My First Autistic Mask

My Sister, let’s call her Shay, was my first audience, friend, minion, and social mask for autism.

Our mother used to love to tell us that Shay might have never learned to talk if she hadn’t ordered me to stop translating. I can’t imagine it. It seems, looking back, like Shay was always the one in the front, talking, charming and bridging the gap between me and all the communities we never quite got a chance to become a part of.

We moved around quite a bit. So much so that it’s not worth delving here as no one really believes the number of schools we attended. And, no, neither of my parents were in the military, nor were they “gypsies” as one authority figure proposed. They simply chased dreams more effectively than they built them. Anyway, inevitably, each time I thought I had a handle on the rules in one place, we’d move, and I’d have to learn a whole new set.

It was Shay’s outgoing personality that learned it all first. She’d spend the first day in each new school learning what the in- and out-groups were and where they wandered. After dinner, she’d tutor me. When I made the first faux pas that put me on the wrong side of the ins and outs, she’d patiently give me a safe place to vent and figure out how to get past whatever it was. As we got older, my social incompetence got worse, like it does…

Once we’d reached college, I had to learn to deal with bureaucracy. Anyone who has had to jump the hurdles of the financial aid office without a parent to run interference (and without prior experience with adulting) may recall the terrifying letters about missing a deadline.

I remember one such afternoon…

I had been in a great mood, successfully finishing up some task or other, a job well done. Whatever it was, had taken me to the school campus where Shay and I decided to meet up and have lunch. Just as we sat at a picnic table in the courtyard, I remembered the mail I’d gotten from the box that morning. I fished it from my bag and opened it up, listening with one ear to Shay’s latest crush story. The letter was from the financial aid department, and my mood took a nosedive as I read. By the time I got to the end, my mood and mental stability had crashed spectacularly.

I dissolved into a weeping mess.

It was longer than necessary for the message conveyed. I don’t remember it exactly, but the gist was that I owed a jillion-dollars and my financial aid award was zero dollars, something about a deadline and it was my fault and the signature, Devil in Charge. Okay, that last part may be artistic license, but you get the point.

It was faster for Shay to read the letter herself than for me to try to explain through the uncontrollable sobs.

Once she had, which didn’t take nearly long enough for her to have read it thoroughly, barely time to skim it, really. Anyway, she started talking, listing out the facts. Over the years, she’d somehow learned how to do this for me. She could stand outside the situation, beside me, and cut through all the bullshit, meltdown static. Her routine was to give that initial listed rundown, and sometimes repeat it, until my outburst had calmed a little. My breathing became more regular, and I began to regain the ability to make coherent sentences. At that point, she’d give me a time limit. Usually five minutes, but sometimes up to twenty minutes, depending on mitigating factors.

I had usually five minutes to pull my shit together.

Until then, I could spew all the ridiculous and absurdly logical, however irrational, theories and assertions I could come up with. When my time was up, she’d hand me a rag or paper towel to clean up my face and something to drink. As I put myself back together, she would list the next best steps.

Typically, the first thing she said to do, did the trick.

She always gave me contingency plans and tasks to complete while I waited on results. More often than not, she’d go with me to help me stay on task and calm until I had myself under control. Her help got me through my first two years of college. I don’t think I’d have gotten that far without her. I definitely wouldn’t have gotten further without the lessons she taught me.

Life moved on.

Pursuit of our own interests and families took us in different directions. I cherished every time we were able to get together again after that. It’s been a long time since we were able to talk like sisters should, but I still use so many of the scripts and coping tasks she helped me learn.

I’ve never found anyone else who could do what she could.

In all my adult life, the challenges of my special brand of different have given me endless opportunities to wish fiercely that Shay would appear by my side once more. I have known wonderful people, some I loved without reserve, some who were at least fond of me. In each relationship, I struggled to make myself understood. I still struggle with achieving a closeness that allows anyone to truly understand me. Clichés are too easy to grasp and too hard to overwrite once they’ve been accepted.

Autism, you say?

I was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder when I was forty-five years old. Shay’s response on hearing about it? “That makes so much sense.”

Understanding what this set of attributes meant for me and my future has helped me to recognize the place in which my sister stood for so many years. I’ll never be able to repay that. I bet she still doesn’t know she’s a hero.

>.>  I’ma go tell her.

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