The above clip from Selena is something every Mexican-American born after 1975 can quote to you by heart because it sums up our experience to a T.
The same is true, I have come to realize, about being autistic. Autistic and gifted. You are expected to be autistic and neurotypical. And sometimes better at both than everyone else.
When I finally got my autism diagnosis at 31, I had to come to terms with a lot of uncomfortable truths. I had led quite a lonely interior life. And it often felt like everyone around me had received a user’s manual for humaning on earth except me. On the one hand, it seemed unfair. On the other hand, what wasn’t my fault?
As I came to understand autism better…hard to do when most of the expertise out there was (and still is) wrong…I learned where those feelings of isolation came from and how I could be so smart and so clueless at the same time. Empathy is the tip of the iceberg for social awkwardness. It isn’t that we are without emotions, it’s really…and this is somewhat speculative based on the neuroscience I’ve digested…that our prefrontal cortexes are so overtaxed already with navigating the neurotypical world that having to read minds on top of all that is just too much. And no one seems to understand what’s going on inside our strangely wired heads, so it makes sense to us that, of course, we don’t understand anyone else. It feels very much like everyone is walking around in their own custom cone of silence.
And then I started hacking people. I read a lot about psychology. I wrote about my own feelings, acknowledging many of them for the first time. And then realizing that everyone had feelings. Mind. Fucking. Blown. Nine years, I spent introspectively, trying to understand what made people tick. Behavioral economics. Game theory. Social psychology. Anthropology. Sociology. Public policy. Linguistics. Neurology. Diet. Evolution. Genetics. I read and listened to anything I could get my hands on that explained why people did anything from blink to start wars to bond with pets to declaring themselves libertarians (still a stretch but I think it involves a lack of empathy and an unnatural attachment to Ayn Rand as a substitute mother figure).
A lot of work goes into my human interaction now. I try to be explicit about what is going on in my head that leads to my decisions. I take people through the thinking process so they understand why I do the things I do. Ex. I don’t do morning things because the drug needed to zonk me out doesn’t metabolize until around two to four p.m. This type of communication takes work and patience. But it helps people to get to know me better and not think the worst of me.
I also give people the benefit of the doubt in their decision making. If I repeatedly see the same mistake happen, I think that maybe this person doesn’t understand they’re making the mistake, I should ask them what is going on. This is better than assuming any type of motive to a behavior and jumping to conclusions. But, again, it takes work and patience.
Autistics aren’t supposed to be good at this. I’m good not because I’m high functioning. I’m good at this because I’m so fucking brilliant (I mean that) that I am next level autistic and I’m constantly working around the fact that even the experts don’t know what they’re talking about when it comes to autism. After all, when your patients have trouble with theory of mind and with communication, it makes it really fucking hard to understand them and make conclusions about how they think. Autistics make for really bad observational subjects that way. If the experts understand 50%, imagine what your average intelligence Tom, Dick and Harry on the street understand about what autism really is.
All of this is to say that I’ve done a lot of work to move around in the neurotypical world, to the point where I don’t seem autistic, and to the point where I have realized that even neurotypicals lack empathy and humanity half the time. And experts are not always experts.
I attended SENG last year and this was confirmed for me almost every single session. There were alphabet soup people (Ph.D’s and such) who are not in any way qualified to be talking about what they’re talking about. There was a woman who gave a lecture to what I assumed were teachers on the universality of body language. This idea is both patently false as any autistic can prove and completely the result of a white American woman lecturing to other white American women. There was also a therapist who wrote some book about The Rainforest Mind whose session consisted of her first reading two full pages of text aloud and then playing a bunch of sappy lyrics off her phone, accidentally pausing the song, starting again, starting a different song and then screwing up over and over to the point that I had to walk out because I was going to scream. If these are the great minds who are going to help the gifted community, I thought, the gifted community is capital “F” fucked.
But the worst of them all was someone I came across recently. His name is Paul Beljan, PsyD, ABPdN, ABN (talk about alphabet soup). He’s a therapist in Scottsdale, Arizona who considers himself to be a specialist with gifted intelligence, dual diagnoses, and all the other stuff gifted people deal with. In his introduction to a new gifted endeavor, this is what he wrote (I’m not linking to the article because it doesn’t deserve to be read):
“There are several things I want a gifted child and their parents to understand. These children were born on the intellectual third base and did not hit a triple. They happen to be smart, and that means the key words to assist them are humility and responsibility. Identifying a smart child as gifted first and everything else second is a sure way to cause identity and motivation problems. A gifted child must first have awareness of their intellect and what that means before they can develop insight into their intelligence. To facilitate this idea, I explain intelligence to each child after their assessment. I do not give children their IQ score, but tell them they are bright and how this may be a source of feeling different than others. I tell them that being gifted makes an individual no more special than the next person; it is just another part of what makes you “you”! It is more important to show one’s intelligence through accomplishments, as opposed to bragging about intellect. No one likes a bragging gifted kid. It is important for a child to understand who they are first and how intelligence factors in second.”
