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On 'Escaping to My Own World' as Someone on the Autism Spectrum

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I live with an autism spectrum disorder. That is, I wander an invisible maze with walls most people can walk through but I can’t. Sometimes, because I’ve managed to find a place in life situated along the devious routes I must travel, I forget the walls. And then, bang! I slam into one and stagger back, dazed, while my supervisors and colleagues wonder what the problem is.

Times like that are periods of deep depression for me. Maybe they shouldn’t be, but they are. They bring home how very carefully I must arrange my life to make it from one day to the next. How many opportunities I’ve missed. I feel hopeless, helpless, inadequate. I feel alone.

But, sometimes, I fight back. I revolt.

Several years ago I got in some hot water. The details are rather dull. There was a conflict between my idealistic conception of work to be done and conscientious attempt to do it, and the practical, political realities of modern life. It’s a common enough story for someone with my diagnosis. Rebuked for trying to do my job well, and confronted as I had not been for some time with my social blind spots, I retreated into myself.

I collect. I arrange. I collate and cross-reference. Day in and day out, that’s what I do to survive. When I was a boy, I stacked or made patterns. Later, I studied biological taxonomies and mythical genealogies. I collected insects. I wrote histories of the future. I created alien races. At some point I obtained a doctorate in math.

These pursuits of mine are like breathing or eating. I can’t live without them. When confrontation occurs, that’s where I fly. I don’t withdraw from my duties, mind you. Flight and desertion are different things altogether. Rather, my private withdrawal to a secret inner world gives me the strength to brave public life.

After the incident just referred to, which was only the last in a long line of similar occurrences, something snapped. This time, instead of making a temporary retreat, I set about the construction of an entire secondary universe.

And that’s where I go now when I need to escape the bright sights and shrill sounds and baffling bureaucratic quandaries that punctuate my life. Yes, I escape. I know the word has gathered a few negative connotations. True, escape can be the act of a coward. But escape can also be the act of a hero. Escape, you see, is a lunge for freedom. It’s a one-man revolution.

My collecting and organizing, once closed in on themselves, are now the acts of a demiurge, a world-maker. This isn’t withdrawal from reality because my universe is our universe, our universe as seen through my eyes. I’m not really creating a secondary world at all. I’m exploring the real world, trying to understand it and find my place in it. The anguish and confusion and frustration that would otherwise be locked up in my brain finds outlet there. It takes on flesh and walks the earth.

I took to setting these visions to paper. I painted. I wrote. Then one day a curious thing happened. I submitted a story to a magazine, and it was accepted for publication. It was accepted, and I got paid for it. After having thrown a million bottles into the sea, a response had washed up on shore at last.

Since then I’ve gotten a number of other stories published. I’ve written two novels as well. They are apparently too idiosyncratic to be marketable. So I’ve self-published them, with my own illustrations, because I have only so long on this earth. It’s so refreshing to do this because, to my mind, at least, I’m not doing it for myself, but for the enjoyment of others. For once my efforts are directed toward someone else.

Some readers have dared to enter my world with me. Not many, of course. And not all like what they see. It’s not always the pleasantest of places. But a few have found beauty in it, and that’s enough to make it worthwhile. Most of the people around me don’t know my secret, and I’m fine with that. It’s like having a secret tunnel I’ve dug, hidden behind a poster in my office.

Sometimes I ask myself: What am I doing? Where am I going? What meaning does it all have? At such times, I look to the tree. The tree does not ask questions. The tree grows where it’s planted. It gropes its way along lines laid out for it when it was only a seed, taking in the sun and the rain, but following its own inner logic.

That’s what we all need to do. Whatever our strengths, whatever our weaknesses. We need to flourish as what we are, and let someone else worry about what good it is. We need to have the courage to make our own universes and, in so doing, carve ourselves out a place in this one.

Image via Thinkstock.

Originally published: July 27, 2016
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