thrilled and refreshed by a world made new every day; and very far from jaded by its bumpy adventure since its no more than I expected of it, having never duped myself with anything different. Its a refreshing kind of honesty, this child-like quality those like me possess and, collectively speaking,I suspect its a dose of what the world so desperately needs.
It includes, I should add, a child-like (often deemed unrealistic by NTs) degree of acceptance of other people and species; there is an un-conditionality to our love and the degree of our expectation that others be treated with kindness. Also a fearlessness, combined with deepest respect, in relation to the natural world. Again, need I really spell out how badly the world needs this right now.
In addition, almost paradoxically, I do feel that I possess a degree of maturity that is absent from so many other women my age; compared to whom I feel as old as the hills since they seem to be, well, just so oddly naive (which is different to innocence) when it comes to the real matter of life. Perhaps this is due to a lifetime spent trusting in a “system” designed to nanny you through the appropriate corridors and lobbies of a life that is largely predetermined once your neurology is tweaked to eliminate the possibility of too many surprises. Rather, having rambled my way around that same building, but in my own merry way, feeling my way through many unmarked doors into cupboards that tipped their contents on me, so many overcrowded or otherwise abhorrent rooms that overwhelmed and, finally, landing myself in a sunny corner where I am reasonably content in my own space, I feel somewhat like my wisdom has been earned and, most importantly, honed to exactly who I am.
It has been noticed that those with autism can be late bloomers like this, rather than under-developed per se and that this can pay dividends in some people’s lives (Women from Another Planet?: Our Lives in the Universe of Autism – Jean Kearns Miller quoting T G West from In the mind’s eye: Visual thinkers, gifted people with dyslexia and other learning difficulties, computer images and the ironies of creativity). My Aspie-ish, non-conformist husband is one such; he owns wholeheartedly to being that late bloomer who struggled at school and in early adulthood…yet all that he is achieving, and putting his energy into, now (in his mid fifties) is quite remarkable, especially compared to so many males his age who seem to have reached the burn-out point.
In my own way, I too am a late-bloomer and would not swop my maturity for all the youthful decades in the universe. There is a sense of having arrived home in myself and this is just the threshold since I suspect there are many more rooms yet to explore; all, of course, designed to my own specifications since I would only ever have it that way. These are some of the gifts of being the “mature” Aspie and yet it is maturity reinvented (and barely a cousin of the NT idea of adulthood); an “outside the mould” version which allows just about anything to materialise.
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