Gifted kids are born on third base. We are not special. And no one likes a bragging gifted kid. Apparently what we need as children is a lecture in humility.
We wouldn’t tell this to a kid with a talent for music (maybe not play so well) . A talent for running (you were born with legs like that, you’re not special). A talent for making friends (now, that natural charisma means you were born on third base…you didn’t earn those friends). We would foster those children’s talents and support their growth. We wouldn’t tell them to stop being so talented and that no one will like them if they excel. We wouldn’t tell them to be humble.
Let me tell you about 7th grade. My school finally offered honors classes. I was in regular history and homeroom with the same teacher and students. My mom, without asking me, went to the principal and had me moved to honors history, but I kept the same homeroom. But the teacher took the switch as my personal dig at him. And the first day I was not in class, he told the entire class that I would no longer be in history with them because I thought I was too good for them and that they were stupid.
When I came back from across campus to sit through homeroom, everyone told me what he had said. And now, everyone felt ok to bully me in class because he’d given them permission. Every single day of 7th grade, I had staples shot at my head. I had my backpack stolen. I had my homework ripped up. I had soda poured on my clothes and books. I had kids waiting in the parking lot after class, threatening to beat me up. Every fucking day. And the teacher loved it because it kept me in place. And I couldn’t tell my mother because that would have been another deal altogether.
I didn’t need a fucking lesson in humility. I needed a bodyguard. I needed someone to see that this wasn’t ok and it wasn’t the fault of a 12-year old kid who just happened to be, as this so-called expert who works in Scottsdale so eloquently said, born on third base. Being gifted never did me any favors. I didn’t have the social skills to maneuver life. And then I had to eat shit for an entire year because some idiot teacher who landed in Nogales couldn’t deal with the fact that my mother wanted me to be in honors history. Now repeat this lesson in humility over the course of a lifetime, dealing with people who took my intelligence as some assault on their lack thereof.
In my time as an adult, I have seen more so-called experts commit malpractice than anyone would be comfortable knowing. I once had an endocrinologist dismiss my chronic pain as impossible and then prescribe me a painkiller that had deadly interactions with the drugs I’d listed on my intake forms. Had I not researched the drug before I went to pick it up at the pharmacy, who knows what could have happened. When I pointed this out to him, he told me to stop playing doctor and stop pretending to be in pain.
I didn’t have basic critical thinking skills until I was in my 30’s because I didn’t know how other people thought. When I finally did, I realized that not everyone has good intentions. People bring their backgrounds, their personal prejudices, their egos, and their bad intentions into every human interaction they have. I had to start checking everyone’s figurative math because I’d gotten such bad advice from professionals over and over.
But let me tell you why this advice is particularly toxic. This Paul guy is someone parents take their vulnerable children to for help when they are at their wits’ end. These kids are young and naive and porous and maybe bullied and maybe bipolar or autistic or ADHD or OCD or dyslexic. And the thing this asshole Paul wants to tell them is that they’re born on third base and no one is gonna like them if they act too smart.
Want to know where kids like me end up when they’re adults? They’re drug addicts. They’re misdiagnosed and put on every psych med you can imagine. They’re in prison. They’re cutting themselves. They’re drinking. They’re attempting suicide. They’re dead. All because everyone thought we were so very hashtag blessed that no one had the empathy to see how fucking hard it was to be us.
When I read his words on what was supposed to be a gifted friendly website, I cried. I decided to wait a week and come back to the article and read it with fresh eyes. The second time, I told him he was wrong. I used his words verbatim. You know what he did? He wrote to me privately with a “To whomever wrote this comment” tone and told me to maybe read it again and again because I obviously didn’t understand. That piece of shit…who, again…works in Scottsdale…whom you can Google yourself…blamed me for not reading between the lines of his carefully crafted article. Only bad writers blame their audiences.
People like Paul Beljan are the problem. People like Paul Beljan are why kids like me suck it up, endure the bullying, live lives of trauma, and never reach potential. And when we confront them, they deny the truth and slither through cracks.
I refuse to lend my voice to any organization that would give this type of advice any credence. Mike Postma will tell you…there are too many suffering kids out there and too many adults who have suffered for decades…to give one more second to people like Paul Beljan.
I don’t have any advice for him, but I’ll leave you with this Matty Healy tattoo that is pretty fucking on point: