The Mighty Logo

When You're a Bird in a World Made for Fishes

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

When I found out a few years ago that I was on the autistic spectrum, it was a huge relief. It made so much of my life suddenly make sense. My “shoddy” school behavior and difficulty with monotonous jobs was all attributed to ADD. The social awkwardness I could never get over? Totally autism! Still, for the most part, the discovery was a novelty. I figured that I’d just go along with my life like I always had, and maybe being aware of my quirks and weirdnesses from a different angle would give me more power over them.

Well, I was a little right, but not quite enough. Actually, nowhere near enough. I mean, I was able to identify my quirks as relating to my neuro-atypical-ness, but it’s taken even more to figure out the difference between what made me “me” and what was an affectation that I’d developed for getting on in the world.

See, when you don’t know that you’re an autie and you feel separated and different from other people, you try to hide it, compensate for it. After all, why can’t you stay interested in regular subjects or sports? Why don’t you like the things everyone else likes? Why can’t you pay attention? What can’t you just suck it up and be like everyone else? What the hell is wrong with you?!

You try to act like other people do, you try to blend in with their weird little social rituals. You try to understand why they do what they do from their perspective, ideally, but you can’t necessarily relate to why they do what they do. You do your best to mimic them and go through the motions, and you can pass as them for a little while, but it’s hard. Like, really hard.

Hard maybe isn’t the most accurate word, though. Maybe that’s part of it, but more accurately, it’s exhausting.

Birds and Fish

Imagine being a bird in a world of fishes. You’re on the shore, and you’re supposed to go to school (heh) with them, and you’re supposed to get on with them, but you’re still a bird. But, it’s what you’re supposed to do. So, you dive in, hold your breath, do your best to make friends. After a while, you can’t hold your breath anymore. You have to come up for air, to get back to your own element. Your fish friends and lovers sometimes get pissed off because you leave them suddenly. Some understand, or at least accept, that you literally cannot help it. You have to breathe, for f*ck’s sake.

Some auties learn to get through this by holding their breath for a really, really long time – unnaturally long, even – and then when they have to come up for air, it’s a huge explosion of flailing and gasping. Others work out ways to only spend a little time hanging out with the fishes and then hiding on the shore so that no one realizes they’re not in the water all the time.

Me, I kinda want some SCUBA gear, I think that would work best, but I also want to have permission to not be in the water all the time. SCUBA gear would make it so that I could be comfortable hanging out with my fish friends. I wouldn’t have to think about how the f*ck to breathe when I’m around them after more than a few minutes.

Another big problem is that the world is made for fishes, so a lot of the mapping and processes that we’re taught in school and for work only apply to fishes and to the life underwater. When you’re a bird, you can’t use the aquatic navigation methods to get around the sky. And because no one teaches bird-type things as a regular course of life; most of us are on our own trying to sort it out.

And that means that when we do finally find each other, we’re often just as confused as everyone else as to what it takes to get on in the world. And then it’s even more complicated because there’s more variation in birds than in fish, it seems, so what works for a sparrow isn’t going to work for an ostrich or a hawk. We have to take bigger and bigger perspectives of the world in order to make any kinds of real general statements about our condition.

So, that’s how it feels when we’re trying to get on in the world. It sucks a lot. We’re all in unmapped territories, trying to find our way. It’s difficult living with fish-things, but in general, we like fish. We like hanging out with them and making friends with them and sometimes even being lovers and getting married and having biish or fiirds or whatever they end up being. We want to try to get along with them.

We just can’t be the only ones making an effort.

The Glass Wall

There are lots of different types of birds/auties, and it really seems that no two are the same. There are general characteristics, of course, that get mixed and matched together into every one, but sometimes that’s just presentation. What works to help control the less desirable behaviors in one might not work in another. This makes ideas like therapy really touchy, especially when words like therapy come out as synonymous with “because there’s something wrong with you.” Our greatest commonality is that we are fully human, and we want to be treated as such.

For all that any general statement is hard to make about auties, there are some commonalities I’ve observed. I’m not saying this is true for every last person on the spectrum, but it does seem to be holding up a great deal to scrutiny. (Your input, gentle reader, is encouraged.)

Specifically, we auties are behind the Glass Wall. For some of us like my nonverbal son, that wall is super-thick and full of occlusions. He can’t communicate effectively or regularly from his inside world, and he can only sometimes make out what’s being told to him from the outside. He does have a brilliant and vivid world going on in there, clearly, but good luck finding out what it is past the wall.

And then there are those of us who have thinner walls, but we still have occlusions. That glass acts as a fun-house-mirror type lens. We tend to take things super-literally, for instance, because we can’t always “see” body language to indicate a joke or sarcasm. We miss critical cues that tell us whether or not someone is a threat. If we tend to underplay threats, one bad experience makes us doubt all future experiences that might look kind of like that one bad time. We have a hard time discerning the factors and variables of interactions because the world is written in fish-language, which will never be our native tongue, no matter how much we study it.

Some parts of the wall become telescopic lenses, and these are our fixations — our “one thing.” This One Thing can become the Most Important Thing. It could be how the towels are folded (one of my big ones) or how the pencils are aligned or putting all the little cars in a row or only eating the vowels out of the Alphabits cereal. It could be texture issues, touch issues, certain types of sounds, control of our bodies… any of these things become so much bigger than what neurotypical people experience. We’re not being “overly sensitive,” we’re seriously experiencing this Thing more than they are.

Just to make things a little more “fun,” the thicknesses of the walls change with many factors. Food sensitivities, hormonal cycles, extended forced social interaction, money problems, relationship issues, and pretty much any kind of stress you can imagine will thicken that wall. False ideas that we fixate on in anxious states start to color the world. Everything is a threat, everything is bad, everything is dangerous. Our fixations are bigger than anything else, so much that we don’t know they’re false in that moment. Any other time, sure, we’re logical people, but when we’re stressed out and melting down? Nah.

Some of us have meltdowns and literally table-flip. Some of us shut down into deep depressions. Some of us run away, some of us lock up behind an impenetrable wall of blank, but almost always, there’s a neurotypical person looking at us in confusion, trying to figure out what the big deal is.

What to Do, What to Do

It would be super if we could start building a world that was equally suitable for fish and birds. Some of the things that birds really need to feel comfortable would make the world a better place in general, and fish definitely seem to benefit.

For instance, because we are so literal minded, we often also have an intense sense of fairness and rightness. If we are taught that the Rule is This, but then people start behaving like That, and no one gets called out about it, this creates enormous anxiety. What’s even worse is when we are taught the Rule is This, and we act according to This to the best of our ability, but then we’re reprimanded for it.

Justice and fairness are big deals.

We like true things, we like things we can trust. We like transparency and for topics to be fully explored and explained. We like knowing all there is on a subject, digging in deep to something we love and finding out everything we can about it, and we like sharing that knowledge with others.

We have needs, just like neurotypical people, but what confounds us a lot is how often neurotypical people don’t seem to pay attention to their own needs. Our perspective makes our needs loud and impossible to ignore, but that doesn’t make them less than yours. Your alarms are quieter, I think.

Maybe if you fish could make room for us birds in the world, we birds could teach you fish how to take better care of yourselves. And given our love for you in general, we’d probably help take care of you, too.

It’s only fair.

Follow this journey on Normfac.

Image via Thinkstock Images

Originally published: September 17, 2016
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home