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Struggling to be Normal

My adventure to conquer mild autism

The world outside is wondrous, but the door is heavy

…we all crave to be normal when the absolute ‘normal’ is defined by the gross average of all the anomalies.

Short flights are always episodes of mild annoyance. Long flights, on the other hand, are grand journeys through time and space. Over oceans of nostalgia, continents of memory, little isles of joy that rise in neat rows along deep unseen valleys of misery. On the ground, the unhappiness could seem so immense that sometimes it overcomes the force of our grit and sends rumbling shockwaves through the earth and lava seeping through the cracks.

But, in the air, everything below looks calm. Peaceful. Forgotten.

It is on one of these long flights that I have abandoned my bottomless to-do list and resolved to writing, having fallen into an even more bottomless labyrinth of thought and recollection.

I don’t get these very often anymore. When I was younger I would spend hours on end sitting speechlessly and motionlessly, staring into blank space, while my mind traveled to the ends of the world, to dimensions uncharted. Sometimes I was a literal knight in shining armor, saving my princess from an army of oversized ants that have decided to conquer the premises of my harmless primary school. Sometimes I was the lone survivor of a zombie apocalypse, trapped on the seventh floor of my apartment block with hundreds of monsters and a chainsaw. I would completely lose track of time as I allowed these scenarios to play out in my head — I would visualize them as if they really happened, and obsess over them until the line that separated reality and imagination began to blur. And so to this day I dislike watching movies, especially fantasy, because afterwards I would not be able to extract myself from that fictional world; it would live on a little longer in my head, and the discrepancy between the worlds I see with my eyes and my mind will disorient and torment me. In the same way, often I would sit down to a big task and find myself so irreversibly engrossed that I could easily forgo meals and sleep until it was completed.

I had what you would call an active imagination. But I did not allow that imagination to bleed outwards; I spoke to no one of my made-up adventures, and lived out an intensely monotonous childhood. Today as I look back on that time, I do not remember willful naiveté and unbridled joy; no play-fighting with other boys or pulling girls’ ponytails. I remember examinations and report cards and grades, English and Math and Science, interspersed with prolonged imaginary adventures and even longer silences. Through all of it, alone.

At age 21, I realized that ten years ago, I might have suffered from autism.

In my adulthood, I have consistently been reflecting upon my formative years, and have long suspected and toyed with the idea. Recently by chance (or by design) I came across an intriguing Quora post regarding intelligence and autism, and was very much compelled to take a self-diagnostic test linked by the author to identify the symptoms of autism. According to the author’s instructions, I took the test twice — once as me now, and once more as me when I was a child. As it turns out, 21-year-old me is ‘very unlikely’ to be suffering from autism spectrum disorder, while 12-year-old me was ‘very likely’ to have been.

Back then I barely knew what autism was. It was, to me, some sort of rare exotic incurable disease. But I’ve learnt since then that autism and Asperger’s Syndrome exist on a spectrum, and that many of us seemingly normal people may fall somewhere in the middle rather than on the extremes. And more importantly, that people are able to travel along that spectrum over time. Several years ago I had the pleasure of being acquainted with a classmate suffering from high-functioning Asperger’s, and I owe a lot of what I know now to him. He showed me that this ‘disease’ is not as repulsive and absolute as I had thought, and that instead of a mental ‘disorder’, it is more like an unusual set of mental gifts. Indeed, he may not always have said the right things or acted in a ‘cool’ way, but he was an extraordinary artist. He had an emotional sensitivity more acute and wisdom far beyond any of us, just without the means to express them.

Above all, I knew he was lonely, because I was too. But it is one of life’s greatest ironies that the loneliest people do not know how to soothe each other. We are children on either side of a towering glass door, neither tall enough to reach the doorknob.

I have long since changed. I was more fortunate to have been spared the brunt of Asperger’s, and to have been somehow prodded to grow up as fast as I did. At about 10 or 11 I started to gain a certain self-consciousness that helped me see that I was different, which gave me the greatest gift of all: discomfort. Growth blossoms in its fertile soil, and I was uncomfortable with myself very early on. My lack of confidence started to irk me; my utter failure at conversation began to frustrate me. I felt intense emotions and understood them, but had no power to control them. I was their pawn — I cried a lot.

