The Asperger’s Closet: On Coming Out
My brother chose the night of my high school graduation to come out to our father, who had raised us after the divorce. I was the younger child, and the black sheep to my brother’s shining sun; the day had finally been about me. After the speeches (I’d given one), and the interminable procession, we’d be allowed to go out for Mexican, which counted as exotic fare in our small town as late as the summer of ’84, something my father usually wouldn’t tolerate (the food along with the people). We’d come home and were having one of our long “family talks” around the dining room table, the kind where my father ranted for hours, full of black Irish emotion and passionate philosophy, weaving the story of his life with ours, or his version of it.
We can tell each other anything, he said. We share our truths. I wasn’t sharing mine, not any of them. I was sitting quietly listening, enmeshed in the family dynamic that was built more on myth than fact. Into this fiction my brother intruded his truth, that he is gay, that he had always been gay, that he had been experimenting while away that year at college. He was ready to own it. I had known since we hit puberty, and I was glad, relieved, that he had decided to come out. Coming out is never easy. But his timing was terrible. My night of celebration turned into a trauma.
My father’s agony was real. One of his two adult best friends, my Uncle Dick, was a gay man who had been murdered in a hate crime years before–well, pulled from his car after his windshield had been hit with a brick and assaulted until he fell into a coma; he later died of his injuries. They had never spoken of Uncle Dick’s same-sex attraction, and, my father said, that had made their friendship possible. With this unwelcome truth out now between my father and his son, something unspeakable had been said. Something that wasn’t shared even between men like brothers, certainly not between father and son. It doomed his son to death. It put an insurmountable barrier between them. On every level, it literally and without exaggeration terrified him.
Therefore, on the night of my high school graduation, my father somehow found the God he had rejected so that he could punish my brother with Him. In the years that came after, they continued to struggle. My brother argued that my father should accept him completely, and my father argued that he never would. He could love my brother, but not that part of him. He knew my brother, but could never know all of him. At their closest moment during those after years, my father even helped to move my brother and his lover (an Army nurse) into their new place out of state. But there was always something gone wrong at bottom, and the uneasy truce wasn’t bound to last. During that move, they got into a terrible fight over something incidental, like who was unpacking slower or driving too fast to follow. Conclusion was, my father raced home afraid my brother was going to use the spare key to our childhood home to get into the house to kill him. He changed the locks. They haven’t spoken again. Not as far as I know; I’m not speaking to either of them.
My coming out has been different and much less traumatic than my brother’s, but it, too, carries a gift and a price. I’m not talking about coming out with an alternative sexuality, but with an alternative identity just the same: disclosing to people that I have Asperger’s, or high functioning autism, or asd.
If I were a gay man, people would be inclined to believe me when I told them so. With Asperger’s, a common reaction is skepticism. The person I’m telling has a relative or a friend of theirs has a relative who is a classic autistic. I don’t fit that stereotype. I’m verbal and don’t sit on the floor rocking (although if I stand long enough a rotate, or swing my torso, from side to side–something we call stimming). Or, they think of the socially incapable uber-nerd who is male, but here I am, a woman. I seem to have social graces (seeming is believing). I can make eye contact (admittedly, too much). I can make small talk (not often or for long). Or, they just flat out believe that Aspies are unicorns, invented out of some bizarre inclination toward wish fulfillment, maybe a desire to be special, to find a label for introversion or eccentricity that has a certain clinical ring to it, as if by making such a claim virgins will want to ride us and the forest of twilit dreams will be ours and ours alone to roam.
Sometimes, when people do believe, even then they might express that it’s not a big deal. They’ve got friends who are geeky-nerdy- introverted-techy-socially awkward-brainy people–maybe even on the shy side. I’m not shy, I tell them. I’m not reticent. I’m what they call “active but odd.” Hang around me long enough, or do away with one of the many interactive scripts I’ve learned to run, and prepare to be — well, it depends on your tastes and maybe my mood. Charmed. Stumped. Annoyed. Amused. Uncomfortable. There’s a range of reaction depending on our chemistry. And it’s not that I enjoy rejection or that I’m impervious to it, but I care much less about it than a socially normative person might. I’ve got rigidities. Obsessions and collections (a hoard in the skull). Sensitivities to stimuli. Imagine a cat with its back up, making that Halloween cat face of alarm. I’ve got one of those inside my nervous system, ready to jerk upright just behind my face at any given moment. It happened today in a meeting, when someone dropped something with a crash. I jump and grimace. Twitching. I have to concentrate to resettle. Literally, the surface of my skin stings all over, arms, legs, chest.
