Autism: My First and Deepest Closet

by Emily Smith

When my parents first inspected the house that would become my childhood home, they took stock of its ample rooms and inviting backyard. They pored over the kitchen and wondered what color to paint the bedroom. They momentarily lost track of their two-year-old (me), whose first inclination had been to hide in the broom closet.

I liked that closet. Extrapolating from the way I loved small spaces as a slightly older child, I imagine it made me feel safe. I craved the cool dark, the enveloping silence. I marveled that no one could reach me. I stood in the closet and giggled, and I did NOT want to come out.

Well, I know how to come out now.

After decades of confusion about my own romantic proclivities, namely how they never seemed to take bodily equipment or gender into any account whatsoever, I’ve decided that “pansexual” best describes me. Well, actually I say “pan.” It’s a small and innocuous shortening; it rolls off the tongue nicely and I find it cuter. “I’m pan.” Adorable. Maybe I should find some little cheap pipes and a fluffy fake tail for Halloween so I can be Pan then, too. Tee-hee.

It’s nice to be able to disclose this in my writing at last; I finally feel “unstuck” and capable of discussing any topic I need, including my girlfriend! (Unless she gives me permission to use her actual name, she will be addressed on this blog as Lovey. Because she’s my lovey.) She is the best and that is enough about her for now.

Disclaimer: I do NOT fall for literally everybody. Don’t troll me with questions like that. I still have standards, including the raw physical attraction that manifests toward some people and not others. Man/Woman/Other just isn’t anything I find influential in that.

It’s funny to look back on my latest coming-out process now (not that coming out is ever really finished; you always have to keep doing it). I’ve done this whole song and dance three times now, after all. I think I finally have the process down. And these days, I get to be in love the whole time.

Still, three closets is a lot, and I hope I don’t end up needing another. Allow me to elaborate.

Most recently, it’s been the whole sexuality spiel. I could’ve kept shut about it for a bit longer, but then I met my girlfriend and the label became more important. Dating another woman sort of forced me to know and understand what label fit. Am I a lesbian? No: I still like men. Does “bisexual” fit? Nuh-uh. There are lots of cute and exciting people in-between the whole Man/Woman binary (including my girlfriend sometimes). So it became “pan,” and I’ve had to explain a great deal about that, to a great many people.

Before that, there was the issue of my not believing in any immortal/religious sort of stuff, and what exactly I wanted to call that. I usually say I’m “secular” now because it fits. I am a creature of this world and not any possible worlds to follow. And I am at peace. Why would I waste a second of my life lying about that? (My truth is not necessarily your truth. But denying one’s own truth is always tantamount to lying.)

Once again, there’s this issue of what to call myself. “Secular” seems easiest, safest, and most accurate. In this country you can’t really say “atheist” without traumatizing half the Christians in earshot. Even if you’re like me and don’t mind forcing a confrontation sometimes, it is not worth the effort most of the time, because “secular” means exactly the same thing with less charge, and trying to reassure people about the state of your soul on a daily basis is exhausting.

I’m not one to pander to privilege – and believe me, if you’re an American who believes that Jesus Christ is your lord and savior, you hold so much privilege that you might not even be able to see it. You don’t always see it because you don’t always see people like me. It’s often not worth bringing up, and constantly being asked to repent or convert or otherwise apologize for existing, is just too hard for too many of us. But that is a topic for another time. The point is, this closet gets very scary too.

I don’t hide in my secular closet, but I keep it well-stocked with humor. At times, the words “heathen” and “infidel” come off their hangers. I enjoy them. The bafflement of believers at my peace with mortality, my relative lack of existential pain, can be a source of interesting thoughts and even amusement. I mean, what else can you do when confronted with these crusaders so incessantly? Wherever you fall in the clash, you have to laugh at the predictable way this dynamic plays out.

But my first closet was never so funny. My first closet of all, my first and deepest closet, was autism.

Yup. Being diagnosed as autistic, living as an autistic person, includes its very own walk-in closet, complete with door for varying degrees of openness.

I still remember the initial barrage of questions that pelleted my brain. If you’ve ever come out of a closet, you’ll recognize them.

