All That’s Left Behind

In Season 2, To Be by Rhonda Nebiyou

For my entire life, I have felt like an outsider looking in.

Growing up, there were a lot of ways I knew I was different that would crop up at different ages. Obscure and obsessive interests, and touch aversion immediately come to mind, but some of my earliest and most distinct memories surround my preoccupation with patterns. I see them everywhere, all the time and unintentionally.

In adulthood, this has been especially useful in documenting and predicting human speech and behavioural patterns. As a child (and occasionally still), it wasn’t uncommon for me to intuitively count the syllables of certain phrases I read or heard from pinky to thumb, hoping they’d sum to a multiple of five, or to tap out binary patterns that grew exponentially by evening up (I’ve since come to learn that this is called the Thue-Morse sequence).

The trade-off of this unintentional ability, however, is the inability to unconsciously filter out irrelevant information from my environment. That is, hypersensitivity to stimuli—particularly sights and sounds—often leads to information overload and the inability to process it effectively. As a teenager, I couldn’t understand the ease with which people navigated a world that is too bright and too loud, let alone interact with it.

Sometimes I enjoyed the puzzle of figuring out the peculiarities of a particular social situation. Still, for the most part, I couldn’t understand the selective use of honesty, or the insistence for vague diction, or the inability to sit in silence. This type of alienation defines various moments throughout my life. Moments of observation where I distinctly remember thinking to myself: I must figure out how this works.

And I succeeded, to some extent. Over time, fragments of my personality became cloaked in what I understood to be socially acceptable. For once in my life, I felt affable—but this did nothing to quell the inkling that I was innately different from my peers. Instead, most interactions became incredibly draining and disorienting because they reinforced the belief that I was inadequate, that I must mask my struggles for any semblance of a normal life.

Predictability, then, became something of a lifeline for me. I was convinced that with enough knowledge and observation, I too would become adept at navigating life because I knew not only what was expected of me, but also what to expect from others. This included modulating my tone of voice, gesticulating appropriately in conversation, finding humour in things I didn’t quite understand, and steering clear of any pedantic questions or observations. The issue with this approach, though, is that life is not predictable. At the same time, this ability to see and comprehend everything, constrained by an inability to understand or explain it in a way that makes sense, was something I had expected to grow out of, but I never did.

Midway through the pandemic, I finally understood why. At the age of 21, I realized that I was on the autism spectrum. When your experience of the world is markedly different from that of most people’s, acceptance doesn’t come naturally, and getting from those nascent thoughts to a fully realized sense of acceptance was a brutal and often nonlinear journey. My first instincts were to research all of the ways my brain made me different, all of the ways I could “better” myself. But over time I learned that acceptance meant letting go of the idea that I would someday become a more competent, mature, socially adept version of myself. It meant acknowledging that I could stop questioning who I was because being autistic is completely inseparable from who I am.

All the parts of myself and all the struggles that I went through when I was younger feel almost reconciled to me now because I was never “weird” or a screw-up or broken—I was simply autistic. People often emphasize how difficult life is for people on the spectrum, and while this is true, I can earnestly say that the experiences I’ve found most painful were avoidable. Since my diagnosis, I no longer ruminate on things I could have done differently, or hold myself to unreasonable standards, or worry about articulating my needs to others, because it’s allowed me to view my behaviour through a softer lens, and pinpoint moments in my life where others could have been kinder.

Like most undiagnosed adults, I was bombarded with a slew of other diagnoses growing up: major depressive disorder, social anxiety, and OCD. But I now realize that these are largely a symptom of aspiring to an ideal that simply does not exist for neurodivergent people and having to cope with the aftermath poorly. For many of us, donning a façade of quiet normality engenders a sense of security, and in doing so, we often turn to self-harm, eating disorders, substance abuse, and other means of subduing our senses. We effectively exhaust ourselves to the point of collapse in the pursuit of acceptance and assurance. Eventually, though, our ability to soldier through life reaches its breaking point, and our carefully crafted neurotypical personas deteriorate. Those of us who are lucky recognize, soon after this point, that we’ve actually been harbouring a hidden disability all along.

Such a late diagnosis might seem unusual to most, but it isn’t actually that uncommon —especially for women. Many autistic women do not possess traits that align with the “white boys who are obsessed with trains” stereotype, and so we suffer quietly in ways that are palatable—a manifestation that arises from racism, homophobia, transphobia, and classism, just as easily as it arises from sexism. In turn, the majority of autistic women are perceived as neurotypical, if a little “off.” In my parents’ eyes, I was merely a precocious and oftentimes hyper-mature, oftentimes hypo-mature, youngest child. They didn’t want to believe that I was so different from other kids, and on my good days, I’d like to believe that I’m better for it in more ways than not.

I wonder if my younger self would be incredulous at my life now. I was so unkind to myself growing up and internalized the worst things anyone could say about me because I believed them. Looking back at that child now and that shy teenager, I wish I could tell her that she is loved, that she is not a failure. I wish I could tell her that her brain will never process the world like most, and all the best people kind of dig it. I see her staring so intently at her books or her stamp collection or her figurines, and I wish I could tell her that she’s autistic—and that it isn’t only OK, but good.