Every year on April 2nd, I celebrate World Autism Awareness Day here on the blog. Three years ago, that meant talking openly for the first time about being on the spectrum. Two years ago, it meant celebrating my differences instead of apologizing for them.
This year, it means declaring an aspect of my experience that I have only recently been able to value: extreme intrinsic motivation.
I’ve always had trouble moving in sync with everyone else. For years, I thought it was just a consequences of being homeschooled for ten years. (For the record, I’m glad I was homeschooled—but there were some genuine “bumps” in adulthood that I doubt my parents’ generation actually anticipated.) Sitting through college classes, waiting in lines, doing sports or hanging out with friends: all of these and other normal group activities require an ability to reproduce certain behaviors in tandem with, and even in dependence on, others.
Well, that’s a nice idea . . . in theory.
Ask anyone who’s on the spectrum, and they’ll likely tell you that when they do things, it comes from somewhere deep inside. They are perfectly happy being a one-(wo)man band. When they do join a group, the anxiety of doing things “the group’s way” often short-circuits their ability to perform their portion of the task. What should be enjoyable becomes highly-stressful, causing them to back away into the safety of their “alone zone.”
That, my friends, is something way past homeschool awkwardness.
For years, I fought against this part of myself. I did everything I could to enter arenas where playing by group rules was important, so I could “prove” to myself that I was normal. Capable. Even worthy.
Take writing for example. Writers who dream of seeing their work published by a big house or gracing the big screen not only have to have good ideas, they have to be able to write them down in ways that captivate other human beings. There are norms, expectations, choreography if you will, that surround writing for public consumption. (At least, if you believe the people who can take that writing to the masses.)
But for me, while I could learn the rules better than anyone else, forcing my ideas to apply them was a bit of hell on earth.
So what did I do? Try all the harder. Push my ideas all the more into those boxes. Chase recognition in those arenas even more . . . all the while falling further and further behind in actually doing what I longed to do: communicate what was inside me.
(For Aspies, this is sometimes called perseverating: stubbornly pursuing a direction that’s obviously not useful.)
Several years ago, I was so exhausted that I finally stepped back. I began to recognize that if I were to put out my ideas, I would be doing it myself. In the way they naturally came out of my head. In the way an autistic would do it: by hanging them out there for the world to read, while I retreated again into my alone zone.
Rise of the Tiger, my online web serial, was a result of that realization. From that came the collaborative web show AURELIA: Edge of Darkness, one of the most learning-intensive marketing jobs I’ve ever had, and (ultimately) quitting my day job to launch my own branding and marketing business.
Not bad, for a girl who “gave up” trying to please the establishment.
But through all of this, my inability to dance with the company, on stage, still bothered me. I treated it as a flaw instead of a feature. After all, how could it possibly be okay to be as thrilled as I was about making my art and putting it out there however I saw fit? While many of my friends agonized about how to find an audience, how is it that I felt so darned euphoric alone in my room, making things that I simply shared on my blog with no expectation of return?
I chalked it up to Aspie individualism. And it made me feel guilty.
That is, until I began working with a branding client who also happens to be a friend. If you know Charity, you know she’s an amazing, capable, and trained dancer who absolutely rocks her craft. But as we have been working through her brand, which is still in process, she made one comment that shocked me:
“I can’t dance well to choreography,” she explained. “It makes me feel so messed up. I don’t like that feeling. Instead, I prefer to discover my own momentum and help others do the same.”
For the first time, someone had explained what I felt every time I tried to create for them instead of for me. Even though my “steps” are words and pictures, I felt that same messed-up feeling, every time I evaluated and changed my approach to art based on an opinion other than my own.
The strange sense of liberation I’d felt when I went my own way was exactly what Charity described about free dance.
I had discovered my own momentum.
No wonder the speed and rhythm of my creativity now fit me like a handmade glove.
Taking this path, of course, is not for everyone. If you genuinely believe your life will be incomplete unless your stories are seen on big screens or in the front window of Barnes & Noble, then you’d probably better get busy with choreography. But if you’re like me, and find that dancing with the group leaves you drained, depressed and ultimately in despair of ever loving your art again, then STOP.
STOP RIGHT NOW.
Sit down on your rug, your yoga mat, or your front sidewalk. Listen to the art that’s already inside of you.
And when you get back up again to dance, dance to your own momentum.
Because autistic or not, we all have music inside of us. And there’s no law that says it has to be a group performance.
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What about you? If you’re on the spectrum or know
someone who is, I’d love to hear about your experiences.
Learn more about autism and World Autism Awareness Day here.