What am I supposed to call myself?

Who do I tell?

Does this make me weird, or broken, or somehow not as good?

Who already knows? Who suspects?

What if everyone is judging me?

Who will be my friends?

Am I safe?

Why don’t the other kids understand?

How do I go on living now?

I felt inordinately depressed about the whole thing, for a very long time – ten months by my count. But somewhere in the middle of that, I started doing work with a therapist I liked. I liked her enough to work with her for ten consecutive years. I also joined an advanced math program, won English Student of the Month for the April poetry unit, and most importantly, made one really solid friend. Those formative experiences yanked me out of the Abyss and into something resembling a life.

Since it happened to me so early in life, and influenced my identity so much, the autism diagnosis left a pretty humongous closet behind. I don’t need too much more closet space than that. So in subsequent uncloseting attempts, I’ve downsized and decluttered. My other two closets are full of kitschy knickknacks and neatly folded towels. They’re not as scary as the first one. So here’s my advice to all the people with scary closets.

First, peek out of your closet. Can you show your closet to people who will help you? Maybe people whose closets look a lot like yours? If you can “find the others,” as Timothy Leary once said, you’ll be in better shape to tackle the rest of the project. You don’t have to sit in your closet alone.

Second, figure out what room your closet is in. Closets don’t spring up all by themselves. There is space surrounding them, space that defines the closet and makes it useful. How does your identity inform your life? Which of your friends and loved ones can get close to you in this regard? Not everyone in the world can share your closet, but the ones you love can stand in the adjacent room. They can help you chuck old junk out; they can help you pick out sweet new outfits. Unsupportive people will ransack your closet, and that really hurts. But you’ll probably find that most people you care about will smile, grab your hand, and take you shopping.

Third, make it part of your home. You can go on living with your swanky new closet. You can open and close its doors whenever you want. You can choose to deck yourself out in its colorful clothes… or you can let its snug walls be your shield, sometimes. You can put together a costume of stereotypes… or you can dress pretty much like everyone else, and savor the world’s surprise. You can do all of these things.

Nobody should live in a closet. But if you have a closet… use it, and use it all.

Who’s Teaching Girls to be Angry?

by Emily Smith

Now, you might have read the above in one of two ways.

The first of these ways is “come on, the internet’s full of angry feminists! Check Instagram and check Tumblr! They’re all crazy! I can’t stand it! WHO is teaching these stupid women that they need to be angry?”

This is probably not how most of you, our audience, would have read that. But certainly, it’s a view often proliferated, even encouraged, both in the dark recesses of Internet anonymity and the broad daylight of our quotidian lives.

You may even have read that tone into it without wanting to – that’s how loud this viewpoint can scream. It’s an exercise in privilege, and in irony, that boys and men in their usual environments can sometimes express so much anger… about someone else’s anger. The point, of course, is that they have the right to this anger. And women don’t.

So I’d care to illuminate the other half of this question, the genuine half, with honest concern and bafflement. Who IS teaching girls to be angry? Their parents, their teachers? In many cases, nobody. In most cases, not enough people.

In fact, this general failure to teach productive anger gets so entangled with our gender that even the words we use for “not getting angry” are domestic, traditionally effeminate in nature. We do not restrain our emotions; we bottle them. We do not build up resentment; we stew it. We do not sort out our feelings; we prune them like roses, sift them like flour. We boil over in our overwhelm. We cook up stories. We throw babies out with bathwater. And so on.

I claim a new language for the anger of women. A strong language. A dark, wild language. I am not “steamed,” “strained” or “drained” because I am not pasta. A thick-funneled vortex churns away at my heart and threatens to swallow it up, because I am a storm. And if you believe storms are fickle (as oh, so many do), you fail to understand weather.

Storms follow iterative rules; each molecular movement of the cloud depends upon the movement before it. This is why meteorologists run their simulators so many times, why the predicted path of a hurricane grows increasingly narrow as it approaches the shore. The possibilities appear chaotic, yet are mathematically predictable.

The path of a storm is a fractal.

