Spectrum: Yellow Flags across the Finish Line

photo of CT standing by flags

What I’m Trying Not to Do Here

I’m not writing these entries to complain, and I’m not soliciting sympathy or attention. I’m well aware of my privilege: I’ve been able to craft a successful, fulfilled, rich life largely because I’ve started out high up the ladder. My family, like most American families, is mixed-race; but for the past hundred years, we’ve been perceived as white. (It was only recently that a cousin’s DNA test revealed our African heritage–not all members of our extended family are aware of or acknowledge our ancestry.) During my childhood, we were lower middle-class, and money was very tight, but we had a home with wildlands across the street, and we never had to skip a meal. We lived in a culturally rich area, and my well-educated parents, both teachers, valued the arts, reading, music, nature, and physical activity,  so we went to museums, concerts, and plays. We hiked, swam, camped, and skied. It was a rich upbringing that gave me, maybe, my best possible start. 

So, I’m not complaining. I’m not looking for pity, and I’m certainly not trying to make it out like I’ve had it tough or that life has somehow wronged me. I’m not broken: I’m blessed.

 What I am Trying to Do Here

This is a very personal project, undertaken for a very personal goal: The reclamation of those bits and pieces of me that I shoved into the seamless pocket because they didn’t fit the profile of a neurotypical person. Many of these pieces are wrapped in layers of pain, shame, or humiliation, so while I unwrap them, it’s likely that my hurt will come through my words. 

This isn’t a cry for sympathy. It’s a laying-out in the sunshine, so that these pieces can sparkle again before I stitch them back into the quilt that is me.

Dreaming of the Race

Before dawn this morning, I dreamt that I was in a race with four others. Two started before me, and two after. I didn’t know the rules of the competition–I wasn’t given the rulebook, and if anyone explained them to us, I neither heard nor comprehended. I was simply expected to compete and to do my best, figuring it out as I went along.

We were to race every day for five days, though I didn’t know that until the end of the event. 

On the first day, I just ran, watching, and seeing what was expected.

At the end of the race, we were served lunch with all the other participants. Those in my group were given something different than the others, but it was OK because we liked the food.

After a few days, I began to figure out the rules. Apparently, I was supposed to pick up sticks that the others dropped. They each dropped two sticks, so I was supposed to pick up eight. And finish first.

By the fifth day, I was ready. I knew the rules and what was expected. I’d worked out my strategy. I was ready to compete. 

But on this day, the two participants slated to start before me decided not to race. They’d already won, so they didn’t need to take part. This meant that there wouldn’t be enough sticks for me to pick up. But one of the participants who started behind me said that he would drop extra sticks, and I could find the remainder scattered about the dirt track. It meant that I’d need to let the boy behind me get ahead, but if I were smart, fast, and clever, I could do that and still meet the expectations of me. I had to be creative and strategic, but I managed to succeed, thanks to the help from my friend. Yet this race didn’t count because the other two hadn’t participated.

That day, after the competition, our group wasn’t served lunch. The three of us stood in line, but there was no food for us. The servers whispered to each other, and one of them went back to talk with the manager, and the three of us were directed to sit at a long table with the diners. No one explained why we weren’t served food, though there was a lot of gesturing towards us and a lot of whispers. Eventually, one of the supervisors came to say that the three of us wouldn’t be eating that day.

By now, outside of the dream, it was nearly time for me to wake and begin preparing our breakfast, so I was hungry! In the dream, I left the dining hall, realizing I needed to be responsible for meeting my needs and caring for my two friends. I walked outside, through the alleys, to the food court, where too many stalls sold too much food and too many scents of cinnamon, fried meat, fried dough, coffee, and fruit filled the air, the air particles jostling with the sound–so much sound of talking, shouting, brass instruments, a trolley car, a bongo drum, the hum of electric fans, the honking of horns. With all the focus I could muster, I screened out the extra stimulation, and zeroed in on my task: Buy something I could eat. Buy something my two group-mates would like. Across the crowded food court, I spied a rack of cinnamon empanadas. Those would do.

When I woke, I realized this dream represents my experience of what it’s like to live as a neurodivergent person in a neurotypical world: I’m expected to compete in a social and professional world for which I haven’t been given the rulebook, and by the time I’ve figured out the rules, the conditions have changed, others have moved on, and I need to rely on the help of those who remain, combined with my own creative and strategic skills, to finish the event. And by then, it’s the last day and the results don’t count, anyway.

About fifteen years ago, after a successful performance evaluation, I asked my supervisor, whom I really liked and admired, what specific skills I should work on. She said that for my current position, there was nothing to improve: keep doing what I was doing, learning and growing. However, if I had my eye on her position, if I wanted to take over as the school district’s IT director in a few years, after she retired, she could make some suggestions for what I might learn. I felt flattered that she thought, with a few more skills, I could be a candidate for her position. I also knew, without needing a moment to consider, that this was not a career move I was interested in. It required more of a trade-off than I was willing to make, and I’d be left with no time or energy for my own personal creative endeavors. Later, as I mentioned my supervisor’s comment to a counselor, I felt a twinge of sadness–not exactly regret, but grief. I couldn’t, then, place its source. But I know now: It’s because I realized, on some level, that I lacked the capacity for that position. Sure, it was the best decision to maintain life-balance not to pursue such a demanding career. But I think I knew, too, that I didn’t have the capacity to manage a large staff, to coordinate complicated plans involving the labor of hundreds of people and impacting tens of thousands (it’s a very large school district), and to interact regularly with a fractious board. I knew this task was beyond me.

I’ve stayed at the same position I held then. It’s been… close to perfect. I love my tasks, which are detail-oriented, regular with a few interesting changes, sometimes challenging, generally fun, and which serve a purpose I can support. I’m the web editor for the school district’s website and Intranet. I’ve been able to create my own work schedule, reducing my hours to 30 per week, in order to enjoy long quiet mornings, each day, before I head into the office. Sometimes, the conditions change, and I’m left scrambling for a few weeks or a month to locate and decipher the new rulebook, but generally, the same old rules come back into play, and I’ve got teammates who will drop a few extra sticks for me. I try to look out for them, too.

It’s possible to thrive as a neurodivergent in a neurotypical world. For me, it takes using my creative and strategic thinking–and it also requires that I don’t allow myself to fall into societal expectations. I need to learn to define success my own way. For me personally and individually, being a web editor is far more successful than being an IT director. You know, I might complete the race and then have to go find my own empanadas. And maybe the race won’t count to anyone but me and a few others, those who look out for me and whom I look after in return. But I think, maybe, I like it that way. I kinda like inventing my own success as I go along. 

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