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“You Gotta Be Kidding Me!”

by on July 30, 2020

You Gotta Be Kidding Me!”

by Dana Renee

This is a Guest Column posted by a woman I’ve known for several years. I assure Readers that comments are welcome and that, although this woman is demonstrably able to stand in her own defense, the decorum for this site will be strictly enforced.

You Gotta Be Kidding Me!”

By Dana Renee

 

I’m autistic. Before you begin to think you’re supposed to feel sorry or sad for me, please don’t. I like being different. Perhaps more importantly, I like knowing I’m autistic. I’ve heard that “knowledge is power.”  If that’s true, I’ve never felt more powerful than in the past year since I was diagnosed.  After four decades of perplexing social situations, along with my own memories, emotions, behaviors, and thoughts, I can finally begin to relax and determine what all of this means for me.  Being autistic is the reason I possess a hyper-focus that has both helped and endangered me depending on the circumstances.  Thankfully, I’m now more aware of the latter, although I can still lose sight about everything going on around me.  ASD is also why I have special interests that can be extraordinarily fixated, and the list has included at least one person I know who is immensely fascinating and brilliant.  Further yet, ASD is often the reason I miss the punchline of jokes, especially if the joke is verbose, or worse – exclusively sarcastic.  Why is sometimes saying the opposite of what we mean supposed to be considered “funny?”

Thankfully, knowing what makes me different has eliminated 100% of the confusion about my identity, and some of the confusion about the way humans behave.  I no longer waste valuable hours after work anxiously analyzing social interactions over and over again.  Today I try to quickly file away baffling circumstances, striving to release and forget them. There’s a good chance any other parties involved have little concern about them, so why should I?  Sometimes I still rely on support from others, and I’m always grateful for their help.  I will always maintain there is no such thing as overthinking, but I’d rather enjoy my interesting thoughts than lie awake all night worrying about human interactions from the previous day.  A wise and very dear friend once told me, “Don’t create plots.”  I’ve tried adhering to this advice which has undoubtedly helped me.  But knowing why I was so often creating plots will continue to ensure I don’t write the wrong stories.

This new, profound knowledge about myself has drastically reduced anxiety and eliminated moments of paranoia.  For decades I lived with a pervasive feeling I was always doing or saying something “wrong” in social situations.  In those moments I was probably just being myself.  I can still become confused about the way someone is treating me, but my true self innately sees the best in others just as it did during my early childhood.  My goal is to continue walking the path of self-awareness so I can improve relationships with others, chiefly in the workplace. 

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is not a mental illness or learning disability.  Around 50% of autistic people or more have above average intelligence, and many are what we might regard as geniuses.  Determining numbers is quite complicated because so many are undiagnosed or misdiagnosed, especially women and girls.  Further, ASD isn’t a “condition” that can ever be cured, nor does it need to be.  There’s a great deal of controversy surrounding Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and autism, and for good reason.  Do autistic behaviors really need to be improved/suppressed/corrected, or are some merely bothersome to others and thus “supposed” to be changed in some way?

Could I actually be more “normal” than the atypical person?  I’ve been called eccentric, obsessive, odd, weird, quirky, nerdy, dorky, crazy, nutty, and other similar adjectives much of my life.  I’ve been given a host of nicknames since early childhood, including Walking Encyclopedia, Motor Mouth, Rain Man, and Safety Sam.  While I consider a few of those descriptions complimentary, sometimes they were probably meant to be insulting.  I’m often perceived as rude or “bitchy” (the latter is highly offensive and misogynistic) when I’m merely communicating a fact in my preferred tone and in what I’ve decided will be language clearly comprehensible.  This has been a regular work-related issue that has even led to termination, although with dedicated documentation on two occasions I was able to win my case with the Department of Labor.  

I’ve also discovered I’m highly skilled at masking who I am in order to survive, including the immediate adoption of a dialect and accent wholly different from my own when I was just fourteen years old.  Interestingly, I was able to relinquish the accent easily after a year or so.  Three years after that I moved to another Southeastern U.S. location and deliberately neutralized my lifelong Midwestern Canadian accent.  My reason for doing so was an effort to avoid wearisome teasing by Americans.  It worked well.  I have no doubt that with practice I could master pronunciation of other languages even this late in life.  I can adeptly change a lot about myself quite literally overnight for other people’s benefit, including my own.  