The path of my anger is a fractal. Each measurable state depends upon the measurable state before it. And so I think it must be with “angry feminists” in our current sociopolitical climate. No one has given us the right to be angry (or feminists anymore, for that matter). No one has predicted us; no one has stood watch for our storms. And because there are no plans in place, we devastate the land.

To paraphrase Alexander Pope, “to anger is human; to believe, divine.” As human beings, we deserve our storms. One deserves a natural pattern of behavior, a climate to call one’s own. Even the sunniest of dispositions will occasionally darken, and even the darkest are not on constant tornado watch. As we know in this environmentally conscious world (or at least, we ought to by now), prevailing climate offers a range of variance. It is not the same as daily weather.

Certainly we all wish for fair weather, relative warmth and sunlight. This is a mercy in our lives, hence the dead metaphor of precipitation as “inclement.” Yet we understand that the elements of nature do not offer us eternal clemency. We watch, wait, and prepare.

I therefore advise all women and men expressing the storms of their lives: brace for those of others as if they were inevitable, because they are. Look out your windows; check your local listings.

Plan for the weather you see.

Fail Faster: A Change of Plans

by Emily Smith

The creative process and formatting of this blog isn’t working for me. So I propose an altered schedule, to revitalize our writing. Specifically, my own writing. I’ve posted here without my mother’s review, and indeed, without much revision. Sorry, Mom. I guess “autism” really is Latin for selfishness. But I HAVE to get this out there. I HAVE to get this seen.

The collaborative nature of this blog means that the two of us spend a lot of time talking to each other as co-authors before anything gets posted. But that also tends to mean, if we can’t find time to actively collaborate, nothing gets posted. We stagnate, regardless of whose turn it is or who has what posts done. I’m having a lot of trouble with this paradigm. It’s not working.

So I’m posting something every day now. Here are my reasons.

1. I feel compelled to do so. As a creative type, I find that listening to such compulsions usually yields ideas worth sharing.

2. Time I spend writing, especially for this blog, is time I always get back. It fuels a more productive day than I’d have had otherwise. That feels like I can do MAGIC with my time. I put an hour into the spell, and I get two more hours out of it. It’s a fountain, an unwinding clock, a wormhole of constantly regenerating time. It could make me immortal if I did enough of it.

3. Whenever I’m awaiting an editing session, I sprout this gnawing fear of failure. It makes me so twitchy inside that I can’t write anything good. At least, I can’t write what I think will be good enough. Robin Williams tribute? Not topical enough. Description of my day? Nobody wants to hear that. Generic post about a particular autism difficulty? But I could post that anytime! Where’s the perfection?!

But NO creative idea is perfect. Explained on their face, a lot of creative ideas are really bad! Check THESE out!

A video game about a plumber on drugs!

A play about two guys on a bench whose friend never shows up!

A novel about a bumbling old Irishman that’s full of nonsense words! Like the Odyssey, but NOT!

A picture of six hookers, but in the shape of REALLY ugly cubes! And the one in the corner is like, ten times uglier than the other five!

Yeah, let’s go there. Let’s make all that.

And we’ve got Super Mario Brothers, Waiting for Godot, Ulysses, and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, respectively. They’re works of media we love. They were gamechangers. They became classics in their genres. They made Nintendo, Nintendo. Made Picasso, Picasso. And they’re all totally weird ideas that probably met a lot of failures on their way to the final iteration.

Which is why I need to FAIL FASTER.

Failures transport us between Points A and B. FAIL FASTER.

Failures give birth to human interaction about those same failures. They spawn conversation, spawn revision. FAIL FASTER.

Failures on job interviews might get me down, but they’ll point me toward the authorial success I strive for, and deserve. FAIL. FASTER.

Mom, you can post as frequently or infrequently as you want. I am here to help. I’ll also be asking you for your opinions on these posts as much as ever. I hope you’ll be here to help me as well.

But I need. To fail. Faster.

And if you’ll pardon me, gentle readers, I’m off to my part-time gig, where maybe I’ll fail some more. Just as long as I’m failing faster.

