I’m six years old. Standing on the edge of a sharp, terrifying structure that the eighties described as an “Adventure Playground.” My mom has come to pick me up from school. She lights a cigarette. Asks why I’m not playing with the other kids.
“Well,” I say, “my brain’s different.”
She inhales. Nods. Gives me the gold foil from her pack of Matinée Slims to play with. I close my hand over the perfect, crinkly texture, as she exhales.
It may not have happened this way. I remember every piece of this moment, but can’t quite put them together. She tells me about it casually, years later. “Even then,” she says, “you knew.” She quit smoking years ago. There’s no gold paper anymore. So I reach for the space between us, and crinkle it.
My childhood has a sense of pleasant malfunction, like the sound system failing in a venue where everyone’s still having an okay time. I like lists, so here’s a list of things that made me inexpressibly anxious. Some of them still do:
loud noises (including voices)
unexpected physical contact
expected physical contact
jokes and laughter
bright lights (like Gizmo)
space and time
As an adult, when I read biographical work by autistic writers like Melanie Yergeau and Sarah Kurchak, it’s like staring into a mirror. Someone else hated socks as much as me? Someone else practiced facial expressions? I encounter a popular Reddit post about a woman whose boyfriend feels betrayed when he discovers a detailed, relationship-tracking spreadsheet on her laptop. My first thought: I’ll bet it has a lot of great tabs.
I can say a lot of things about my childhood behaviour — like the year I spent clearing my throat, my unconvincing argument that the shower was painful, or the summer I had to draw my feelings for a child psychiatrist. I’ve asked my parents about this, in retrospect. “You never complained,” my mom says. Which is true. I lacked the vocabulary to explain what I was feeling. My dad is indulgent as well. “You grew out of that,” he says. Which is also true, in a sense. I didn’t stop. I just learned to hide.
Middle school is […]
There’s no emoticon for it.
The best moment is when my mom, confused by how many classes I’m skipping, makes a deal with me. She convinces our doctor to write a note that gets me out of gym class, and I spend a year working at the library. I can still feel the warm light-pen in my fingers, scanning barcodes, the flash of red, the beep, the smell of paperbacks and creak of the revolving shelves.
My therapist says: You did the best you could with the information you had.
They also say: It sounds like a horror movie.
I know this is sideways. Residual. Past imperfect. Like Wart in The Sword in the Stone, I can’t help thinking of how there [is] something queer and precious about time. It sidles, surprises you.
I fall in love with a boy. He gives me panic attacks, like the narrator of Sappho’s “Hymn to Aphrodite.” I am, she says, and dead. I can’t look him in the eye, but I’m very conscious of his legs in shorts, his curly hair and staccato laugh. We play The Secret of Mana in his basement, where he shows me spells and cheat codes. I lie awake on the floor of his stifling bedroom, wondering how to cast this.
I fall in love with a girl. She’s a writer, and a fan of soft sweaters. I still have a birthday card from her that’s filled with cryptic jokes. We laugh in the backseat of the car, while her mom turns up the Christian music station. I’ve always had trouble talking, but with her, it’s different. We talk until the phone burns my cheek. Until she starts dating the boy I also love. Eros is a verb, says Anne Carson. A shitty one.
College is a series of parking lots, long stretches of blacktop. White-hot terror at the thought of group work. Academic probation. Then, around the second year, it’s like someone suddenly adjusts the tracking function. I write weird essays about Italian courtesans, Renaissance optics, and The Symposium. Reading and re-reading Martha Nussbaum where she calls it a harsh and alarming book. It makes us choose between body and soul, while at the same time it makes us see so clearly that we cannot choose anything. I feel like the character Alcibiades, who shows up drunk and bisexual to the party and spills too much information. Only I’d never go to a party.
Grad school is a surprise. Applying doesn’t seem like something I’d do. But I guess I did. I’m immediately put on academic probation again. I can’t follow the rules or read the cues. I can’t pronounce Foucault. I get lost a million times in Vancouver. I wedge my car between two posts, and a Samaritan has to help me. I get so drunk that I nearly set fire to a Norton Anthology of Literature. So drunk and stoned that I turn to a friend and say, I feel like Margaret Cavendish in a hot air balloon. A seventeenth-century philosopher who was also awkward as hell, and probably on the spectrum. I write two books, and people tell me that I’m like a machine. Since I always connected with Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, I take it as a compliment. I have a tiny nervous breakdown, sleep on the floor with my cat, move back into my parents’ place, and read forensic slasher mysteries by Patricia Cornwell. The anti-depressants make me feel like I’m in a tin can. I win the Governor General’s Award.
