An Autistic at a Party

I had what I call “a bad autistic day” today. On a bad day, I feel like my head is filled with wet cotton wool, I lose all peripheral vision, my language skills and hearing get impaired, and I can’t perform many of the very simple, basic tasks. I was trying to work on my translation but I had to keep looking up in the dictionary words like “smooth” and “eternal”.

And this, of course, had to be a day that I had to attend a departmental party.

This was a baby shower for a colleague I really adore, so missing it was out of the question. Besides, I had promised to bring a dish, and the person who was organizing the party – and who is a colleague I adore even more – was counting on me to bring the dish.

Honestly, it took all I had to make the shepherd’s pie I wanted to make tolerably well and deliver it to the party.

Autism gives one many amazing gifts but it also limits you a lot on what you are and can do. I even have to tell N. regularly, “I’m autistic, you have to accept that I will do XYZ.”

So this was one of the bad days.

The moment I got to the party, a colleague to whom I speak to every day at work exclaimed, “Oh, so this is your husband! You have to introduce me to him!” And, of course, at that point I didn’t remember anybody’s name, including hers. I felt completely humiliated.

“This is N., my husband!” I announced. “And these are my colleagues.” The colleagues (all of whom were instructors and adjuncts) must have surely thought I was snubbing them for not being “real professors” and, therefore, worthy of being presented by name.

I know that I should have discussed my autism with my colleagues who are instructors by now, especially since one of them, according to the departmental rumor, has two autistic sons. However, it has been quite a trial on my patience to discuss it with people I hang out with more often. Some try to pretend I never mentioned it and just talk over me out of a sense of discomfort. Some start treating me like a have a terminal disease to the extent of leading me to a chair. Some get so uncomfortable that I start wondering whether, instead of autism, I might have said I have three heads, two of which are growing out of my ass.

Nothing makes me happier than discussing autism but it’s hard to do when people just clam up whenever you mention it. So I stopped bringing it up in a professional context.

During the party, a colleague came up to me, put her hand on my forearm and said, “Look, I just heard about your predicament, and I have to say that I’m very very sorry. My husband and I had to go through the same thing, so I totally get how you are feeling right now.”

N. and I recently were told that the green card process will be delayed for moths yet again. For us, this means N. will have to stay unemployed for at least 6 months more. Of course, we are understandably distraught. I had no idea how my colleague had found out about all this, but I was grateful for the compassion.

‘Thank you!” I said. “It is very hard on both of us.”

“You know, my husband and I had to keep trying for ten years before we got there,” the colleague said.

‘Ten years?” I thought. “OK, that’s just horrible. Nobody said it could last this long for us.”

“And you know what happened?” the colleague continued. “We finally got what we wanted. And – believe it or not – just nine months later we got another one!”

“This is getting too weird,” I mused. “Why would anybody want a second green card 9 months after the first one?”

So I wandered off and then a second colleague accosted me.

“I have just heard you’ve been trying to get pregnant forever,” she said. “This must be so hard on you!”

Before long, another colleague approached me to share his compassion with my supposed conception issues.

Finally, I realized that somebody must have started a rumor that we’d been trying fruitlessly to get pregnant and were suffering as a result. It’s good that I don’t mind this specific rumor, but just imagine a person for whom this is, indeed, a sore point. What kind of emotional damage such rumors could have caused?

When my sister got pregnant but was still unwilling to share the news, her colleagues practically hounded her with endless “Are you pregnant? I know you must be” questions. Finally, she snapped and said to her most insistent colleague,  “Please try to concentrate on what’s going on between your legs rather than what’s happening between mine.”

This is a piece of advice many people would be served well to heed.

And I’m Also Annoyed By. . .

. . . the posts of people who are acquainted with somebody who was acquainted with somebody who died in 9/11. It’s like having some tenuous connection to one of the victims is some sort of emotional capital that people want to milk for as long as they can. 9I’m not talking about people who were actually connected to the victims, of course.)

I’m in a bad mood, so I will now annoy everybody – including myself – by sharing how I learned about the events of 9/11. At least, my story will be short.

I was a student and, as usual, was late for class. When I ran in, bleary-eyed and still half asleep, the prof announced, “Have you heard? The Americans attacked themselves. They crashed airplanes into the World Trade Center. It’s just like what happened in Cuba in 1898. They must be planning a war with somebody.”

I thought this was all some weird, outlandish joke and didn’t believe either the explanation of the events or that the events had even taken place.

I Don’t Know Why But. . .

. . . all of these posts on “this is where I was when 9/11 happened and this is how I reacted to it” make me feel very uncomfortable. The statements of the “and the world was never the same after 9/11” variety make me even more uncomfortable. And then there is the supremely annoying “there was such a sense of solidarity after 9/11, why can’t we have that back instead of the political bickering?”

The worst ones, however, are the ones who place “9/11” and “the loss of innocence” in the same sentence.

It seems like inanity is the favorite response of many people to traumatic events. 9/11 has been literally drowned in platitudes of the worst order.