But I’ve learned just how damaging camouflaging can be to my well-being if that becomes my focus when engaging with other human beings.  Camouflaging’s long list has included pretending to find offensive jokes funny in order to “fit in,” or feigning joke comprehension where there is none.  And I sometimes have so much empathy that I weakly laugh at an offensive joke to avoid hurting the storyteller’s feelings, even though they were clearly at risk for offending others.  Masking can be exhausting, confusing, and anxiety-producing for me.  

Rather than a condition or disability, many of us argue ASD is our entire identity first, but also a gift.  Some, including Greta Thunberg and me, also maintain it is a superpower under certain circumstances.  She and I are fortunate we can communicate our thoughts and feelings; this doesn’t apply to everyone on the Spectrum.  While I am not “disabled,”  there are many who do have additional needs and cannot support themselves financially or care for themselves in other ways.  But we are all In There, even if so many are unable to make their needs known to other people.  I’m so fortunate I can work, live independently, and indicate when I require minor accommodations at home with others, or at work in order to survive.

Being autistic means I experience the world quite differently than neurotypical people do, and in many ways I would argue seeing, hearing, and feeling things differently is often better and a lot of fun sometimes.  Admittedly, I can experience extremely intense feelings about a lot of things.  Some of those things can frustrate, annoy, or overload me on a sensory level:  songs, scents, hues, lights, noise, textures, even humans, human touch, or sounds humans make.  I cannot eliminate those sensitivities; but I’m finally learning strategies for managing them. 

Conversely, the same things can bring such happy feelings I can barely contain myself:  songs, scents, hues, lights, sounds, textures, and some of the things humans have the ability to do.  This certainly isn’t the end of the list.  But If I detest something I really detest it, and if I like something, I really like it!  So while ASD comes with a number of challenges and sensitivities for me, it also provides a wealth of mirth, wonder and awe directly attributed to the so-called “disorder.”  

Several weeks ago I read an aphorism about sarcasm on a T-shirt.  I no longer recall the phrase in exact detail, but I didn’t find it humorous.  It did provoke thought, and I do love to think!  Since the T-shirt contained a living human, I can only surmise the person inside the shirt found the aphorism witty or intelligent.  In not so many words, it claimed sarcastic people are clever, and those who don’t get sarcasm are stupid.  So was the wearer indeed a clever person, or basically stupid for not only supporting the idea printed on the shirt, but also projecting that to others? 

Sometimes I ponder how many times over my lifetime I’ve asked, “Are you serious, or are you joking?”  

If I don’t know someone, I don’t necessarily have a baseline for their sense of humor, especially if it relies on sarcasm.  Even with a baseline or having known someone for many years (such as my own millennial children), I may still miss the meaning or even mistakenly feel “tricked.”  When a joke is too long by my standards or contains irrelevant details, my mind often wanders whether I’m reading or listening to it.  By the time I get to the punchline, I might be off to a far away place.  Sorry, joke-tellers – sometimes I just don’t “get it.”  This doesn’t bother me; I have gifts other than understanding certain brands of humor.  Some jokes, delivered to me by way of human beings in my presence, have instantly put me in tears because I didn’t know the person was being sarcastic or “just kidding.”  

Other “jokes” have been intentionally cruel, such as one delivered by a male co-worker who was harassing and stalking me out on the yard and in the office at a large plant nursery for nearly two years.  Knowing how much I love non-human animals, he and several other employees preyed on my sensitive, sometimes gullible nature.  Approaching me outside one day with a precious little box turtle he had found, he “hurled” the turtle in front of a group of redneck landscapers and me.  They all erupted into raucous laughter as I simultaneously shrieked in horror and began running in the direction I thought the turtle was thrown.  Then I burst into tears for the turtle, and realized the “joke” was on me.  I was immensely relieved to see the poor little turtle still in his hand.  Yet as with many workplace pranks staged for my “benefit” over the years, I was told, “It was only a joke; lighten up!” 

