Have you ever watched a movie that used special effects to make the scenes believable and more fantastical? They often will include bloopers or behind the scenes footage of the film making process. The final product captures a world of magical creatures in otherworldly settings with supernatural powers, but the raw and unedited footage is a man in a strange green body suit hooked to wires and sensors to capture his movements in a warehouse full of technology and busy directors, producers, and artists. The process of capturing the scene, editing, cutting, and reassembling takes months to do and requires the skills of many people with a keen eye for detail. Even coming up with an idea for what a film is going to be about is a process of cultivating a rough creative idea into a workable script and profitable movie. This is all the same type of process that I go through to project the person that everyone knows and loves versus the person I am when I am alone.
When I disclose that I have Asperger’s Syndrome to people I am often met with a look of disbelief or shock. They usually follow that with one of a dozen phrases– You don’t look like you have that, I didn’t notice anything wrong with you, I didn’t see any signs of Aspergers, or other similar responses. Almost all of these have one thing in common; they all require visual confirmation of a predominantly invisible disorder. It is no wonder they didn’t know I have AS! They can’t see inside my head and behind the scenes. We all have different levels of relationships in our lives from those closest to us like a parent or significant other to an acquaintance who we may have met only once or twice and barely know. Those closest to me like my wife know just what effort goes into maintaining the facade that can fit in and function within Neurotypical society. Others like the people I meet through my job see only the polished final product that has taken years to perfect and edit to fit into the context of society. Is it really so hard to believe then that many people don’t know what I struggle with?
I first had to find out the correct diagnosis for the chaos going on inside my head not unfamiliar with how a visionary director might conjure up a movie based on a spur of the moment idea that came to them in a blur of creativity. Once I understood what I was up against I could read information and understand what I had already been through in my life up until that moment. This could be how scenes are shot and replayed to make certain the film has captured the correct lighting, sounds, angles, or emotions. Next, I had to begin to recognize the flaws I had. These were coping mechanisms I had that weren’t effective, social skills I had learned incorrectly or not at all, communicating effectively in a way I hadn’t before, and making copious amounts of eye contact. A film editor will go over each section of film to find continuity flaws, microphones in the tops of the picture, or scenes that need to be redone because of a technical error. They find the mistakes and correct them in order to keep the flow of the film going without distractions by unnecessary flaws. The next logical step is to then add in the special effects. For a movie they may be magic wands levitating objects, humans turning into supernatural creatures, or action scenes with explosions and big stunts too dangerous for real people to attempt, but for an Aspie the special effects are more simple. I try to maintain eye contact even though I actually process better looking away at something uninteresting. I try to keep my hands and feet still despite the urge to move. I focus all my energy into keeping on subject, talking with correct inflection and a professional tone, and to try and chose correct phrases that are appropriate to the audience I am with. I can’t always make up original conversation on the spot especially when the sensory input around me is overwhelming. I often revert to repeating things I have already said, borrowing lines I heard from other people or movies and music, or I don’t say anything at all and just try to keep my ears actively listening.
After spending several hours a day at work or spending time socializing with friends, networking, and other forms of “people-ing” I go “behind the scenes” at home where I can spend time alone or with my wife. I need that time to process the conversations I had and to replace things I felt uncomfortable with in order to make notes and change the way I react for future reference. I can work through the technical difficulties I have with conversation and understanding people’s intentions in the comfort of my own home without having to also keep eye contact or use my executive functioning to remain still when I need to use it for figuring out the cause of a particular emotion lingering from a conversation I hadn’t quite finished working through from hours earlier. My wife is not only my partner in love and life, but my assistant director who can help me understand emotions, intentions, and why neurotypical people might have done a particular thing that I found utterly confusing. She helps me “translate” conversation when she is with me and helps me process the day in a way that no one else can because she understands the “technical processes.” She gets the closest to understanding what the raw footage of my life movie is like, but even she may not see what only I see when I am truly alone. It is what sets the director apart from the rest of the minds working on any given project. They all contribute to the whole, but it is often the director that has the most intimate knowledge of how a scene is supposed to go.
I am also a star acting in the movie of my life, and I am a pretty good one. I have had years of experience trying to “fit in” on top of taking acting classes, speech classes, participating in musical theater, and performing poetry and prose throughout my academic career. It would take a trained eye to spot the subtle clues that would give me away every time– The blank stare when I get distracted mid-conversation and suddenly tune of the person speaking, fidgeting by itching my neck when it doesn’t itch or adjusting my hair, or taking too long to laugh at a joke or process a figure of speech that I took literally that was meant to be figurative. People assume my apprehension to initiate a conversation or my weird way with spoken language is because I am shy, quirky, or just plain rude, but their assumptions could easily be explained away with knowledge of Asperger’s Syndrome.
The final movie being played on the big screen of a movie theater has been crafted into a work of art by hard work, hours of study and correction, and an overall commitment to putting out a product worth going to see. I still have a lot of work to do, but I have put in years of time studying Asperger’s Syndrome, understanding it and myself, working on old habits and incorporating new ones, and I am committed to being the best me I can be.
I used to get upset when people discredited my AS because of things they couldn’t see, but I realize now that most people see what they want to see or are ignorant of the facts because they don’t spend all their extra time learning about neurological disorders. I can use those moments when people are shocked to hear that I am on the Autism Spectrum to teach and to bring understanding to a world that is still widely misunderstood or hidden in the shadow of pop culture stereotypes. I may be good at blending in, but it doesn’t change who I am at my core or my mission to bring two worlds together. I am an Aspie living in a neurotypical world, and I am just trying to “make my movie.”