I’m different, and finally someone sees. One day, not long ago, a woman at my new job was teasing me. She’d found me sitting alone in a meeting room, waiting for the thing to begin. I always try to be on time, or a little before, and I do it even in a place where people have a culture of running a little late. They’ve told me they run late there. But it doesn’t matter to me. I have developed an internal standard that punctuality is polite, and therefore I do it regardless of others’ social expectations. So she is teasing me, saying that I must be so lonely, so very lonely, sitting there all alone in my aloneness. Party of one. Loner. I’m reminded of that scene in the Steven Martin movie (The Lonely Guy) where he sits down in a restaurant to eat alone, feels self-conscious, and the universe fantastically manifests his self-consciousness as a spotlight shining down only on him. But I am not lonely. I don’t care that I am the only one in the room. I have plenty to think about, and I often bring something to read, anyway, just in case I run out of interesting thoughts. I tell her, to stop her from interrupting my thoughts and for Gods’ sake emoting at me in that too loud, cheerful-neighbor-over-the-fence voice, that I am not at all lonely, and that I don’t get lonely, not in the way she means. I don’t generally long for other people. I only ever miss particular other people, and then sometimes, not always. There was something in the way I asserted this that made her pause. She understood, I could tell, that there was something new in the room with her, something she wasn’t used to encountering in the daily course of her life.
Glimpses like that into another person’s awareness of my difference are validating. Not because I want to be different, but because I am different from most people. I can’t help but be keenly aware of this in my every interaction with strangers or people of limited acquaintance. It doesn’t make me an object of pity to myself. I am not a victim. I am not necessarily Aspie proud, either. It is what I am; it’s not something I’ve achieved. The moment when I move from self-awareness to advocacy is the moment when I sense someone has recognized my difference and rejected it. That someone might not realize he or she is rejecting Asperger’s. It’s akin to a conventional heterosexual finding an effeminate man or masculine woman distasteful. I seem like something they recognize, except there’s something else about me that’s too remote, or blunt, or analytical, or serious, or intense. I’m staring at nothing with an unfocused gaze, or my interest in manifesting fake cheer has dwindled (all too easily and often). Then that someone recognizes a distasteful difference, without getting all the way to giving it a label. And if I gave that kind of person a label to explain it, would that render me more palatable to them? Or would they believe instead that there is some kind of medication that could help me to conform or therapy that could fix me?
It wasn’t that long ago that a woman to whom I’d revealed my Asperger’s made that very suggestion, that there must be some kind of therapy. Yes, Aspies sometimes benefit from social skills training or motor skills development or cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety. Some of us take medication to help with anxiety or depression. But the fact is, we’re born this way–whether others believe us, accept us, or reject us. Baby, as Lady Gaga would say, we’re born this way. We’re freaks and geeks.
Just as with my brother’s experience in coming out, however, the most important reaction to difference is one’s own. It has taken me years to understand myself as someone with Asperger’s, to accept that Asperger’s is a form of autism, and even to acknowledge that this may put me at a disadvantage in certain contexts, despite my intelligence, ability, and confidence. And lately, I’ve been coming to a different place still.
These days, my Asperger’s is seeming less like private information, something I can only confess about my son in order to help him gain support services at school. We have a lot of positive talk in our home about what it means to be Aspie; we’ve come to admire the gifts, laugh at the quirks, and shrug at the deficits. So maybe there is some real value in coming out–not as much to the neurotypical world in the hope that we’ll eventually gain understanding and acceptance, although that’s something to shoot for, but so that we can embrace one another and come to a greater understanding and acceptance of ourselves.
This, then, becomes the foundation on which we stand to face the world.