My Spot on the Spectrum


I finally did it: I took the Autism Spectrum Quotient test.

I've heard for most of my life that there's something not quite right about how I relate to other people. I don't pick up on nonverbal cues, I struggle and lose patience with small talk, I'm sensitive to clothing tags and repetitive noises in my environment, and I can have a powerful focus on something that interests me, to the exclusion of everything and everyone around me. And yes, I meant to say "not right," because that is how others around me have presented these personality traits when they've assessed me.

I've responded in several different ways to this assessment. At times I've been hurt by it, humiliated to be seen as somehow deficient, lacking in essential survival traits. At other times, I've become angry, insisting that this is who I am, damn it, and I have every right to be myself. Anger like this can lead me to dismiss the person making the assessment: What does he/she know? Who is she/he to decide what constitutes normal? A more reflective response has been to look for ways to remake myself, to become more like the person the assessor clearly wants me to be: study conversation strategies, put myself in situations where I can learn to better relate to others, try as hard as I can to be someone else.

There's a common theme linking all these responses: that there really is something wrong with me. Who I am isn't working for whoever is judging me. The result is rejection.

I know I'm not alone in having these feelings. I've been aware in the last year, and have blogged about extensively, an upswell of introverts insisting that we're tired of having our personalities judged by extraverts. I've certainly bought into this theme, and see myself in much of the descriptors introverts use for themselves--but not all of them. Introversion and extraversion are poles of a spectrum, and probably most people fall somewhere between the extremes.

Which brings me back to whether, in fact, there's something wrong with me. The word "spectrum" has come into common parlance as a safe term for an individual who sticks out from the norm in ways similar to my own idiosyncrasies. I've used to myself to describe children who don't act or react in ways typical for their age cohort, and occasionally to describe adults who demonstrate quirks of focus and communication similar to my own.

All right, I've been dancing around this long enough. On the 50-point autism scale, with 0 being no autistic tendencies at all and 50 being extremely autistic, my score is: 25.

What, exactly, does that mean? It means I have autistic tendencies slightly above the national average.

I emphasize: slightly.

And once more I say: slightly.

So now I know. Based on a subjective self-administered test, I come down slightly above average for autistic tendencies. That's pretty much what I expected. I am slightly abnormal, slightly quirky, slightly spectral, slightly autistic. So what?

So...please be patient with me when I don't know what you're thinking from the expression on your face. Maybe make a little more of an effort when you're talking to me to be sure you say what you mean. And try not to get too frustrated with me when I'm so lost in a crossword puzzle that I tune out the world for a few minutes. Meanwhile, I will work to cut you more slack for being less focused and not as plain-spoken as I prefer. Because here's the other side of being considered abnormal: over time, I've come to believe that the qualities so many others deride are actually good to have, are, if anything, superior to the norm I'm being compared to.

Consider the part about non-verbal cues: while I agree that humans communicate in far more ways than just language, and that part of the beauty of being in a relationship is growing to understand each other's body language, I do think the world would be a better place if, when communicating publicly, people worked to be more plain-spoken.

And then there's the matter of focus. Every teacher I know wishes his or her students were less scattered, more focused. Yes, with focus can come an inability to shift gears, something one has to do many times a day at school; but lessons run much more smoothly when students aren't distracted by conversations, daydreams, and what's happening on the other side of the classroom windows.

What I'd like you who are reading this to consider is whether we should be judging things according to norms at all. As a social race, humans naturally will be more successful when they interact smoothly with each other; as a tool-using race, we advance faster when people with high focus can work on innovations. Ideally, we value one another as differently gifted individuals, and seek to enhance each other's contributions to the commonweal in any way we can. For me, that may mean asking for clarification when I haven't gotten the full gist of what you've said. We may also begin looking for opportunities to utilize each other's gifts. If you grease the social rails for me, I may be able to present an innovation to our larger community that transforms it for the better.

I realize that's pretty vague and speculative. The point I really want to make is that each of us has tremendous worth just by virtue of being human. The autistic children I teach struggle to cope with the many stimuli of their surroundings, but when they focus their attention on what I'm teaching, they learn far more rapidly than their peers. Because I'm teaching music, though, and music is a communal art, it's essential that they broaden their focus to include their fellow musicians. I hope the same is true for them in their other classes, that their teachers are able to see them for the potential they possess, rather than the problems they present. I know it's an uphill struggle. I also know that at the school where I teach, autism is just one of a host of issues facing teachers; and in fact, it has the virtue of being well-understood, with a host of classroom strategies that work. The same is not necessarily true for all the poverty-related issues children present.

The best thing we can teach these children is that each of them is valuable. Growing up, perhaps they can apply that teaching to those they encounter who differ from themselves, whether it is from their placement on some arbitrary spectrum, their ethnicity, their sexual orientation, their religious affiliation, or some other category humans use to set themselves apart from each other. Perhaps it's an approach you could benefit from, as well.

Here's hoping you already use it.

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