“Get a Clue”: An Aspie’s Need for Specificity

By Emily Smith

The following is a compilation of several phrases that Aspies hate, in no particular order:

  • Be nice.
  • Try and “wow” me.
  • Do something.
  • Just make an effort.
  • Get a clue.

Here’s why we hate them. At least, here’s why I hate them. I’m guessing that a lot of Aspies agree with this designation of hatred, but for now I’ll speak for myself.

Consider the following. How many different things can each of these phrases actually imply? One person’s nice is another person’s nosy, so what kind of “nice” am I supposed to be? Even the most concerted effort can be useless if the approach is wrong— so how should the approach look? The “wow” factor is going to be unexpected and indescribable by nature, so how is telling someone to embody “wow” anything but useless? And finally, my personal least favorite. Get a clue.

A clue about what? How am I supposed to know? I hear that phrase as “hey! Learn what I’m thinking about, right now! Just go ahead! Learn that particular thing, with zero prior knowledge of it!”

Is that really supposed to be easy for me? How is that easy for anyone? Are there big blue pawprints on said “clues” that I just don’t see?

In a lot of cases, it turns out that there are. Social cues provide context that NTs have a lot less difficulty decoding and translating into corresponding actions. Aspies don’t have that, even if we learn the rudiments of it. If you’re frustrated with me, for example, I’ve learned to pick up on that. I pick up on that very much. It distresses me. I do not want you to feel frustrated about my behavior. But unless I’m told what the problem is, I probably don’t know what to do about it.

In the Harry Potter universe, there’s a device called a Remembrall. It’s a little glass ball that fills up with red smoke when its holder has forgotten something. The fatal flaw of the Remembrall is that forgetful people, who need its reminders most, don’t always get what they need out of it. As the absentminded young Neville told his classmates, “I can’t remember what I’ve forgotten.”  That’s more or less how I feel whenever I’m told something action-oriented, but vague. I’m glad to know I’ve failed to do something, but I have no idea what the something was.

Take this for example. I’ve been living at home for a long time now, which isn’t exactly a picnic for any of us, but for now it’s working. I always did chores and errands around the house when asked, so for the longest time I didn’t understand that my parents felt unappreciated. My demeanor still appeared ungrateful. After a year of miscommunications, in the messy aftermath of all our bottled feelings exploding, we finally landed on the idea that adults do chores without being asked.

That’s pretty dumb, right? Rock-stupid obvious. Most people my age would understand that after a year of living at home, or living anywhere with other people. I feel bad about not having known that, but I really just needed to be told that this was an ongoing social expectation. So I finally learned that, and I fixed it. I even found a part-time job and I’m actually moving out soon. I’m doing what others tacitly expect of me. I remember.

If you’re an NT who gets bummed out by Aspie behavior, try and take this with you. The way a lot of us tell people’s feelings is kind of like a Remembrall. Are we cool? Okay, Remembrall’s clear. Are you mad? Frustrated? Did we forget to do something? Red smoke. What’s it for? I don’t know. Panic, panic, panic.

Help us not panic. Remind us what we forgot.

I Love Being Fat

by Emily Smith

I’ve never told anyone that before. In fact, I’m not even sure I believed it myself until recently. Now that the holidays are behind us, weight-loss resolutions and new diets crowd our collective consciousness like Thanksgiving leftovers in an overwhelmed refrigerator. But why? Is it really so important for one’s silhouette to lack its occasional lumps and bumps? Is it worth the dinner dates missed, sweets unwrapped, Christmas teacakes uneaten? Is all that effort and worry really worth a physique that’s never even seen as “good enough” once it gets there? What kind of a way to live is that?!

If your answer is different from mine, please don’t worry about it. You’re entitled to your own feelings. But at least in my own experience, the answer to that question is “totally not worth the commitment. Being fat is awesome.” For real. Putting away all the holiday candy and ornaments never makes me think “oh shit, I’m super flabby now and that’s AWFUL.” I mean, I am super flabby now, even by my lax personal standards. Happens to me every single year, actually. But what of it? During the holidays, everyone cooks and eats and laughs together. We indulge in gift-giving and booze and eating red-and-green peanut butter cups whenever we damn well please. It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

Granted, I don’t want my fatness to get in the way of living. I don’t want to be inconvenienced by excess bulk; I don’t want to die before my time. I’m not even opposed to getting into better shape. There are just two things that everyone in my life needs to know, and will not change.

