An autistic college professor lived falsely as a neurotypical for 20 years.
He has a powerful message for both “normal” people and Autistics about living one’s life authentically.
In my early 20s I was reasonably sure that I had it all together.
I thought I had learned what I needed and was on my way to some kind of American Dream success.
I had a couple degrees, I started a job as a professor, and against all odds, I literally had a wife.
This is the moment that I had been looking for: “They lived happily ever after!” and to have the sheer momentum of success sweep me like a current into the future, with me eventually winking out as a stellar example.
That curtain never came. The end-credits should have run, but the days kept on happening and my alarm kept going off, and new challenges kept popping up.
Furthermore, I had known on some level that this “I finally did all the things; give me my American Dream award” moment was not the crashing symbol at the end of a triumphant, overly orchestrated symphony; I knew this because I was a fake.
I Faked My Life
Yes, I faked the whole damn thing. Oh, the wife was real, but everything else in the equation was a form of fraud that I had managed to pass off to the world.
Two degrees, a job teaching writing, but I really shouldn’t have even passed high school, much less those two colleges.
I had navigated a system, but I did it without becoming integrated into it in any logical or organic way.
I did my work, passed my classes, caught some praise here and there and some criticism here and there, but none of it felt like it was about me; or none of it felt like they knew me.
I was to learn, however, that no one did know me: I was actually different, or not typical, and all they saw was my play-acting.
Here’s what I knew: I was articulate, intelligent and crafty; but also, I never studied, never followed directions, winged every single essay and presentation, earned a Master of Fine Arts by turning in a book that I had basically already written a couple years before grad school had started, and knew absolutely nothing about teaching.
In fact, it probably all occurred to me in one flash of realization on my first day teaching.
I remember that someone had told me to write out a “lesson plan,” which I did not — I had no idea what one would look like or what function it would perform.
I was standing in front of a class, leaning against the blackboard and rambling on about how writing is, fundamentally, both good and easy.
The blank stares that these students — every one of them about my own age — gave me let me know that my ramble was sinking in weird directions.
I Can’t Touch Chalk or Cotton Balls
I had my hands sort of behind my back, and I was fidgeting back there with the little chalk shelf that sits below the blackboard.
While talking I was wondering, “Does this metallic structure that is so ubiquitous and familiar to entire generations even have a name beyond ‘chalk shelf?’”
One finger brushed up against an actual piece of chalk that resided and it sent a blood chilling shiver through my entire body.
I could not touch chalk. Like, I was mentally incapable of it. I couldn’t touch cotton balls, either, like the kind that come in the tops of aspirin bottles — but touching those things wasn’t a daily part of a professor’s job!
How was I going to teach if I couldn’t use the blackboard?
But wait, if I could use the blackboard, how would I teach? Like, what would I write up there that would make the students nod their little heads and start scribbling in their notebooks?
How the hell was I supposed to know; I had faked my way through college, twice!
One thing I’ve always known about myself is that I don’t get embarrassed.
Like, I understand what people mean when they talk about being embarrassed, and I can academically reason the types of conditions which would normally cause embarrassment, but the final piece of the puzzle, which is some sort of hormonal reaction in an antiquated part of my brain, would never fall into place.
I became keenly aware of this little superpower of mine during this first class, because I saw the conditions for embarrassment rise up around me in vivid detail.
As I kept on going with my barely-changed six-year-old lecture, I could see embarrassment building like an archway around me — only I had that awareness that the keystone of the emotional reaction would never get into place, and the instant this course ended, it would all fall away.
I kept talking, never making eye contact, but often scanning over their eyebrows, until the minute hand of the clock on the wall had moved enough to justify an early dismissal.
I left that class, got back to my campus housing apartment where my fiancée was playing Animal Crossing, and I said to her, “I can’t do that again.”
I Faked My Career for 20 Years
Twenty years later, I have faked an entire career. In fact, I’ve faked a whole new degree — a terminal degree in education, of all ironic things.
I was certain that if I really paid attention and did my readings and did my writings and minded my business, this degree was going to teach me how to teach, and that was going to put an end to my lifelong habit of deception.
But when push came to shove, I was able to do all the work without paying attention, get the papers finished without completing the readings, and squeeze by Statistics and my dissertation by just acting like these were things I could do.
Besides, if I was really absorbing anything with any accuracy, I would say that the overall message of education research is that the way we teach is absolute garbage.
Which is fine, and sort of interesting, but ultimately did nothing for me when it came to being a real teacher.
I’m in my mid-forties now [as of 2023].
I have four kids (parenting is easy, and you don’t have to fake that), have had a sort of okay teaching career, and have published a few books in the uncomfortable liminal space between self-publishing and small press.
Unlike my 20-somehting self, I know that I don’t know much, and that I know even less about myself than I think I know.
