Dec 23, 2011 0 Share

An Excellent Driver

Sepia-toned photo of author leaning out of driver's side of car.
Photo by Brian Holman

Society often refuses to recognize the unique person behind the autism. This doubtlessly results in great pain and frustration, but my own experiences demonstrate that it can be equally traumatizing when society fails to recognize the autism behind the person. I suffered greatly throughout my undiagnosed years. I was jailed and confined to mental hospitals for long periods of time, forcefully incapacitated by powerful drugs, constantly criticized, misunderstood, emotionally invalidated, manipulated, and abused. Please don't assume that the road of a "high-functioning" autistic is an easy one to travel. 

So how did I avoid diagnosis for 25 years?  

Only several months ago I knew nothing of the autism spectrum. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I’m pretty sure I thought Forrest Gump was autistic. Well, life is like a box of chocolates … you never know when you might be diagnosed with autism. I owe my diagnosis to the explosion of autism awareness in popular culture.  A girlfriend, confused and annoyed by my behavior, mentioned that I reminded her of a certain eccentric, obsessive, and notoriously rude public figure suspected of having Asperger Syndrome. A month later I was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder.  Whoda’ thunk it?!  

My diagnosis should have come as no surprise. I was always aware of my differences, but my exceptionality camouflaged my disabilities. When I was 16 years old my family began lovingly teasing me with a “Rain Man” reference. “Scotty is def-def-definitely, definitely an excellent driver.” Oh, the irony…  

I really am dangerous behind the wheel of a car. I once managed plow into three separate parked cars in as many minutes. I failed my driving test several times before I was finally granted my license. In all honesty, I really didn’t care if I was ever legally able to drive (I was far too interested in collecting vintage movie posters). However, my mother seemed to think that acquiring my license was a vital rite of passage and a necessary step towards social acceptance. I tried to justify my use of marijuana by saying the same thing—she didn’t buy it. 

The morning I finally passed my test, my mother had shared a bit of advice with me that forever altered my approach to life’s challenges. “Scotty,” she said, “why don’t you act like you’re a good driver?” While initially irritated by her suggestion, I forced myself to consider it on the ride to the DMV. By God, she was right! I was neither confident nor capable, but a stranger had no way of knowing this. I could fake it! 

While I no longer drive, I can proudly say that I am still legally capable of doing so. Following my mother’s suggestion, I learned to fake my way through the high school social scene. I became a highly skilled actor, playing whatever part was expected of me. I hid my deficits and eccentricities behind a carefully crafted veneer of confidence and social poise. Unfortunately, keeping up appearances meant making certain that no one got close enough to see the truth. As soon as I let my guard down, I would immediately offend, confuse and alienate those rare individuals granted access to my secret vulnerability.   

I quickly grew tired of living a lie. I was desperately lonely, empty, and lost. Temple Grandin has famously described feeling like “an anthropologist on Mars.” This is not the easiest way to grow up. Neurotypical children must only turn on their televisions if they wish to see their peers interacting in familiar situations. Autistics are often portrayed in the media as caricatures. These stereotypes only exacerbate the misunderstanding and mistreatment of autistic individuals.   

I recently received a letter from a woman who wanted to know how she could help her 11-year-old autistic son to fit in at school.  I considered her question carefully before writing her back. This is what I said: 

“It will only be a few years before your son is in high school.  He may want to be cool and you may want this for him. I am familiar with the pain of social exclusion. 

I learned how to fit in by studying and imitating the behaviors of my neurotypical peers. Unfortunately, most of these students had achieved social success at a price. It isn't difficult to climb the adolescent social ladder. There are five easy steps to instant popularity: 

  1. Wear popular brands of clothing.
  2. Drink alcohol.
  3. Have sex, or convince your peers that you are sexually active.
  4. Disrespect authority figures.
  5. Mercilessly taunt any peer who does not follow steps one through four. 

Your son will soon be pressured to take these steps. They will, no doubt, assure popularity, but those who follow them will lose their integrity and individuality in the process. High school is no walk in the park—thankfully it is brief. Your son mustn’t trade self-respect for the fleeting admiration of his adolescent peers. 

If he wishes to be admired and respected by others, he must first admire and respect himself. It is never too early for him to embrace his individuality, learn from his mistakes, and move forward. Confidence and self-respect will take him far. 

Always remember, fake people are faking their happiness as well.”

My diagnosis enabled me to finally understand myself. Understanding is the first step towards acceptance. I do not exaggerate when I say that my diagnosis saved my life.

It is difficult to witness the rise of autism awareness, to see parents and children being educated, guided, and provided with early intervention. I learned to survive the old fashioned way, graduating at the top of my class from the school of hard knocks. I had no real role model, no one who understood what I was going through, who had been where I was, and could teach me how to be a man. I wandered alone through my most confusing and difficult years. 

I'm a better person for having endured my undiagnosed years. I blame no one for my past grief. We didn't know ... 

Yet, I have so many regrets. This is why awareness is important. This is why I write. No one should be made to go through life alone, figuring it all out for themselves. I’m not an excellent driver, but that’s alright. The world has plenty of excellent drivers, but we could use more excellent autistic writers. Every time I send awareness and understanding out into the world, a little regret loses its grip on my heart, and slips away … There went some, just now …