One: I absolutely, unequivocally, do not want to be thin. That’s not a knock on anyone who is, and it’s not a value judgment on body shapes of any kind. Thin is not my shape. “Stocky” is the thinnest I get. And that’s fine.

Two: In fact, it’s better than fine. See title. “I Love Being Fat”! That’s a true statement, and I don’t even have to justify it. I will anyway, though, because I live in a world where mere neutrality towards fat is considered subversive, and unless you’re reading this article in the very distant future, you probably live there too. So fasten your seatbelt. I’m warping us somewhere else.

I wouldn’t really be me if I weren’t fat. I wouldn’t relate to the world in the same way. I’d hardly understand my own body. There’s supposed to be a nice protective slab of fat all over it, and while other people might value me less for that characteristic, I don’t actually want my body to be that different. More muscular, perhaps, or more flexible. But skinny? Never.

Fat is for comfort. It lets a person lie comfortably in most any position. It’s perfect for long hours of idle chats with friends, tabletop gaming, and giving lots of excellent hugs. Fat is for loving and snuggling. Fat is for satisfaction and fun. Ever heard the phrase “fat and happy”? It’s mostly true. Because fat is for happiness.

I genuinely feel like my personality is conducive to fatness. I’m an accomplished cook, a lifelong gamer, and a family loyalist. I eat what I like, play when I can, and love whom I want. I prefer Sunday morning to Friday night. For me, all that is improved by a little extra give in the waistband. It’s here to stay.

I love being fat. If you let yourself find out, maybe you’d love it, too.

Forbidden Fruits

by Emily Smith

I’d like to take a detour from our usual program and call attention to the insights of another young artist, Lily Myers. She wrote an amazing slam poem earlier this year, one that any female/feminine listener must hear and understand with such immediacy; in three and a half minutes, Ms. Myers describes virtually all the accumulated hurts of our gendered lives. Even the third-party title of this link lays bare that stricken nerve: “Watch A Student Totally Nail Something About Women That I’ve Been Trying to Articulate For 37 Years.”

I cannot do it justice alone. Here it is.

Lily Myers Slam Poem worth spending 3 1/2 minutes of your life watching.

Screen Shot 2013-12-04 at 5.56.22 AM

If you identify as masculine, as a boy or man, I won’t exclude you in addressing this piece. In fact, it seems even more important for women to share this with you, the men in our lives. We love you to bits, but it hurts us when you don’t notice our frailties. Sometimes we need to hear that it’s okay to try for bigness. That permission can make a world of difference.

We feel small in our skins because men fail to notice our suffering, but also because other women don’t corroborate our feelings. Shrinkage is a hard problem to articulate; by its nature, it makes itself unseen. Despite the commonness of the struggle, nobody shares it. I doubt most women could have unearthed the raw emotion that Lily Myers exposes here, let alone denounce it as she has so bravely done.

We all face demons when occupying physical space, and I am no exception. Emotional eating is my ceaseless plague; all told, I’ve yo-yo’ed through sixty full pounds between June of 2009 and today. I currently weigh 190 pounds, nowhere close to ideal for my 5’3″ frame. However taboo or artless that may sound, my honesty feels right.

More taboo and artless honesties still to come, in what I hope will evolve as a series on gender and the autism spectrum. Today it seemed more important to cover a neurotypical base, a sort of default or control group for later contrast. Despite that, Asperger’s remains relevant. Stay tuned.