What If You Are Not Horribly Busy?

On her blog, Z wrote:

I do not think it is the work itself that is hard, I think it is the working conditions that make it hard. One of these working conditions involves having to listen to warnings about how hard it is and so on, and how you need to feel that it is hard.

I had to respond to this, and here is what I wrote:

This is SO true. I was at a committee training session last week, and the person conducting it kept repeating, “I know that you are all horribly busy, I know that all of you barely have a moment to breathe, I know that all of you have too many obligations as it is. . .” Maybe this was supposed to sound reassuring or something but, to me, it just sounded like something was wrong with me because I didn’t feel all that busy, had ample time to breathe, read, blog and take walks, and didn’t have all that many obligations.

I just hate this idea that unless you act the role of a permanently exhausted academic, you will be seen by everybody as an underachiever and a non-productive person. I fulfill all of my work-related obligations very well, and it doesn’t make me all that horribly tired or busy. I don’t think this makes me a bad academic or a weird person.

I recommend that you read Z’s post in its entirety because I find it very insightful and refreshing.

What Is the Cost of Being Full of Promise?, Part II

The Full of Promise Rising Stars (FPRS) are so successful in their teenage year and their twenties for precisely the same reason why their thirties will be drab and their forties an exercise in complete and utter misery. All of their early successes are motivated not by an internal need to excel in these particular areas but, rather, by the constant need to win the approval and acceptance of adults. The fantastic grades, the awards at school and then, later, at college allow them to play the role of the perfect child whom everybody praises for being good and obedient. Such kids are celebrated by adults for embodying those adults’ dream of seeing an unproblematic, “perfect” child.

The tragedy, however, is that in the process of trying to embody the dreams of adults, such a perfect child never gets a chance to figure out what his or her own dreams are. The entire goal of such a kid’s existence is to please. When s/he grows up, however, there are no more adults to please. Now, you suddenly become an adult, and the criteria you need to fulfill to be successful at this new stage of your life are completely different. Those same adults who praised you and encouraged you are now competing with you. The daily boost of self-esteem suddenly disappears.

Many FPRS attempt to reduce the psychological burden of feeling like their promise amounted to nothing by having kids and pushing them into the role of adult-pleasing little prodigies. These are the parents who boast that their kid could read at three, speak Chinese at five, won 5 dancing competitions by the age of 6, had the best scores at all tests in primary school, etc. This allows them to relive vicariously their own stellar moments of FPRSness. Then, of course, their children become FPRS, and the entire cycle repeats itself.

An alternative way out of the inevitable disillusionment of FPRSness is to do what one was supposed to do during the teenage years and the twenties and start figuring out who one really is, outside of anybody else’s expectations or desires. Of course, this is a task that becomes progressively more difficult as one grows older. More often than not, a successful journey out of the FPRS destiny includes renouncing all the people-pleasing achievements of the previous years and finding a completely new direction of personal development. And that can never be easy.

What Is the Cost of Being Full of Promise?, Part I.

Two posts in my blogroll made me ask myself this question today. The first one, provides the following quote from Sylvia Plath:

“What horrifies me most is the idea of being useless: well-educated, brilliantly promising, and fading out into an indifferent middle age.”

The second one tells a story of two kids who were stellar students in high school, whom everybody considered super promising, but who didn’t manage to make it through college despite all the promise:

The scholarship offers rolled in, and he took the one from the school that accepted his AA degree and promised to fund his first two years in law school. He was a college junior at 18. His cousin from another state—which at the time promised free tuition at state schools for any resident who had earned a specific high school rank and grade point average—had one burning ambition: to get a “free ride.” And he did. Predictably, both flunked out. The golden boy didn’t survive the first year.

We all know those people who, in their youth, are described by everybody as rising stars. “Watch this kid,” people say. “He will go far.” “She is so full of promise.” “They have such a bright future ahead of them.”

More often than not, the bright future remains just that, a future, and the promise never gets fulfilled. The brilliant kids reap admiration, rewards, and applause for years as they glide slowly into their thirties. And this is where (maybe a little earlier or a little later) the applause and the admiration stop. Nobody celebrates their promise any more because the time for promising is long gone by this time. The former golden kids (a term suggested to me by the third great post I read today) are left feeling confused and anxious.

“Why was everybody celebrating my every little achievement yesterday and now suddenly nobody seems to care?” they ask themselves. “Why am I suddenly not everybody’s precious prodigy any more? How did I suddenly find myself in the role of an ordinary, nondescript adult?”

It is all the more difficult for such people to settle into middle age comfortably since their teens and their twenties were so filled with admiration and adoration that it becomes impossible for them to accept that all this cheering has suddenly gone away.

So where do these Full of Promise Rising Stars (FPRS, for short) come from and, if one happens to be a FPRS, what can one do to escape from the seemingly inevitable disillusionment of growing older without having achieved anything all that great? Why is it so hard to transform a promising youth into a happy adulthood and a brilliant middle age?

I’ll tell you all these things in my next post.