I spend a year in New York, on a research fellowship. My supervisor is an academic idol who’s gracefully dying. We have a lot of chats with her supine on the couch in her office, drinking ginger ale to combat the nausea. At one point, she says: Bodies. Can’t live with them. I still think about this, and the sound of rattling ice in her tumbler. I go on dates because it’s the only way to talk to other humans in the city. One guy works at an upscale Vietnamese restaurant. He politely offers me a bump of coke when I come over for the first time, but I decline. We smoke out of a pipe shaped like a glass slipper, and watch Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion in his bed. That, and seeing the unicorn tapestries, are my two greatest moments in Manhattan.
A strange thing happens: a year after the 2008 recession, I get a permanent academic job. I’m living with my ex in Montréal, and dating a guy who studies the films of Pedro Almodóvar. They wash over me like a beautiful queer acid trip, as I labor to conjugate simple verbs in Spanish. I ask him for a literal translation of some lyrics to a Shakira song — something about living under the pavement — and he says, you can’t translate everything. Which, like The Symposium, seems harsh and alarming. I move to a small town in the prairies, where I end up teaching queer literature to small, nervous groups of students. One night, I hear what sounds like a gunshot in my apartment. I rush into the living room. A casserole dish has exploded, sending debris all the way from the kitchen. Molten snow litters the brown carpet. The cat watches, unimpressed, as I cut it away.
Now we’re close.
I’m 30 when I take the job. At 31, I have another breakdown. I’m reading The Satyricon, and feel trapped by Petronius and his descriptions of sinister alleys. I show up to class, and a student asks, gently, if I’m ok. I’m paper-thin, unkempt, wordless. I can’t read my own lecture notes. I listen to Lady Gaga’s song “Bad Romance” over and over, while trying to write a doomed article on Baroque sexualities. I read about wombs with cupboards, and what happens when you’re born in the wrong spot. I was born three months early, weighing two-and-a-half pounds. My mom had to tickle my feet in the incubator, to keep me breathing. In a famous poem, Catullus asks for a thousand kisses plus a hundred. It’s so specific, so settled. I’m not settled. I spend hours in my friend’s car at night, staring straight ahead while we talk about prosody and EGA games from the eighties. One night, we see a drunk man, pausing outside his door. He’s not sure, my friend says. He doesn’t know if it’s home or not. Another night, we see a coyote. It walks right by us, rail-thin, certain.
A student says: Sometimes I struggle a bit in class. I have Aspergers.
I nod, and say, me too.
I’ve never said this before, never known this, and simultaneously never been more certain of anything.
We both smile.
I go home and watch YouTube videos of people on the spectrum, just talking. I watch video after video, frozen in place. My voice. My eyes. My motions. The chorus in my head that I could never identify until now. Like crashing a reunion for a family you didn’t know you had. I lay on the floor with the cat. The laminate cool against my cheek.
Her tail makes a comma between us.
This is it.
Well, not quite.
I come out to my co-workers. Their responses are gentle and baffled. Sarah Kurchak talks about the act of coming out as autistic as a kind of daily impossibility:
I spent twenty-seven years trying to convince people that I was normal enough to leave alone, and no one ever fully bought it. When I finally knew why that experiment was such an ongoing failure, though, few believed that either.
Everyone is politely skeptical. They say all academics are weird, and actually you seem normal, and don’t rush to label yourself. When I ask the department head if I might be able to discuss some issues, they say, you’ll need a diagnosis before we can offer you any kind of accommodation. I don’t feel like someone who needs a diagnosis. I already have a great job, a salary that I can live on, a CV packed with accomplishments, a tight circle of friends — could a person who needed a diagnosis have done any of that? Isn’t this actually fine? I close the door to my office, turn out all the lights, and rub the pebbled walls.
