Earlier this year, I finished up four years of college in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree. It was a great accomplishment for me, but it also thrust me into uncomfortable territory. During those four years, I went to campus once—and that was just to take the test to get in. Even my graduation ceremony was held off campus. All my classes were online.
But graduate school will be different. In order to get the graduate degree I want, I will have to take most (perhaps all) of my classes in person, on campus, amongst my fellow students. Yes, that’s right. I will actually leave the comfort of my own home and go out amongst strangers.
Now, I’m not sure how aptly “passing” applies to my situation. As I’ve said before and will undoubtedly say again, I have no diagnosis of autism and, unless the medical services structure catches up, I’ll probably never be evaluated for a diagnosis—as things are now an adult diagnosis simply requires too much effort. So, I’m not deemed to be on the autism spectrum. However, I’m not neurotypical either. Along with a history of mental health issues (depression and anxiety, mostly), I experience sensory stimuli differently from most people—something I was only able to figure out after my children were diagnosed with autism and sensory integration disorder. Since I have figured it out, I’ve been able to consciously develop coping mechanisms. I’ve thrown off the shackles of not-coping and use the coping mechanisms that allow me to be who I am without being overwhelmed, at least when I’m at home.
But what should I do about graduate school? On the one hand, part of the purpose of attending a written communications program and getting a graduate degree in writing is to participate in the writing community. You meet people who write and that helps improve your craft and also improves your long-term chances of a making a living writing by finding people who take an interest in your work. That’s the idea anyway. Fitting in (thus blending in) has something to do with that—not that I’ve ever understood what that really means or how one really goes about it, but it seems to be how our society works.
On the other hand, my odd-seeming coping mechanisms help me concentrate. They help me focus my mind on what I’m listening to instead of being distracted by the background sounds or the sensations of my own body. Strange places can be very distracting with their white noises that aren’t my white noises. If I can’t cope, then I can’t concentrate, and if I can’t concentrate, then I can’t learn—so what’s the point?
Besides, I’m more or less comfortable being who I am, so why should I hide that when part of being who I am makes me the writer that I am?
So, I made a conscious decision not to pass. My first day in class, I took off my sandals and sat in my chair with my legs folded under me. I got a few, brief looks, but that was about it. I organized myself using a few different strategies that work for me. People noticed, but nobody seemed to care. I thought to myself that I’d be okay as long as nothing major happened.
Then, one day, I was talking with one of my peers when there was a malfunction with the multi-media equipment. The equipment emitted a loud, long, high-pitched whir. Everyone was annoyed. I was beyond annoyed. This was a sound I could not tolerate. The sound crashed into my head and shattered every single thought like glass. The shards of glass cut into my brain. And everything hurt. The sound was physically painful—not just to my head, but to my whole body. It cut and cut and cut into me. And when everything was cut to pieces, the sound cut the pieces to pieces.
I covered my ears just like I’ve seen my boys do so many times and I cowered in on myself. I squeezed my eyes shut as if I could squeeze out the sound. It seemed the whole world disappeared, except for the sound and my need to block it out. But it still made its way into my head—weaker now with my hands over my ears—and it still hurt. I don’t know if I made a counter-sound to try to drown it out. I might have, but I don’t know. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t plan. I couldn’t strategize. For those long, drawn out moments, the rest of the world was just gone. It was like my entire nervous system was in melt down mode.
And then, after several minutes, the sound stopped. Nobody stared. Nobody did anything. The peer I was talking to simply resumed our conversation where we’d left off when the sound started. However weird my behavior may have seemed, I was accepted just as I was. No snide comments. No put-downs. No weird looks. I was just accepted.
Maybe it’s that I’d already talked about my kids by then. Maybe it’s that my peers are, for the most part, older than your average college student. (The median age at my school is 38.) Maybe it’s that one of my peers worked with kids on the spectrum and another is a psychology professor. I don’t know. But I’m not worried about whether I made the right decision in not passing any more. I’m much more concerned about making an effort to be social—but that’s a whole different thing.