This Is Your Autistic Brain on Grief

Actually, it’s my autistic brain on grief. So, I don’t want to presume anything about yours, nor should I. Grief, like autism, is different for everyone. But this is me. I’ve not spoken publicly about my life on the spectrum before so this is a first. It may come as a surprise to my readers but the clues were peppered throughout my novels, so, my particularly sleuthful fans probably had their suspicions.

I am high functioning, which means I’m able to navigate the world with little or no help. IN fact, I’m so high functioning you’d have to spend a good deal of time with me before you even started to suspect something was different about me. That “high functioning” is more than likely the result of my early life; I was terrified of my father and his low tolerance for behavior he considered to be divergent from norms…in his mind.

I always had a really high fluid intelligence quotient (Gf), giving me one advantage my otherwise dysfunctional brain needed to adapt; strong abstract reasoning skills, meaning, I saw patterns, even complex patterns, wherever they might be. And since fear is an astoundingly good motivator (when it’s not crippling you with anxiety and other behavior-modifying dysfunctions) my abstract reasoning skills, my high “fluid intelligence” was set on a course to dissect, understand, and duplicate behaviors in the order and presentation that would result in the fewest negative encounters with a brutal father.

I didn’t understand until much, MUCH later that he was probably on the spectrum as well. A young genius among old men who constantly reminded him he was “junior” even though he excelled so far beyond them he would become their boss.

It was a long and miserable childhood. Of course, at that time only the most obvious “mental handicaps”, as they were called then, were identified and treated. A lot of children slipped through the cracks prior to the 2000s. In the 60s and 70s, my presence on the spectrum only started ticking off red flags after an incongruity appeared in my schoolwork. My parents were already keenly aware of my social failings. And, no surprise, a child with hidden autistic failings in an environment fraught with fear and impatience caused a lot of anxiety among my parents and teachers. My “acting out” had spawned a label of “trouble maker” early on.

But, it wasn’t until my grades started to fail that testing began. At the time (the early 70s) they hyper-focused on my high test scores and deduced the reason my grades and behavior were out of sync with my potential was that I was bored and needed more of a challenge both in and out of school. This added stress had the opposite effect they were looking for and instead, after a few months of giving it the old college try, they dropped me into remedial classes in all but Science which I excelled in.

To be honest, I didn’t give a damn about my grades (except to the point when I would be punished for low grades…often with a belt, though more often with humiliating insults). No. I was far more interested in not being a “freak” as I was often called. My stimming (a nervous habit that some neuroAtypical people engage as a soothing exercise to counteract anxiety) took the form of mouth noises (sucking on the soft pallet and making a noise reminiscent of a squeaky wheel, turning endlessly) or scrunching my nose repeatedly.

I thought adaptive behavior would save me from misery, but it became a prison all its own. I learned normal (not exaggerated) facial expressions. I learned body language, I learned personality types, who was popular, who was scorned, and who were the ones everyone liked. By the time I was in high school I felt confident I could navigate society well enough to be liked by at least a few people. Unfortunately, simulating all the subtle “tells” that made someone socially functional also robbed me of knowing who I was. So, I felt like a fraud (which technically I guess was the truth).

The Army taught me the greatest trick to surviving society. Don’t speak unless you must and when you do, speak with confidence. Fuck me, that changed my life. People LOOOOOVE confidence (even when it’s fake). After that, I became a real asshole…a user, a player, almost desperate to try and hoard all of the lost opportunities of my young childhood. But I still felt like a fraud, and I realized I didn’t like that at all.

So, I made some rules for myself. In fact, I got a piece of stiff artboard and wrote down what must have been two dozen rules to live by, to slowly turn the ship of my broken life around. There were two rules that stick with me to this day and they were the first two rules I wrote down. I forget the rest.

  1. Tell the truth to everyone if it is at all possible without harming them needlessly.
  2. ALWAYS tell the truth to yourself, regardless of the consequences.

That was the beginning of a hard time in my life, but I credit those rules for turning me into a semi-functional social being.

Through this all, my analytical skills had grown tremendously. People couldn’t hide their true selves from me. After all, I had pointed my freakishly computerlike abstract reasoning dysfunction toward human behavior like some sort of advanced alien trying to blend into society without detection. I was a walking lie detector. I understood not only the true emotions everyone hides behind their superficial world-facing masks, but the emotional triggers that likely produced them, to begin with.

This is certainly the source of the diverse and believable characters in my novels, deeply flawed, each with complex emotions and motivations, and their positives thrust forward into their fictional worlds like spears to protect themselves.

This “talent” also made me a keen investigator. Though, in a world that runs on social media, I’ve found myself handicapped again. It’s hard to gauge reaction to posts when you can’t see faces or body language. So, I have lots of awkward dangling posts out there with no engagement. It was nice when I  had bestsellers and everyone just wanted to share my stuff because I was semi-famous. But, needless to say, with that deep understanding of human personality and the inevitable flaws that accompany them, I found it hard to trust anyone.

That changed with Diane. Diane had a vulnerability and a genuine desire to be open, sharing, honest, even when she failed to do so, that I dropped my defenses and became a heart on which she could rely. And she rewarded my effort by giving me her whole heart.

Since she passed I’ve found myself stimming again. Something I haven’t done in probably forty years. I feel like a fraud again, like my mask is back on to face the world. No one wants to be a wailing freak in the grocery store simply because her favorite brand of ice cream is on sale. I’ve suffered anxiety and panic attacks just leaving the house. I need a day or two to get my head wrapped around the notion of leaving the house or it is fraught with anxiety the entire time I’m out.

I’ve only recently realized that it was her reflecting my “posed” confidence back at me that allowed me to live almost twenty years without “fraud syndrome”. Pure, life-changing love, given and received, makes for a powerful tonic to the brain. Likewise, when that tonic is stolen away, the brain has forgotten how to function without it. Only the heart, the open, vulnerable, wounded heart is left to navigate the world, and friend, let me tell you, an open heart with no confidence is a recipe for personal disaster.

So, in an effort to stave off my imminent mental and emotional collapse, I’ve broken rule number two (and of course you can’t break rule 2 without also breaking rule 1); I embrace as a fact that Diane is still here with me. She’s simply hidden behind an invisible curtain but she’s still there, tending to my heart and I to hers as we did for almost 20 years. This is my survival mechanism. It falters frequently and I start to doubt it. But I always dig deep to grab hold of it again. This is how I plan on surviving. Don’t try to convince me of another reality; I’ll crash. Don’t try to reinforce my reality; I’ll feel patronized, and thus a fraud again. It is what it is. This is how I survive.

To her everlasting credit, she is still my muse. I had to step away from the thrillers because the edges of my stories (as you well know if you have read any of them) are sharp, cutting, ouchy… I can’t handle that at the moment. Maybe I’ll never be able to again. BUT, in divine muse form, Diane has inspired and carried me through writing a new kind of story… new for me; Satire, Fantasy, Angels and Demons…a laugh a minute, just as my sweet girl lived.

This is me. Felt cute, might delete later. Welcome to the brain of a shape-shifting supercomputer that sucks at math. Shows daily at 6:00 and 8:00.

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