I’ve heard commands similar to “lighten up” much of my adult life.  And this was yet another job that bit the dust.  The cold, apathetic manager was a person who treated the hostile work environment as his daily soap opera, seemingly enjoying the turmoil and drama.  Despite having two mouths to feed other than my own as a single parent, I finally mustered the courage to resign.  It wasn’t the first time I had done this, and it wouldn’t be the last.  Sometimes I simply walk out of a job, never to return.  The joke’s on them at times, too. 

If you’re wondering about the title of this essay, it was inspired by an interaction with a customer as he checked out at my cash register yesterday.  The card reader has a “round up to the nearest dollar” element with donations benefiting a children’s charitable organization.  Sometimes rounding up means donating just one cent.  Not everyone has the ability or desire to donate for various reasons, and I try not to speculate why.  But during this particular transaction, the customer’s total ended with .99.  He was someone I’d never before met, and I asked him if he’d like to round up and donate a penny to a local children’s hospital.  This portion of sometimes >100 transactions per shift is part of what mentally exhausts me by the end of the day.  His response was, “A penny?!  You gotta be kidding me!”  

He was joking.

I misunderstood both the meaning and his intent, which was strictly to make me laugh.  Instead, I thought he was seriously offended by the amount, assuming he was a miserly grump who doesn’t care about the children!  My eyes immediately filled with tears behind my fogged up, yellow safety glasses and mask.  I doubt he saw the tears, but I think he must have immediately noticed my confusion.  He sincerely apologized, saying, “I’m so sorry; I was trying to make you laugh!”  I then burst into mirthful laughter, both at my foibles and the absurdity of anyone being offended at donating a penny.  My laughter diffused the situation as it often does and often will.  I’m smiling as I write these final sentences.  And while I refuse to rely on self-deprecating humor anymore, much like the very humorous, thoughtful comedian Hannah Gadsby, I can still find humor in the situations.  And although as an autistic person I require no medication, sometimes laughter is indeed the best medicine.


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9 Comments
  1. Elizabeth Martinez permalink

    Wow, thanks for sharing this beautiful piece. The turtle prank was cruel, however. I don’t get cruelty. It doesn’t make sense to me.

    I enjoyed reading about Dana’s life and learning how a person with autism goes through life. I felt like I was reading an autobiography.

    Dana said she was highly skilled at masking who she was in order to survive. 99% of people wear many masks to survive in this schizophrenic country.

    Dana seems lovely and I hope I can meet her one of these days. Thank you for sharing Marco.

    Like

  2. Dana permalink

    Hi Liz. Thanks so much for taking time to respond. Writing has been a good way to gather my own thoughts about ASD as my real identity emerges.

    I agree we all mask, and some of that is necessary. But masking autistic behaviors can be extremely detrimental to mental health. Since being autistic is a core identity, masking essentially erases the person.

    Meeting would be welcome, and I’ve said the same thing to Marco about you. I hope that can happen.

    Like

  3. Dana permalink

    Marco, thank you for posting this and for being supportive. There is a true need to educate the public (including me) about ASD, especially autistic women and girls.

    ASD isn’t something to be feared, but it should absolutely be explained and celebrated. Thanks for helping me do this in my own small way.

    Like

  4. You are always welcome, Dana. We are looking forward to more of your writings.

    Like

  5. From Ray in Canada: Yes, Dana – this was so eye opening – thank you so much for writing this…

    Ray

    Like

  6. mkdohle permalink

    Thanks Marco, this was an interesting piece and thought provoking.

    Peace Mark

    Like

  7. Dana permalink

    To Ray and Mark: Thank you for reading my thoughts. I’ve enjoyed reading yours over the years a well!

    Like

  8. Dana, it’s good to see you sharing your thoughts with others; I know how difficult that has to be for you. This offering was both interesting and educational, thank you. Several members of my family are at different places on the spectrum, and so I know how hard it can be for them to live life around the “normals” I absolutely mean no harm or insult by that comment. We are much the same, you and I, and I look forward to the day we meet in person; I refuse to believe that will never happen.

    Like

    • Dana permalink

      Thanks Rose. Your comments and all of the others have been really kind. Writing has been difficult as is wishing for acceptance.

      It also can’t be easy for others to deal with my challenges. I’m grateful for all of the people who are helping me along the way.

      I would like to meet one day as well!

      Like

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