Strange. Weird. Different. You think you might be autistic, but your friends split into camps. Some describe you as “our favorite psychopath,” but others think you’re not cool enough.
You take tests, but they all ask if you’ve ever hurt an animal.
No, but that’s because you like animals way better than people. You’d probably save your cat’s life over ninety percent of humans.
Everyone wants to be unique, as long as it doesn’t come with any stigma. Even in strangeness, we still want acceptance.
Lots of us hear “different,” followed by “wrong.” Even worse, they vaguely suggest testing — but don’t give you the resources. By “they,” I mean everyone. Teachers. Counselors. Your friends. The testing never happens. Because your parents don’t want you stuck in a special ed class.
How embarrassing, to have confirmation of your weirdness.
Besides, your grades are fine. It’s not that you have trouble learning — just interacting, and following directions.
Schools don’t know how to handle that.
So you make it into adulthood, knowing that you’re “weird.” You do the best you can to pretend. Act normal. Hide in the crowd.
Random teachers tell you to “smile” in the hallway. But you can’t. Your smile looks bizarre. It creeps people out, because it looks fake. You look like the beta version of an A.I. program.
In fact, research has shown that fake smiles rely on different facial muscles. The phony smile, something most girls master in their teens, eludes you. The cool kids, regardless of gender, can charm their way through almost anything with the right smile. But not you.
Your kindergarten teacher screams in your face. She asks what’s wrong with you. She tells your parents that you’ll grow up to be a stripper, or a prostitute, or a porn star. As if those are bad things.
You fail most of your standardized tests. The ones they give little kids, to see if they’re normal.
You are not normal, and your teachers hate you for it.
You have a knack for hurting other kids’ feelings. You ask questions that make them uncomfortable.
Things even out in grade school. Not only do you learn how to act like everyone else. You also get good at tricking people into doing things they wouldn’t normally.
You start lying to people, just to see what you can get away with.
Your parents sit you down for weekly, police-style interrogations. When you ask them what’s wrong with lying for fun, your dad leaves — saying he feels sick to his stomach.
You make thirty dollars by selling Happy Meal toys and shiny rocks from the playground. You also start the first adult comedy club at Bellmont Elementary. This gets you in trouble.
You’re always getting in trouble.
Your teen years
Somehow you emerge from puberty as a shocking success. Guys stop you at the mall, with your parents. They say things like, “You have nice skin.” You have no idea what this means.
You think it might be an insult. If someone found you attractive, then surely they’d compliment more than the skin. They probably mean, “Her skin’s nice, I guess. But everything else…”
So you ignore them. Because you don’t know how to respond. Besides, you’re with your parents, at the mall. It’s already a bad day.
You get invited to parties every other week. But people quickly learn that you’ve changed on the outside only. You’re still awkward. At one party, another girl flips you off in front of a crowd.
You laugh, because you think this must be some kind of joke you don’t understand. Someone whispers, “Is she crazy?”
Yes, you are. Because the next day, you flip off one of your best friends for no reason, to see how they react. They get offended and stop talking to you. Oh, so there’s not a funny way to flip someone off. You try to apologize and explain, but it’s too late.
You discover alcohol, and now you can start talking to people like a normal human. Sort of. You make friends and go out drinking. As long as you’re in a crowd, things go just fine.
But for every problem bourbon solves, it introduces a new one. Unfiltered you creeps people out even more.
At 2 am, you confess to a friend what you’re really like on the inside. You tell her how hard it is not to judge people, and how you always feel this relentless drive to do and be more than everyone else.
Your friend asks you to leave.
So you start hanging out with people who share more of your hard edged personality traits. You befriend the other outcasts, known as cutthroat bitches and assholes. These are your people.
These friendships come with trade offs. In exchange for their company, they get dibs on your boyfriends. If they can lure your guys away, then that’s your fault for not pleasing them. No hard feelings.
They have the right to play pranks. To lie to you out of their own self-interest. Oh, and you have to entertain them.
You can respect that, for some reason. And you even start poaching some of their boyfriends. It feels like a fun game.
Some of your other friends abandon you, because your new crowd has such a bad reputation. Buck fuck ’em. For once in your life, you don’t have to pretend you’re someone else.
You find a job with a decent salary. The job requires you to move, and now you have to make a new group of friends. That’s hard, so instead you dive into work. People remark on your lack of a social life.
But you don’t really mind. For you, a social life has always felt optional. In fact, you find the new absence of social obligations refreshing.
You can work as much as you want. As a tenure track professor, you’re even complimented and rewarded for long hours. Even more than you were in grad school. Plus, you actually get paid to work hard now.
Besides, if you want to relax, you can just watch a movie. You enjoy going to movies alone. Once, you run into an acquaintance there. He jokes, “I won’t tell anyone we came here alone.”
You shrug. “It doesn’t bother me.” You wonder why it would be embarrassing to be seen alone at a movie theater.
Some of your students comment on your ice cold demeanor. They say you intimidate them. This baffles you, because you don’t go out of your way to act mean. Still, you accidentally make a grad student cry.
This incident causes you to reflect on your life a little more. People have always described you as distant, cold, and even “a little scary.”
You remember one time a friend said, “Most people aren’t sure you like them. It’s just something about your look.”
So what are you?
A specialist says you might be on the autism spectrum. You’re 31, and nobody has ever even mentioned this possibility.
You score high on different autism tests. But when you tell people, they don’t believe you. “Maybe you should get an official diagnosis,” they say.
But official diagnosis of anything costs a lot of money. You ask psychologists and counselors at your work — a university. They tell you an official test can run upwards of $500. That doesn’t include counseling sessions.
Or brain scans.
What you’d really like is a brain scan. You daydream about all the little charts and diagrams they could show you.
Your HR department never gives you a straight answer about coverage. They basically say take the test, run the scans, and submit the claims. You think to yourself that maybe one day, you’ll do that. Like maybe when you finish paying off your student debt.
But by then, maybe it won’t even matter.
So maybe you’re a psychopath, or you have autism. In lieu of affordable diagnosis, you just assume you’re both. You do your own research. And live the best life you can.
Maybe the label matters less than figuring out how to deal with your own problems, regardless of how they’re classified in manuals.