My experience has shown me, in the relationships that I’ve built, that a lot of adults feel like me:
We are pretending to be a grownup, pretending to follow the social rules of decorum because they are instinctively true, and basically run around every day hoping to not be found out.
We are stowaways, blending in as much as possible, begging to not be thrown overboard with the next recession.
Often, now, I look around a room of adults and I wonder whom it is we are play-acting for.
- Who is the one who would have actually been offended if we didn’t wear the right clothes?
- Which adult here is a member of the tribe of actual grownups who will judge our handshake and comment sincerely on a wine with a little flame in their heart that such comment will garnish respect and dignity?
- Who is motivated by power, believes in tough love and insists that the social structure is a meritocracy that grew out of the ground when Washington wept?
- Which ones are we trying to fit in for?
In any given room, it could be everyone but me, or it could be no one.
The truth is, I have no clue who takes all of this so seriously and who doesn’t.
We are play-acting for the believers, but it’s never clear to me if I’m the only one who sees that all of this — our money, our institutions, our shopping, our knowledge — is a sham meant to protect insecure rich people, but to also make everyone feel like there is something safe and solid in the world.
I’m not saying this with any cynicism; I’m saying this more with awe.
A game started a long time ago, and people got so involved with it that we can only see the game.
We are born into it; everything we do the first few years is to learn the rules, and we are judged against an amorphous perfect person whom we are destined to become.
If we just follow the right steps, read the right things and behave in the right ways, we stand a chance of becoming this perfect person, even though no one has done this before. Ever.
And, when we get older and realize that we could have done a better job at becoming this perfect person who is served best by the institutions, traditions and social structures, we try to teach our kids to do it better.
In my 20s,I thought I was smart, original, creative — but that school and jobs were beyond my true understanding and abilities.
I Received Three Diagnoses at 44
At 44 I learned more about myself. I found out that I’m dyslexic, autistic and have ADHD.
Yes, these are words, just tokens of meaning, and those meanings are more broad than most suspect.
But I realized that I have spent my life hiding whom I am in order to fit in better.
Defying the stereotype, I developed a gregarious social persona so that people would feel comfortable around me.
I developed a work persona that has a calm, straight face and appears to look colleagues in the eyes, and appears to listen when others are talking about profoundly boring stuff, or about interesting stuff but being all wrong about it.
I’ve learned to only express my opinion when I absolutely have to, and even then it comes out so direct, frustrated and self-righteous that I’ll have to apologize for it within a week or so.
I know that people use words sometimes indiscriminately, but also that they sometimes hide true intentions behind words or, even worse, that they sometimes have an implied meaning that others are supposed to decode through the use of words that do not convey that meaning.
This knowledge would be awesome, if it didn’t make me painfully anxious when talking to colleagues or bosses at work, as I constantly examine the tokens that they use in an effort to find out what they represent — not always what they are supposed to represent, but sometimes, what that supposed represented thing is supposed to represent.
Living Among Aliens – I Mean, Neurotypicals
It’s exhausting. Neurotypicals absorb this communicative style effortlessly and seem to know what each other means and to what degree they mean it.
This is because they use top-down processing, seeing the point first — and the details that go into that point don’t matter as much.
Autistics, who go bottom-up when thinking, need to build points out of the details. It’s not always easy.
And work people sometimes want to hang out. So you don’t, and you come off as cold, disinterested or bothered.
But the alternative, sitting in a bar with people from work and trying to discriminate the new boundaries and roles and how to best put yourself forward is — my God — overwhelming.
I don’t want the rewards of pretending to be a put-together adult.
I don’t want to take up an entire class marking things on the board for students to remember, forcing them to recall it, and calling that teaching and learning.
I don’t want to describe for you — my students, my children, anyone — what the one, most perfect, most acceptable mold is that you need to start trying to fit.
I have been forced to live in a world that I didn’t choose, by rules that I didn’t agree to, to measure myself by irrelevant metrics, and play game after game after game — from classrooms to offices to bars to — holy God — banks, to Instagram and TikTok.
I don’t want this for you, either. So, if you’re game, here’s the plan: We have a long way to go.
I’ve spent my life both in my world and as an outsider in the typical world.
I head into the typical world every day, so I want to retrace my steps and show you the stepping stones to get to my world.
Keep in mind, this whole time, these stepping stones are not how I got to my world; I was always here.
I’m going to do this because my experience here might just be a key to that door you have been throwing yourself against: authenticity, humility and effectiveness that is REAL, instead of play-acting.
If we explore the possibilities of living more authentically with each other, ditching the fabrications that bind us into set roles, we might be able to slow down a little and find some of the awe and wonder that comes with this whole human experience we are having.
Now. Let’s start the conversation.
Top image: Freepik.com