I never forget that my non-Aspergian female friends and family members understand demons, too. I count the following, nameless yet identified, among them:

  • A gluten-free vegan who does daily battle with both Crohn’s Disease and anorexia nervosa, quite the courageous “true, young and pure girl-woman” as she once wrote
  • A strong, fit teen who still went from designer sample size to an 8 within the space of a year (since grown womanly dimensions have this tendency to occupy more space, now don’t they?)
  • A gender-fluid female who resents her tiny hourglass waist — she would feel far more at home with a svelte, boyish cut of the body
  • My über-feminine high school gal pal whose body mismatches her indelible sense of self as a woman, and who makes a classier lady than most who are born to it

These women have so much more to offer the world than only their insecurities. Yet over the years, I’ve found I can best understand other women by considering them as self/self-image paired units. I confess to feeling awful about this; the women I know and love are full and dynamic characters. They make brilliant discoveries, speak vivaciously in many languages, seize control of their creative projects and build their own lives. Surely such positive traits should serve to identify them.

But no.

The body parts a woman hates, the workouts she despises but does anyway, the foods she’s convinced she absolutely must not eat— these are the facets of her character that prove as form-fitting and impossible to dismiss as her shadow.

We tell ourselves that beauty only goes skin-deep, but that hasn’t been true for a long time. Not since the summons of a seraph with a flaming sword. Not since the paradise where nakedness knew no shame. Not since two lovers sharing an apple marked the end of the world.

Each Day Thereafter

by Emily Smith

It’s Tuesday, like lots of other Tuesdays, and my old-lady pillbox needs filling again. You know the kind. Garish translucent plastic you can’t misplace, white large-print letters you won’t misread. Days of the week, pills of the day. I feel like I’m far too young to have one. Still, I have one. And today is Tuesday, like lots of other Tuesdays, which means it needs filling.

Seems simple, really. Take the bottles out of their plastic bin, cart them five feet to the bathroom, and pour out twenty-one tablets and capsules— seven of the former, fourteen of the latter. But at twenty-two, I balk at the idea that foreign agents serve as my body’s stopgap measures. I’m no bedridden invalid. Not to put too fine a point on it, but taking pills sucks. It means you’re old.

The pink progestin tabs, dressed to kill in their slim teal pack, soothe my singed pride a little. After all, they’re as tiny and rosy and round as the babies I’d rather not have. Every twenty-something’s best friend. Young people’s medicine. The pack suits them just fine. My other pills, the ones I think of as old-people pills, are not like that. They remedy more serious ailments.

The grainy beige wafers are Singulair, seven of them. The label says take it at bedtime, but I prefer morning. They’re for asthma; they provide a small but consistent baseline of control. My inhaler’s effect is more dramatic than it is lasting, and in truly senescent fashion, I often forget to use it. Hence, beige pills.

The capsules are smooth, green glass with miniscule black lettering: E 88. They might as well read “fulfillment,” “optimism,” or even “discipline.” They’re fluoxetene, generic Prozac. The label instructs me to take one for the first seven days, and two each day thereafter. A week into the full dosage, I feel like myself again. For the first time since last February, the me in the bathroom mirror looks happy by default. Given the last three fiascoes, I’d started to wonder.

I still have some half-empty bottles, and whenever I refill my pillbox I end up looking at them. I should probably throw them out. They’re half-expired and it’s bad form to keep random drugs around. Regardless, there they sit in the bin by my dresser, bull’s-eyes gathering dust, still ringed with the childish green plastic that marks them as mine for eternity.

Citalopram resembles nothing so strongly as Tic-Tacs, and I give the bottle a shake out of habit. It really did flat-line my depression, for a while. Too bad it also flat-lined my other feelings. The first week I took it, I suspected it might do nothing. By week three, I couldn’t stand all the nothing it did.

Sertraline is next in the Target Pharmacy bin of shame. I stayed with this one long enough to refill the pillbox a handful of times; I even took it on vacation once. I loved the look of those smooth, blue bullets. Over the weeks, though, unlikely but plausible self-harm situations began parading through my head at all hours. What if I slipped on a steak knife? Walked into traffic? Pulped my whole arm in the garbage disposal, jammed my house key in an electrical socket, and then poisoned myself with an obscene amount of anti-cavity toothpaste?! The list grew increasingly frantic, deadly, and absurd. Soon every household object in sight wanted to kill me. Bullets, indeed.

Terrified of my morbid imagination and convinced that no drug would help, I feigned happiness. The bottle stayed in its bin; the same fourteen bullets kept rattling around. You can tell that I stopped from the early date on the label.

