Asperger’s Syndrome is noted for it’s impact on social pragmatics- but there’s an additional factor that is often overlooked in the diagnostic descriptions. If you struggle with the social world? It can be very tough to form a coherent sense of identity. Who we are overlaps with a social world that applies a tremendous amount of pressure when it comes to identity and the roles we play.
Growing up on the autism spectrum, I know I wanted to mesh with the people around me, but had a difficult time understanding non-verbal communication and the unwritten rules of social behavior. I observed people, tried to learn their habits, but felt lost by the complexity of even the most basic conversations.
So, by the time I was in high school, I started to mimic others. I imitated their body language, their statements. I tried on different personalties. Even though, internally, I had a strong sense of identity…I lacked any concrete sense of social being. Alone? I was myself. Around others? I was like a hastily constructed social decoy…something vaguely believable; something generic; something empty.
The following story is less about mimicry…I’ll be getting to that soon…and more about the period of time when I first began to experiment with social identity. Instead of playing at different personalities in the way that most teens do, I played with them. Like toys.
I sit on the floor in the corner of the band room, arms resting on my trumpet case. I’m reading a video game magazine. Other kids sit in clusters, rubbing their eyes, tired, talking quietly. No instruments are out because it’s group photo day. We’re about to walk to the assembly hall, get the band photo taken.
Music director walks into the room, says, “Okay guys, it’s time.”
Kids stir, shuffle around, start moving.
The assembly hall is packed…students comprising a dozen or more groups sit in the audience. The groups are called onto the stage, one at a time, for the photos. Art club. Science Club. The school choir, and so on. One group climbs up stairs on the right of the stage as another group exits on the left.
It’s a riotous scene, with hundreds of students chattering, laughing, coughing, whistling. Each time the photographer says, “Ready? On three…”, the students in the audience, in unison, sarcastically yell “Cheese!”
I sit, pull the hoodie over my head, eyes…I draw the strings out as tight as they’ll go. I then tie the strings into a bow that sits on top of my nose. I place my hands over my ears.
One group is called up. Then another. Then the high school band. I use a finger to lift part of the hoodie over one eye, follow the others. We march onto the stage and fill 3 levels of bleachers that have been set up for the photos. Once we’re settled, the photographer says, “Ready?” He counts; students in the audience yell, “Cheese!” The camera clicks. Only then I do untie the strings and uncover my face.
We leave the stage one bleacher at a time. At the foot of the stairs, a teacher asks for each student’s name. She writes them down in order, so that the names in the year book will match the student in the picture.
As I walk past the teacher, I give a fake name.
The music director walks out of the assembly hall, leading us back to class. But I glance at the other side of the room…see another group preparing to walk onto the stage. I stop; wait till every band member is gone. Then I walk across the room, stand at the back of the new line. It’s the Spanish club. I’m not in the Spanish Club.
We climb stairs, fill bleachers. Photographer says, “Ready?” Students scream. Click. I walk down the stairs, give another fake name.
I join the next group. It’s the Letterman’s Club, all of the student athletes. As a physically awkward reader, I think this is pretty funny. I climb the stage, join the photo, give yet another fake name.
I spend the next hour jumping into group pictures…groups I’m not in…leaving behind a long series of fake names. No one notices. No teacher calls me out, not even the teacher writing down names.
Months later, the year book comes out. I’m in many photos. I feel pleased to see the repetition of fake names. I think, “I’m with people, but not one of them. They can’t see me.”
I scan the images of myself. I indulge a fantasy: I was never really here. I’m a ghost. In a fit of humor, my ephemeral shell flickers amongst groups. It’s a haunting, but a benevolent one.
I’m only here to play.