I show up early to my appointment at the Autism Centre. It’s taken over a year to schedule the meeting, because they rarely see adults. Two neuropsychologists have driven hours from the neighbouring city. The office is brimming with pamphlets about how to be socially appropriate. Resources for children and teens. I feel ungainly as I sit in the waiting room, in my adult body. I’m called into a room, where one of the psychologists gives me two different tests. I recognize one of them immediately as the emotional inventory created by Simon Baron-Cohen, who’s notorious in autistic circles for his biased, sexist research. I write in the margins: This test has been largely discredited. I answer questions about how I’d negotiate complex social situations. It’s hard to answer honestly, because I know what I should say, which is different from what I want to say. Two people write the tests. Two people sit politely, riven, in the waiting room.
The two psychologists take me through a number of social scenarios. They line up a series of objects, and ask me to construct a story out of them. I know this is designed to test the limits of my empathy and creativity, to see if I have “mind-blindness” or an inability to see other perspectives. I want to say, that’s a car, a pumpkin, a roller skate, wait, are people roller skating again? But I tell a story, because I’m a writer. I answer questions about my childhood. Questions about my relationships. Half the time I forget to make eye-contact, or modulate the tone of my voice, but sometimes I can do it unconsciously. I am extremely uncomfortable, but I smile and speak in a breezy way, because that’s what I’ve been trained to do. They can’t see that I’m clenching my toes.
I come back later that day. Both psychiatrists sit across from me, smiling faintly. One of them speaks to me, at all times, as if I’m a child. I imagine she has training in ABA. The other is somewhat world-weary, but speaks more casually. They tell me that my case is ambiguous. The tired psychiatrist says: On paper, you fit the criteria for high-functioning autism. Everything you’ve told us about your childhood suggests that you’re on the spectrum. But in person, you don’t seem to struggle as much.
The other psychiatrist adds: It’s possible you’ve learned to mask too well.
I’m expecting this, but it still leaves me feeling dizzy. If I collapse in that moment, if I lose it, will I be autistic enough?
I ask: Where does that leave me?
They both exchange a look.
The world-weary one says: You could pursue this. Do more tests. But with your self-presentation, and all your social training…it’s unlikely you’d get an ASD diagnosis. Even if you do fit the criteria on paper. Even though you probably are on the spectrum. The most they’d probably call it would be — She thinks for a moment — residual autism.
I blink: Residual?
That’s when symptoms present in childhood, then seem to disappear.
I don’t tell her what really happened. The symptoms didn’t disappear.
I walk home in the prairie sun. Everyone’s grass is dry spun gold, and a hot wind has already destroyed my hair. I call the person I’m not supposed to be able to have a relationship with, and tell them how it went.
I think of all the people I’ve dated, who gave me clues about myself. All the fights and awkward silences and misread signals. All the times I couldn’t say what I needed to. The moments I ran away, because emotions were too vast. The things I missed, and the things I saw right away. I think about how these people have loved me for precisely who I am.
I remember us, drunk, in the change room at The Bay, while I try on a blouse with a low neck. Chest hair sticking out. All my soft parts on display.
Well, you say, that’s perfect.
The psychiatrists send me a letter with my residual, imperfect diagnosis. I put it in a drawer. It’s possible I’ve lost it; or maybe I know exactly where it is.
Melanie Yergeau uses the term neuro-queer to describe a particular, neurodivergent way of thinking. A rherotic that comes into being through movement and the residues of movement, through creeping, sidling, ticcing, twitching, stimming, and stuttering. A rhetoric for people who have traditionally been seen as un-rhetorical, lacking appropriate communication skills. A way of being sly and crafty in the face of overwhelmingly ableist narratives about how we should exist in public space.
Now that we’re in quarantine, I’ve returned to my old stims. Squeezing a foam ball. Snapping my fingers. Pacing. Lining things up. Staring at the bright spines of books. The cat curls up with me and we watch Schitt’s Creek. In an episode about wine-tasting, Moira Rose tells her son, David: You and I — we’re two potent grapes. Good, but potent. Two people who can never quite fit into this small town, while at the same time, people keep inviting them back. David is shocked when Patrick proposes to him, because he never imagined something like that happening to such a grape. Wine flows throughout the show, as a metaphor of blending and expansive taste. In the very first season, when declaring his pansexuality, David says: I like the wine — not the label.
I think about wine and mind labels, smoke and crinkling paper, a generous, sensory pour. Aged. Low-fi. Residual. Blended.
The pleasures and shocks of being a potent grape.