There’s no third bottle.

I lied about sertraline for a long time— for much longer than I actually took it, in fact— and that is by far my worst failure. During all those months, I could’ve been feeling the way I do now. Instead, I withdrew from my social circle, spurned my family, took my crappy job too much to heart, and acted pissed off 24/7. It seemed easier than telling loved ones about macabre side effects. Looking back now, it absolutely wasn’t.

Let me be clear. New meds haven’t made me more sociable, even-tempered, or resilient. They do, however, help me stop worrying so much about my pillbox. It’s useful; it’s not the mark of a pariah. It’s a goddamn pillbox. So what.

Today is Tuesday, like Wednesday, Thursday, and each day thereafter.

On Taking Initiative…and Rolling for It

by Emily Smith

My first day of work!

My first day of work!

In this economy, it’s safe to say my family feels justifiably proud of me for having a full-time job. I’m pretty proud of it myself. I doubt, though, that we all feel this way for the same reasons. In the first place, you’re in a radically different boat when you say “my daughter got a job” or “my sister has a job,” versus when you can say “I work this job now.” But more importantly, at least to me, our sources of pride are various.

My sister’s emotions remain a mystery to me. She congratulated me along with everyone else when I landed the job. I congratulated her when she found out that she got her first part-time job. As far as I can tell, she sees me as slightly more “normal” now that I work. It makes sense, I suppose. She has this part-time job as a high school student, and even as a college student, my work experience was limited. Maybe she relates more to my life now. That’s a good thing, right?

If I had to hazard a guess, my mother is essentially proud of me for beating the odds of my peer group, despite autism. Given her past herculean efforts to make me functionally normal, I can’t really blame her for this. “Normal” society tells me this too, but I have an easier time agreeing with them on this than on most other things. A decade of wondering how your child is stunted, what needs to get done to catch her up with the pack, who’s lending her a hand this time, will do that to even the staunchest of advocates. (And yes, Mom, you really are the staunchest of advocates. I love you, and my sister, very much.)

Regardless of their positive intentions, both tend to think in terms of despite autism when I’ve accomplished something. They say, “Emily, you have so many challenges.” I agree, and they’re not minor challenges. Sometimes I wonder, though, if they forget I have gifts, and that those are not minor either. Maybe it’s the curse of adulthood starting to work on me. After all, it’s a common irony that children are universally special.

Conversely, despite the many highs and lows of my relationship to my father, I more often feel gifted than challenged around him. He and I are the other unofficial parent-child pair of the family. His conversations tend to fill up with “did you know that?” or “isn’t that amazing?” rather than “I know! Isn’t that color amazing?” But the exchange of seemingly random facts is our small talk. Don’t judge us; it works fine as long as you’re not hoping to hear about other people’s lives. And it’s safe to say, we never are. No offense, other people.

My dad seems proud of me for practical reasons. Reasons of money, productivity, well-being. Granted, I don’t always get this either. Ten years ago he was telling me to always follow my bliss. He still does, on occasion. At present, it seems like I can’t go a day without hearing how much of my income should make rent (a third of it), how to prioritize my other spending (needs first), and the merits of homemade sandwiches versus increasingly expensive fast food (you know, you can get an entire chicken at Byerly’s for $5.99! A whole chicken!). But hey, I’m still saving up to move out. I could use a nickel’s worth of free advice every now and then. Thanks, Dad.

So what makes me proud of the job? Not the job itself. I know, you thought we’d banter about what my job is like, didn’t you? Sorry, gentle readers, you’re out of luck this time. I’ll get the hang of banter someday. Maybe.

I get to use this job… to figure out other jobs. Yup. Read that again.

Why wouldn’t I just be happy about this job, you ask? Well, first of all, my job is made up of tasks that are easy, punctuated by tasks that are terrifying. For most people, those labels would probably be switched, since I think filling out complicated insurance forms is easy and phone calls are terrifying. But the contrast still stands.

The crux of the matter for me is that I get to use these new skills and this new environment to project myself into the future. I get to see what I like to do and don’t like to do, where and how I like working, and with whom I might eventually work. That’s useful information I didn’t have before.

