A few years ago, my mom told me that the grandson of her husband (not my dad, but the man my mom married after my dad passed on) was being diagnosed for autism.
“And you know,” she said, “many of the symptoms that this little boy has which lead to his being diagnosed are things that you did when you were a toddler.”
I didn’t ask what those were. It was a phone conversation, and you know. The Phone. I couldn’t see my mom’s face–because it was a phone conversation–and I couldn’t tell what her voice meant. So all I could say was, “Uh-huh.”
And after I hung up, when I went into the garden, as I always do after I talk to my mom on the phone, because The Phone… and My Mom… Anyway, after I walked around the garden for a while, and got my breath back and my heart to slow down and was able again to feel the earth beneath the soles of my feet, and when I heard the goldfinches sing and saw the marigolds in bloom, then I stopped to wonder: “What were those same behaviors that I did which would, these days, lead a child to be diagnosed for autism?”
I was a toddler in the early 1960s. Back then, little was known about neurodivergence. Children were generally not diagnosed unless they had significant challenges speaking, learning, and functioning. I had enough trouble speaking that I went to speech therapy when I was in second grade, but my parents and I were led to believe it was related solely to pronounciation: to my “lazy R.”
I met with a psychologist for testing the summer before fifth grade, but this was to test into the gifted program. I was so worried before this. I think, on a deep level, I knew then that I was neurologically different. I was very much afraid that it would be discovered that I was mentally deficient in some way. I knew I was socially deficient, and I had a feeling that this psychologist would uncover what was “not right” about me, and that it would be something dismally wrong. It was my older brother and sister who were the smart ones, and this was some mistake that would uncover what else it was that made me different from all the other kids.
Then my mom mentioned that she didn’t give much stock to IQ tests. “It’s all dependent on socio-economic status and privilege,” and when she explained what that meant, I felt ashamed and a little horrified that, because my parents were educated and took us to museums and concerts and filled our bookshelves with Classics and gave me art lessons, I would score well on a test that another child, whose parents had to spend all their money on food, might not do so well on.
When the psychologist asked me if I knew the meaning of the word “ochre,” and I replied, “Do you mean ‘ochre,’ the mustard-like color, or ‘ogre,’ the ugly troll-like monster?” and he said, “Ochre the color,” and I replied, “Yes, I know what it means,” I felt that I had to qualify: I only knew what it meant because we had friends who had a golden retriever named Ochre, and if we didn’t know them, I wouldn’t know what that word meant.
He replied that it didn’t matter how I knew what I knew, only that I knew it, and he smiled. His smile crinkled his eyes, and I liked him at that instant. As we talked and played games, his demeanor toward me changed. He began to treat me with great respect. I felt, then, that maybe being different wasn’t so bad.
For the first few days when I returned to school, after the test results were in, the teachers treated me with respect, too, and I was placed in the mixed-grade class with older kids, and only a few kids in my grade. For a few days, it was really nice.
Feeling so healthy and whole these last few weeks, as I’ve been integrating my experiences with my new understanding of myself, I’ve begun to consider that maybe I am not on the spectrum, after all, and I was just identifying with my friends who were. Thinking about writing this post, and beginning it with my mom saying that, as a toddler, I displayed the typical symptoms of an autistic child, I decided to look up those symptoms. I only identified a few that I recalled having. But when I took the online Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers, Revised, answering for my three-year-old self, I received a score of 9. High risk. Evaluation strongly recommended.
So if I were a child now, I’d likely be evaluated.
When I was three, we had huge ornamental pomegranate tree growing outside the window that my bed was beside. Not only that, but it grew over the patio where we sat with our next-door-neighbor, an eighty-year-old woman, single all her life, who was robust, wild, proper, conservative, rebellious, free, constrained, and outspoken–all at once! She was hardly typical in any way. I spent many happy hours sitting on the cement pavers in her patio, listening to the conversations of my parents and siblings with her, their voices low and soft and gentle, mingling with the chatter of house sparrows and the chuckles of pigeons, while I, happily on the outskirts, lined up the fallen pomegranate blossoms, their fleshy red sepals facing me, and their frilly, fancy stamens facing the hedge. When they were all lined up, I would turn them 180 degrees. These afternoons could never last long enough for me, and at night, when I sat in my bed looking out the dark window, I reflected that, even though I was now inside, the tree still stood in that exact same spot, and the lines of blossoms still kept their rows.
I still love to line things up. One of my greatest joys comes every morning when I reach into the cupboard and lift down the small white plate to put in the corner of our near-black Dekton counter. A lemon and a lime, sliced in half, will go on that plate, every morning. Then, I bring down the yellow mug that holds our forks, spoons, knives, and the stainless steel chopsticks I use for most meals. The cutlery mug goes right in the middle of the long counter, near the back-splash. Then, the cutting board and the paring knife, everything arranged just so. As I complete these acts, feeling the solidness of ceramics and metal in my hands, feeling the symmetry of everything in its place, I feel the soles of my feet on the hard tiles, and I feel how sweet it is, to be home, to be alive, to be able to do this same simple act every morning.
Life becomes a sacred ritual.
I love to hang laundry on the lines to dry, especially the dish-towels, which I hang by category: striped, greens, oranges, the flowers, the owls. Each towel shares the clothespin with the towel next to it, and that sharing, for some reason, brings me such joy. It’s part of “everything fitting.” The mountains stand behind our garden, and as I hang the dish-towels, I feel them smiling at me, and I smile back.
I wonder if neurotypicals feel friendship, like this–to an extent that becomes kinship–with mountains, towels, clothespins, and red pomegranate blossoms.
I like to line things up, and in the ritual of the line and the right place, in the sacred act of making things fit, that’s where I find friendship with the things around me, the things that make up my life.