Smile. That’s what a teacher told me every day in high school. He didn’t teach any of my classes. Just saw me in the halls. I had this whole Lana Del Rey thing going on. Before it was cool.
Anyway, this teacher didn’t even know my name. But he wanted me to smile more. Never mind that my mom had tried to kill us that weekend. The police had dragged her out in handcuffs in front of our neighbors. One of the officers had looked at me and teared up. Rookie.
Sometimes this teacher added a little pep talk. My problems would dissolve if I just changed my outlook. Made friends. Joined a church. Held my chin up and waved at people.
Maybe I should listen to more upbeat music, too.
He asked if I knew that smiling actually, scientifically, made you happier. That’s when I got suspicious. Sure, the studies existed. So I tried, and it did nothing but wear me out. After a day of smiling, I felt worse.
People also started to wonder if I was on meds. My smile doesn’t look natural. If I don’t feel like smiling, but I do it anyway, I look like a broken Westworld bot. Uncanny valley, here we come.
One night, I took another friend’s advice and tried praying. At 17, for the first time, I got on my knees and looked up at the moon. Forced myself to address a god that I knew didn’t exist. After ten minutes, I felt like a fool. Not because I expected anything. Because I’d done something I didn’t believe in.
Self-help assumes you’re normal
So much advice out there targets normal people. The neurotypicals. I’m not sure normal people exist in real life. But plenty of people pretend they do. From talking heads to motivational speakers, the idea of average reigns supreme. Success always means a normal life.
A normal life with more money.
Look at all these morning routine blogs. Not one of them talks about people with sleep disorders or anxiety issues. Maybe I missed that one. Most of them seem to be written by dudes in the 20s.
A lot of the advice columns out there assume a normal brain. Normal desires. Normal habits. They define happiness the same way.
They assume you don’t have problems interacting with people. You don’t get distracted by chitchat outside your office door. Showing emotion comes easily. Small talk somehow lies in your tool shed.
According to self-help central, your main problem is you spend too much time on social media. You stay up too late watching Netflix. You don’t eat enough kale. You don’t read enough. You lack passion, motivation, or grit. And you don’t believe in yourself.
Maybe you play too many video games.
Or maybe you’re just lazy.
Life advice aimed at the average person won’t help people like you or me. It might even make things worse. Sure, we’re all different. But some of us have more differences than others.
For me, I need hours a day to myself. I don’t like meetings. I don’t like power lunches or networking. Sure, I can do it. But too much of that leaves me feeling drained. Unfocused. Unproductive. Teaching a three-hour class exhausts my social energy. After that, I need two hours of solitude and coffee. So I can recharge.
Otherwise, I just might go to jail for assault.
It took me a long time to figure out my need for solitude. Everything bad in my life stemmed from one simple fact — not enough time to myself. I need more than the average person. So I’ve learned to stay aware of when my skin’s getting thin. Even my spouse understands.
But you’re not normal
In my late twenties, I started having strange episodes at parties. Not exactly panic attacks. Because I’m stoic. But after an hour, my brain would literally shut down. I wouldn’t know how to respond to conversation. Everything felt awkward and self-conscious.
So I’d leave. Sometimes right in the middle of a conversation.
Even before that, I had issues. In college I started crying for no reason. Made some poor choices based on what I thought my emotions were telling me. If I was crying randomly, that must mean I was unhappy. Obviously I needed to make a big change in my life. Like dump a boyfriend.
Or drop out of college.
Or quit a job.
Around that time, I also started feeling rage at random times. That obviously meant someone had wronged me. So I let myself tell other people “how I felt.” That’s supposed to be a good thing.
Normal people are supposed to express themselves. Talk about what’s going on in their heads.
But neuroatypical people probably shouldn’t do that.
Self-help tells normal people to be themselves. What a crock of shit. At least when it comes to weirdos like us. We’re always filtering. There’s simply no other way. And we just don’t do it for others. We have to filter out the static from our own heads, too.
