What’s it like, growing up different from everyone else? Not different in the way we’re all different from one other, but different in a way that goes beyond. Different from family members setting you apart, wracked by feelings of alienation in school, on the job, doubly so in the Military in the days of forced conscription. An outsider peering through a one-way glass barrier you can see through but not be seen.
You’re having a conversion with a friend and another person stops by. At first eye contact shifts to whomever is speaking. But over time you notice eye contact is shifting less in your direction and more between your two companions; scarcely before you realize it the conversion has shifted mainly between them leaving you out as if you’re no longer present. You don’t pay much attention at first. But after this happens a number of times, you take notice.
One chilly, drizzly day you are dragged into a brick building with big windows resembling a fortress left over from an earlier time. Mother trudges up the steps with you in tow. Once inside, you gape at the long hall with its high-arched ceiling, rows of hanging light fixtures emitting a gloom of harsh yellow that causes you to squint so hard your eyes are nearly closed. Rows of large oaken doors line the walls. The highly polished wooden floor reflects an eerie glow barely making it through tan, safety-glass-paneled doors at each end.
Mother steers you into a cramped office where a fat, matronly woman greets us cheerfully, addressing you brightly by your first name Clarence, a name you’ve always loathed. You tell everyone to address you as Clare, which you don’t like either but anything’s better than Clarence. You’re stung by a feeling of dread, tug on Mother’s hand hoping to steer her out into the hall and to the nearest exit. But she doesn’t budge. You hold back knowing if you break free and run, you’ll only be caught and hustled back, likely punished as well.
Mom’s curt, no-nonsense admonishing you to sit and be still startles you because this isn’t her demeanor, not like her at all. Cowed, you crumple listlessly onto a scuffed-up, kid-sized chair. After some chit-chat a guide arrives and leads your mom and you—trailing behind as far as the combined lengths of your and her arms permit—down the hall past a number of doors, stopping outside one numbered 16.
Its tiny window is just wide enough for one to peer through with both eyes simultaneously, and for adults only because it’s too high for anyone your size to see through. The guide pulls open the door and ushers us in. The room appears cavernous compared to your room at home. The far wall is lined with windows reaching almost to the ceiling. Six outsized fixtures hang from the ceiling, whose indirect light suffuses the room with a faintly yellowish hue. You draw instinctively closer to your mother, begin to shiver.
While you’re quick to take in these and other details, a larger and more menacing factor immediately captures your attention: fifteen or so children your age staring at you, steely eyes boring into yours. You stand rigid, petrified. The guide chats briefly with the teacher before accompanying your mother out into the hall and closing the door behind them.
“Class,” Teach announces in a clear, sing-song-like tone, “I want you to meet Clarence, who’s just joined us.”
You’re directed to a vacant seat behind a wooden flip-top desk in the rear, where you’re instructed to sit. Little danger of your running away now, too petrified to do much of anything. You’re overwhelmed by an inexpressible feeling of strangeness, of unreality, that this can’t really be happening, that it’s all a dream and you’ll soon wake up in the sanctity of your room.
You’re overtaken by an indescribable malaise like nothing you’ve ever experienced, sense something dark and evil growing inside you, unstoppable and all-consuming. You attempt to stand but your legs have gone limp. You push with all your might and manage to rise a bit wobbly. At that instant a horrific monster gushes forth from your insides with sickening vigor: a fast-expanding pool of evil-smelling vomit spreads before you, entrapping you in its glistening nastiness. . . .
You never get the hang of school. You see other children paling around with each other or joining in games. Despite numerous efforts you try to join in too but are ignored or rebuffed. Your only participation comes willy-nilly from bullies who torment you ceaselessly whenever Teach is absent from the playground. You end up wanting to remain inside during recess but she won’t hear of it, insisting on your going back outside unless it’s raining.
You find salvation in a weak spot in the fence bordering the school’s playground in the rear, conveniently located behind a clot of scraggy bushes. You manage to push part of the fence aside to where you can just wriggle though. Beyond lies pristine forest as far as the eye can see. Free at last—until several weeks later when you’re seen snaking through. A stern lecture follows and the bushes are cut away and the fence repaired.
You get off to a slow start, two years stuck in Kindergarten, mired two more in sixth grade. A brother three years younger is now one grade behind; you dread the prospect of his catching up, the two of you sitting side by side in the same class.
Report cards consist mainly of three letters: S for satisfactory, U for unsatisfactory, and N for needs improvement. Your report card consists mainly of U’s and N’s, here and there a lone S managing to peep through.
Following graduation from Grammar School then High School, you’re admitted to State College on probation. Failing to attain an overall grade point average of 2.0 or above in the Fall Semester, a C, you find yourself placed on second probation where it’s do or die. Fail to make 2.0 GPA or better this time and you’re out.
Comes Spring Semester and you’re determined to rise above that. But it’s a bust; your final grades are three F’s and a D, yielding a GPA of 0.4, where 4.0 constitutes a straight A. Within a day or so you receive a letter from the Dean’s office sternly warning you to keep off campus, that your setting foot on school grounds again constitutes a felony and could lead to your getting arrested.
Welcome to academia.
Too many years later you’re diagnosed with Aspergers, ADD, Severe Learning Disability, PDD along with High-functioning Autism. And your intelligence is placed well within the range of superior.
Superior, with a GPA of 0.4?
This is part of an 8-part series about growing up with Asperger’s in a different era.