I’ve always had this ambition to “be a writer,” and sort of vaguely figured the day-job stuff would happen later. Now the day-job stuff is actually happening, and I’m feeling pretty awesome about that. It’s Phase Two of “What do I want to be when I grow up?”

I could write and… conduct actuarial research! This one would be lucrative, plus I’d be awesome at it.

I could write and… work with animals! The kid in me still really wants to fly out to Galápagos and tag penguins FOR SCIENCE! It could happen.

I could write and… do marketing for an RPG gaming company! So far, I like this one best and think its timetable is the shortest. If anyone at Paizo Publishing reads this, I would climb the highest mountain to work with you. Which is good, because you’re based in Washington. Anyway, I love you guys, so roll for initiative. And I guess I should make a Climb check.

Bottom line: This is my first iteration of adult life. And it’s the first iteration of many. The function that drives them: What kind of bliss can I follow, to keep my other bliss alive?

That’s one glorious fractal.

Odd Ducks Anonymous

By Emily Smith

As a young woman on “the Spectrum,” as all autism-like disorders may be dubbed, I am sometimes frustrated by the degree to which people will prematurely, and incorrectly, judge me as inept in the arena of sociability. Now, before I progress any further on that subject, let me assure you: people who judge me this way are often more correct in such judgments than I would always care to believe. Not entirely correct, mind; they’ve got a point. And as my maternal grandfather might’ve once said, if they part their hair right, it won’t show. A kinder way of saying, you might be onto something, good buddy, but I just don’t give a damn.

I suppose the best way to begin this massive endeavor called the Fractal, might be to make a small personal confession. They say the first step is admitting you have a problem— or, in my case, a quality that occasionally causes problems. As my “gentle readers,” you’re officially part of my group now, so let’s jump right into the chaotic roil. Fasten your seatbelts, everyone.

My name is Emily…

“HI, EMILY!”

And I am an odd duck.

What do I mean, exactly, when I declare myself an odd duck? Well, for one thing, I’m the kind of person who isn’t afraid to use an awkward and possibly outdated phrase like “odd duck” to get the proper point across. If anything, its awkwardness makes the phrase fitting, more opportune, almost charming in a rather dopey sort of way. I’m a painfully honest, right-up-in-your-face word blurter who cannot always restrain her internal dialogue to those safe little thought-bubble clouds that most of the populace carries around out of habit. This affords me a great deal of automatic stress relief, as well as a range of expressive freedoms; at least in the realm of interpersonal calm, I breathe rarefied air. Of course, the flip side of this is that I can hardly swing a dead cat in a circle without smashing into someone else’s delicate feelings. Heck, I might’ve just caught some grief for a dead cat joke there. Wouldn’t be the first time.

I’m also a self-professed geek, which doesn’t usually bolster my “image.” I’ve rolled an awful lot of funny-shaped dice in my time. I more often ponder “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” than “the real world, here and now.” It sometimes lands me in hot water, especially if someone is trying small talk. The world of imagining is big. Not more important; by no means haughty. Just big. Thinking big while talking small, you’ll find, lends a person the look of constant boredom with the world as it actually operates. As repercussions of geekdom go, this is about the only one that sometimes catches me wishing I were a little more “normal.”

Social awkwardness and/or geekness may deter people from learning my true personality, but I make an unswervingly loyal friend. A peer without peer, as it were. For loved ones who approach me with painful scars and burdensome personal secrets, I unconditionally drop my fog. I listen without judgment; I comfort without doubting motives or questioning sorrows. In my experience, neurotypicals rarely display this trait. They seek few social burdens. Perhaps they sleep better for it. How rare and valuable, then, must a seeker of social burdens prove.

My own seeking originally sprang from the fear that my friends were false and would leave me. At least in my youth, they were; and they did. I still fear losing those I love more than is healthy, but my fears more often give way to an appreciation for friendship that few could claim to match. That is what my autism means to me, and what I hope it may mean for others. My oddball exterior, when allowed its foibles, gives way to a gooey center. Call me a friend; it is yours.