What I’ve learned is to do the opposite of trust my gut. It’s taken years to hone, but I know how to manage and filter my different states. Most people have no idea I’m atypical. My plan is to keep it that way. I don’t make decisions based on how I feel. Only on what I know.
Maybe you don’t need to change
The self-help mindset focuses on changing yourself. Not on adapting your environment to your needs.
Some people have told me I should work on my weaknesses. Like maybe I should somehow get used to loud noises, foot traffic, cars, and loud dogs. One asshole even told me, “You’re hearing those things because you want to. Try to focus on being more positive.”
Thinking happy thoughts won’t get my articles written. This guy was giving me advice on how to live my life. But he worked as a cashier at Staples and drank a bottle of Tequila every night.
If only an over-confident ass hat like that could live inside my brain. He’d be able to hear car engines from miles away. He could hear a paper clip drop in someone else’s apartment. Every footstep his downstairs neighbor made. Every dog barking within a six block radius.
It wouldn’t all be bad for him. He’d be able to identify a song by the first note from a car passing by a block away.
But most of the time, it would suck. Finally he would realize that some people don’t choose to hear everything. They don’t decide to be difficult. And they can’t think away the shape of their brain.
One piece of self-help that’s done wonders for me: practical solutions always do better than changes in mindset. So instead of meditation, I bought an iPod and downloaded a bunch of white noise soundtracks.
What the hell are emotions?
A lot of self-help doesn’t even make sense to me. Dealing with guilt or loss. Overcoming fear. Finding acceptance.
Maybe I’m wrong, but I doubt neuroatypical people want acceptance from anyone. Mostly, we just enjoy co-existing. Leave us to ourselves. We’ll be fine. Enjoy our work, our contributions — artistic, intellectual, or otherwise.
For me, maintaining friendships is hard. I’ll get focused on a big project and forget to socialize for weeks. I’ve got to plan my social outings. I’m not good with spontaneity. It fucks me up.
My struggles have mainly involved the absence of emotion. Years ago, my fiance dumped me because he thought I was empty.
Most people I know would describe me as cold. Distant. Calculating. It took me a while to figure out these weren’t compliments. So I’ve had to learn how to express the kinds of emotions they expect.
Mainly by watching Netflix.
I’ve learned more about humans from television than any other experience. The way they talk. All the little gestures. Voice intonation. These days, I’m like a real girl. Back in my teens and early 20s, my difference practically slapped you in the face.
So another piece of self-help advice: If humans confuse you, watch television. Not sitcoms. They’re not realistic. Find some good dramas and dark comedies. Basically, I’m giving you permission to binge watch.
You enjoy being alone. But you also need people. Not as much as a normal person does. Still, you have to put in about the same amount of time. It feels like work. That sucks. Most people enjoy dinner and drinks with friends and colleagues. For you, it’s effort. And you have to do it. So treat it like a job. Do it right. Give yourself a long walk the next day.
Night owls can rule their world
One reason I do most of my serious work at night — it’s fucking quiet. I can concentrate. Normal people don’t bang on my door and ask me to solve their normal ass problems. Which I do enough already.
All the self-help out there tells you to go to sleep early. Wake up early. They don’t think about people with delayed sleep phase syndrome. Or people on the spectrum.
Following most self-help guides would ruin my life. I’ve had to figure out for myself how to live. I’ve worked my ass off to succeed in a career that affords me a more flexible schedule. If I absolutely have to be somewhere before 10 am, I can do it. But that’s not often.
In my 20s, I had to work jobs that started at 9 am. Those were rough times. To make it happen, I had to be in bed by 11 pm. No messing around. I didn’t do much except work, exercise, and sleep.
My life felt sterile. Almost lobotomized. Lucky for me, I’ve never worked like that for more than a few months at a time.
I’ve had to work with a weird brain. I’ve gotten pretty good at it. Where my mind fails, it makes up for in other ways. There’s so many different paths to happiness and success. It looks and fits differently for everybody.
I’m a “highly functional” Autistic. It takes a lot of work.
On engineering a life that suits my neurotype.