The same obsessive nature that held me in trance-like daydreams and helped me maintain self-destructive focus, I turned towards making myself even more uncomfortable. I joined clubs, I showcased my art, I made speeches, I took interviews, I ran in elections — at every juncture I chose to take the toughest, rockiest, last path I would expect 12-year-old me to take. That period of time is etched in my memory, outlined by countless mementos of fear and embarrassment, but it had to be done — you must fight to get something worth fighting for. Through these, I learned how to behave, speak and interact like a normal person, all the while clenching my teeth and chanting in my head, “fake it till you make it”. By the time I was 16, I believe I more or less caught up with the rest.

I also learned, however, that everyone is struggling to be normal. ‘Normality’, as does autism, exists on a spectrum. It is quite comical, really, the way we all crave to be normal when the absolute ‘normal’ is defined by the gross average of all the anomalies. But it is human, and I digress. I learned that we all are in a stage of constant flux, unsure about ourselves, especially in adolescence and young adulthood. And so it is for all of us I write this, not just myself.

Live your adventure.

Too often we imagine ourselves undertaking great adventures. Perhaps, and hopefully, not to the extent I used to, but still. Many of us let these adventures remain sealed away in our imagination, as though its presence in the deepest recesses of our minds could have some kind of magical diffusing effect on our real lives like an air freshener chucked down a toilet bowl. No! Don’t waste it. Maybe we will never live to see an army of gargantuan ants surge into our schools and fight them off with sword and shield. Maybe we will never live to see ourselves mow down the rotten walking corpses of our neighbors in the corridor with a chainsaw (again, hopefully not). But we can do something better — we can choose to do the things we’ve never even dreamed we would do.

Last year I went on a slew of adventures. Two of them in particular conform more to our conventional definition of ‘adventure’ and were rather more interesting. One day in November the previous year I saw a picture of Mt Everest, and in March I was standing at Everest Base Camp looking up at the famed peak itself and breathing in the thin Himalayan air. One day in January I was looking at the world map and was transfixed upon this huge mysterious land mass beside Iceland that I’ve never heard anything about. In April I was traversing the frozen lakes of Greenland and leaving footprints along the Arctic Circle. I leapt into both journeys pretty spontaneously; don’t get me wrong, planning is crucial in these operations, but if it weren’t for the rashness and obstinacy of youth, I may not have stepped onto the plane in the first place. Both trips I took on alone, and now both have been seared into my memory as some of the best experiences I have ever had, because they were uncomfortable, challenging, dangerous and the last things I would ever expect myself to do. Besides pushing my mental and physical limits, I was testing my spirit. Quite counterintuitively, I decided that the cure to loneliness is spending time with myself, and what better way than to leave myself stranded alone in the middle of icy nowhere? Indeed, I emerged from the other side a little more comfortable with myself and a little less bothered by my own miniscule issues.

Over the years I’ve gotten used to always making life difficult for myself. Perhaps it’s the lingering obsessiveness of my childhood that continues to fuel my insanity. There remain many things I know I need to understand and skills I need to learn, like appreciating alien cultures, uplifting others and being vulnerable. But I know I will continue to grow and mature as long as I continue to choose to embark on the most treacherous journeys, both real and metaphorical.

I hope that whatever you are struggling with, you too would choose your adventure and conquer it.

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If you want to know more about autism spectrum disorder (ASD), visit here.

If you suspect you or someone you know suffers from some form of ASD, take a self-diagnostic test here. If the test result is positive, I encourage you to get tested by a medical professional and seek help. There are resources available to make your life a lot better.

Thank you, to the anonymous user who posted that answer on Quora.

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Simon Tang is the author of Strawberry, Herbivore, Snowflake: How to Make a Man, a graphic designer and a student in the New York University Stern School of Business.

Originally published at medium.com

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