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When I Realized I Was Apologizing for Being Autistic

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“Sorry, I have Asperger’s.”

It was only in the hours after my interview with the budding young journalist that I realized the significance of what I’d said, and the sad truth behind my disclosure. Yes, I have Asperger’s syndrome (a form of autism). It was diagnosed three years ago now, at the age of 33. But that wasn’t the sad part, at least not in my eyes.

No, the saddest part wasn’t the fact that I’m on the autism spectrum. It was the “sorry” that prefixed it. It was only later that evening, when I stopped to actually think, that it dawned on me. What exactly was I sorry for?

For being awkward and not fluent in the type of human interaction that flows so easily to most? For making my interviewer uncomfortable as I squirmed under the weight of her questions? For not providing the easy answers she wanted? For being a disappointment? For being me?

Yes, to all of the above.

The student journalist, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, had actually sought me out for an interview after coming across my music videos online. She was impressed. “Wow, I wish I was that confident,” she’d thought as she watched me strut around in a red sequin dress and then stand on a podium to belt out the final chorus of my new song, “Sideshow.”
Now she was eager to know more about the sparkly girl she saw on the screen – all singing, all dancing. How did she come up with her songs and what was her inspiration? The pen was poised and the notebook open like an oyster, ready to capture all the pearls of wisdom that were bound to come out of this girl’s mouth.

It must have come as a bit of a shock when I sat down for the interview via Zoom – no sequins, no top hat, no special lighting or effects, and the strange inability to string a sentence together without getting flustered.

As we began our interview, I could sense that my own social awkwardness and uncomfortable verbal struggle were already making the poor journalist uncomfortable, not to mention a little confused. After watching my performance on YouTube, she’d come prepared to interview a bright and confident starlet, surely, not some reluctant wallflower who stared blankly into space and ummed, ahhhed and made uncomfortable faces as the words somehow birthed their way out of her mouth.

I felt like a fraud. A disappointment. A fake and a mistake. Like I’d somehow misled the poor reporter into thinking I was something I wasn’t, and now she was stuck with me on a Saturday night, sharing an uncomfortable and fruitless hour of her time.

She’d began optimistically with an introduction and an open invitation — a warm-up, if you will. “So, tell me more about yourself,” she smiled, probably thinking she’d start off easy. But for someone on the autism spectrum, that question can be one of the hardest. Where to start? What exactly did she want to hear? Date of birth? Star sign? Employment history? The temperature was up to a boiling point in my brain, as it often is when I find myself asked about such a difficult subject.

Before I knew it, random sentences began bursting forth out of my mouth, as my brain bubbled over with anxious electricity. I stabbed wildly at this, and then at that – babbling something about how my latest album came about, and how growing up, I’d always found it easier to write and sing songs then I did to actually speak and interact the way most people do.

It’s true. Writing is my preferred method of communication. You can take your time — edit it, shape it, control it and make it flow, something I’d always found impossible through actual verbal articulation. It is my way of expressing myself and making people understand – communicating my feelings, thoughts and emotions in a way that doesn’t leave me feeling foolish, vulnerable and misunderstood. Writing is my way of connecting with people in a world that can often be quite lonely.

Writing and singing my own songs gives me a voice, self-esteem, a certain power and control in a world where I often feel like I don’t have much and social currency is key. I write songs like “Sideshow” to empower myself and make music videos where I can play a fantastical version of myself – a character who is strong, powerful, respected and admired.

If my interviewer had asked me to write my answer down, this is what I’d have said. Of course, articulating it verbally is another matter. It never comes out right. Not even close.
In the midst of the interview, I began to feel myself drowning in my own muddled dialogue, realizing that despite my best efforts I wasn’t making much sense anymore, even to myself. My brain had crashed. And so, came the spontaneous revelation – like some kind of social hand grenade. “Sorry, I have Asperger’s.”

I didn’t mean to blurt out such a personal revelation, but I felt like I owed the poor girl an explanation, and an apology for my shortcomings. It was the first time I’d ever said it out loud – at least to a stranger. Somehow, my disclosure felt like admitting defeat, but soon after I felt a strange sort of relief sweep over me – the way I imagine a criminal might feel when they finally confessed to something akin to fraud. I’d been unmasked, but at least I could breathe again. And I didn’t have to pretend.

I felt the contents of my brain no longer boiling away inside my skull, but simply simmering on a lower, more manageable heat. The distance between myself and the interviewer dissolved suddenly in that one spontaneous moment of honesty. And it felt good. Our eyes met and she smiled softly. Maybe my sledgehammer statement was the first thing she’d heard that actually made sense during our time together? Maybe she had a newfound respect for me, or maybe it was just an angle for her article which stood out, sparking her interest?

“Do you know what Asperger’s is?” I asked, turning the tables on my interviewer, and potentially insulting her at the same time (without ever meaning to).

It’s true. In my experience, not a lot of people know what it actually means to be autistic. There are so many myths and misunderstandings surrounding this complicated condition — stereotypes, masking, functioning labels, and that’s just for starters. I’m always delighted when someone knows a bit about what it means, so I was somewhat reassured when my interviewer nodded and phrased her next question in order to probe a little further into how it affects – and inspires — my music.

I smiled back and suddenly felt the barriers come down between us. It felt like I had stuck “L plates” onto myself and now I could go forward with the interview, safe in the knowledge that my interviewer might take it easy when I forgot my indicators, or accidentally found myself driving the wrong way down a dual carriageway, as I often do (so to speak).

We spoke about many things during the course of the interview, and it felt good to be able to cruise around different subjects honestly, without being terrified of crashing — making a mistake, babbling or being responsible for the dreaded “awkward” silence.

All my life, I’ve felt as though I must struggle, perform and hold my breath in order to fit in and feel worthy. I perform my songs, but I also perform in social situations and life in general, working hard to keep up and “pass” as someone who belongs. Struggling and suffering silently are just a way of life for many autistic people — something you just have to get used to. Masking and hiding those struggles are survival instincts you learn as you go along — a shell you form in order to appear less vulnerable, and to avoid alienating yourself completely.

We bend in order to fit in – often with disastrous results. Sometimes I bend myself so much to the point where I actually break and a meltdown occurs. However, my disclosure made me entertain the idea that perhaps with more honesty, maybe such disasters could be avoided. Maybe I didn’t have to mask and struggle. Maybe it was time for the world to bend for me a little bit, and meet me where I am for a change — or at least halfway.

It gave me hope that someday there’ll be a time when I won’t think twice about revealing my condition – being honest about my needs, my true nature and what’s best for me. That I won’t feel bad about being “different.”

“I have Asperger’s.” My only hope is that one day I’ll learn to say it out loud without being “sorry.”

Originally published: March 9, 2021
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