In this extract from Nerdy, Shy and Socially Inappropriate: A User Guide to an Asperger Life (forthcoming October 2014), author Cynthia Kim talks about the origin of the labels used in the book’s title and how she’s reconciled those aspects of herself since being diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at age 42.
While I’d heard of Asperger’s, I’d never considered that it might be something that applied to me. Sure I could see myself in some of the symptoms, but who didn’t?
I’d told myself that having Asperger’s was similar to being shy—a really bad case of shyness—which made it easy to dismiss. And I wasn’t that shy, was I? I had a job, a child, a husband. I interacted with people when necessary.
I carefully avoided the qualifiers. I had a job that I’d structured around all of my little neuroses. I had a child to whom I’d stopped saying the words “I love you” as soon as she was old enough to talk. I had a husband who was growing increasingly frustrated with my often cold, controlling behavior. I interacted with people when necessary and no more.
One day, as I listened to the radio story on Asperger’s, I felt like they were talking about me. Not about someone like me, but about me. I don’t know what made that story different from the others I’d come across about Asperger’s. And there had been many—my fascination with Asperger’s Syndrome and autism should have been an obvious red flag, warning me that my subconscious was trying to tell me something.
Maybe I was finally ready to see the big picture. Whatever the cause, the result was a feeling of lightness—like Asperger’s Syndrome was a bucket that would hold all of the things about myself that I found confusing and painful and shameful and frustrating and hard. Maybe finally having a place to put all those things would mean I wouldn’t have to juggle them anymore.
Intrigued, I began reading everything I could find about autism spectrum conditions. It quickly became obvious that Asperger’s was more than a collection of social and communication problems.
There were dozens of little tells that were undeniably me and had nothing to do with being shy or introverted. The way I often talk too loudly or too quietly. The intense interests in unusual topics. My blunt honesty. My heavy dependence on lists and routines. The way I don’t recognize people “out of context.” My discomfort with compliments. The list was long enough for me to finally admit that it might be a good idea to get evaluated for an autism spectrum condition.
As hard as that admission was, once it became clear that I was likely on the autism spectrum, my first reaction was relief. It explained so much about my life that I’d thought was my fault—for not trying hard enough or being good enough. It wasn’t an excuse but it was a hell of a good explanation.
As I learned more about Asperger’s and about myself, the initial relief gave way to a rollercoaster of emotions: anger, grief, resentment, fear, surprise, confusion, acceptance, joy, optimism and increasingly a deep, liberating sense of peace.
I finally had the right context for the labels I’d carried with me all my life, the ones that never quite felt like a complete explanation: nerdy, shy, socially inappropriate. Yes, I was the bookish, nerdy kid. The quirky teenager who loved karate and knew far too many random facts. I was always the quiet one, too shy to speak up in class, too introverted to chase after boys or go to parties. I was the kid with the weird friends and the weirder habits.
That shy, nerdy little girl grew up, but little changed. Soon she was the woman who didn’t seem to notice that it was socially inappropriate to wear the same clothes every day. The woman who knew even more random facts and considered them fascinating dinner party conversation. The woman who still occasionally forgets to check if she’s brushed her hair before leaving the house.
Nerdy, shy and socially inappropriate. Those words have followed me since childhood and now I know why. And it’s the why that has fascinated me. The why is what this book is about. Since discovering that I’m on the spectrum, I’ve been blogging about my experiences, processing what it means to suddenly be autistic at 42. In a way, I’ve been forced to relearn how to be me. All the things that I thought were broken or defective or weird about me? It turns out they’re perfectly normal for people like me. Even more exciting? There actually are other people like me. Lots of them.
As I’ve gotten to know other autistic adults, I’ve come to realize that we have much in common and we are as diverse as any other group of people. There are few traits that are universal, which makes it hard to write a definitive book about life on the spectrum.
What I’ve written instead is what the experience of being—and of becoming—autistic has meant for me. There has been much to discover—about autism, about disability, about compassion and community and self. I have spent hundreds of hours reading and researching, measuring theory and practice against my own experience. It’s not an exaggeration to say that “all things autism” has become my new special interest.
The process of writing this book, of unpacking the hard and sad and joyful aspects of my life in the context of Asperger’s, has changed me more than any other experience in my life.
Nerdy, shy and socially inappropriate are no longer labels for me to shrink away from or offer up apologetically as an explanation for yet another awkward social encounter. I’m proud to be a nerd, I’ve traded in shy for the more neutral sounding quiet and I’m unapologetically socially inappropriate.
Understanding Asperger’s has helped me understand myself and that’s made all the difference.