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My Vivid World With Nonverbal Learning Disorder

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One of the last things people learn about me is that I’m on the autism spectrum.

When I’m telling someone about myself, that’s usually the last fact included. It’s not that it isn’t important. It’s just something I usually omit because once people know you’re on the spectrum, it can reshape their perception of you and they may define you by it.

I was born with NLD, or nonverbal learning disorder. It’s similar to Asperger’s syndrome, distinguished by only a few divergent traits. I have only ever met one other person who has it. NLD affects everyone differently. I’ve searched in online groups for others who function in the same way, but so far, nobody else’s version seems identical to mine. It would be great to find someone whose case I could relate to.

While I can’t explain what living with the disorder is like for everybody, I can describe how it is for me.

To imagine how I’ve spent most of my life, try to remember the drunkest you’ve ever been. Not giddily tipsy, but crashing-into-walls sloshed. You’re easily distracted yet struggle to multitask. You get lost all the time and can’t drive. A short leap looks like a mile’s trek, and a stranger’s silence sounds like a prime opportunity to treat them to stories about your most awkward first dates and complain about your bacne. This is hyperbolic, but it’s how I felt throughout all my years growing up — without the influence of any substances.

My disability was first identified in fourth grade. I was desperate for a diagnosis so my teachers would know it wasn’t my fault. They’d get frustrated because they thought I was smart, but I couldn’t follow directions. Despite my knack for writing, I wasn’t allowed into the gifted program. They only included kids who had straight A’s in every class.

I was clumsy in many ways. Synchronized dancing in theater camp was a hilarious nightmare. I was hapless at sports. I once managed to stub my toe while my foot was three feet above the ground.

The social clumsiness was a lot more painful. I had no verbal filter. Ideas were constantly bursting into mental subthreads, as if my brain were the original Reddit — including the trolling. It felt like word bubbles appeared above my head and would pop unless I filled them in immediately. I expressed thoughts with little to no awareness of how cutting, excessively unabridged, or just plain weird they were.

Other kids teased me, but they usually wouldn’t take it too far in my presence. I could eviscerate them with comebacks that left everyone laughing. People seemed to laugh at me and with me in equal measure. I had trouble keeping friends. They rarely confronted me directly, but I’d hear what they said to each other. They called me a “ditz” and an “airhead.” They said I was always seeking attention. The last judgment was true, although I felt a lot of them were doing the same. They were just less obvious about it, so my lack of subtlety allowed them to point at me and direct people’s notice away from their own similar behavior.

It wasn’t until I was 20 that my head began to clear. The spatial disorientation, obliviousness to my surroundings, and struggle with transitions is still pervasive. But my social awareness is now sharper, and sobering up to it was mortifying. I began to profusely apologize to those I’d offended in the past, handing out regrets like street flyers. Eventually I came to stop over-apologizing and strive for more balance.

Others have told me I’m insightful. That might be true, but I’m not perceptive. It took me years to grasp the distinction. My consciousness does not exist in a linear and uninterrupted flow, but in snapshots with vacant spaces in between. In childhood I used to think of them as “blank-outs”; those lapses in which my brain briefly freezes and buffers. It’s like living within ellipses, jumping along islands instead of walking a continuous strip of land.

This also means my mind doesn’t create an internal map of my whereabouts. When out in public and trying to find my way, it’s like I’m spinning and perpetually dizzy. This makes me a prime target for predators who notice I look lost and try to coerce me into their cars.

For all of these reasons, I cannot move freely throughout the world. Instead I navigate through cyberspace, imagination, and ideas. I travel in stories and songs, with words as my compass. My husband says I seem to experience language in entirely my own way, and it’s true. Words are their own dimension. They’re like an additional sense.

Because most of my journeys are not physical, my artistic and aesthetic taste is vivid sometimes to the point of garishness. I can’t surround myself with muted colors and grayscale music. I need atomic glitter bombs and guns that shoot rainbows. I need songs that flutter with caffeinated beats. I crave whatever makes ears tickle, eyes pop, and hearts roar. Maybe people with more external adventures prefer to settle into a mellow existence in between. That’s completely understandable, but it’s too low-key for me.

People expect me to have more tattoos because I’m so stimulated by visuals. I don’t need them. I’m made of images and phrases and stains which I carry under my skin and express when I choose to. So is everyone else. Many of my most creative friends are inked, and I love getting lost in the stories of their designs. I just prefer to keep my skin a blank page.

Some friends jokingly ask if I’m tripping when I write like this. I’m not inclined toward drugs. Maybe it would make little difference if I did use them, because either way I’d be surfing on brain chemical waves, but it’s already intoxicating to inhale words and pass them on. To snort colors and patterns. Inject musical notes. There is no withdrawal and it costs you nothing. It’s all free, and it frees you.

These types of mental vacations might make up for my inability to physically navigate if NLD didn’t also affect my career options. Because I can’t drive, and public transportation has to be planned so carefully, I have mostly been limited to working from home. I’ve only recently branched out. It can take me five hours to learn a simple bus route.

Doctors can’t discern my IQ with the usual tests because there’s such a chasm between my spatial and verbal intelligence. I spoke in full sentences at 9 months old but couldn’t tie my shoes until third grade. I can explain how a color looks and feels to someone who has never seen it, but I have to count on my fingers for simple addition. Sometimes language can be a zero-sum game. Once I’m locked into its dimension, words are all I see and I stumble over everything else.

When people hear that someone has a learning disability, they often make negative assumptions about our intellectual capacity. Years ago my dad was driving me to school and he wanted to park closer to the building because I could only recognize the location from one side, even though I went there every day. He told the parking lot attendant I had a learning disability and asked him to let us through. The guy appraised me as if I were a small child and said, “Can she get herself inside?” I was right next to him, but he addressed my father, as if I couldn’t answer the question.

This is the backdrop of my life, and it will be for as long as I live. But as distressing, discouraging, embarrassing and infuriating as these struggles can sometimes be, I don’t think I would exchange them for a chance to be “normal.” NLD may be a disability, but it’s my disability. By blurring my vision in certain areas, it’s helped me see so much more clearly in others. And it’s allowed me to show others what I see, to share a communal vision.

NLD may have been delivered to me in a heavy box which I often find myself caught inside. But in the end, it still came as a gift.

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Originally published: January 9, 2017
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