So how retarded am I, exactly? That’s not as easy a question to answer as you might think. With most physical disabilities it’s easy enough to figure out: your ears don’t work, or they work a little, or you can’t walk, or you can walk a few steps. Hell, even other types of difference can be measured in some way: are you a 3 on the Kinsey scale, or a 6?
But figuring out what I can and can’t do goes way past the basic fact of autism into an almost unknowable philosophical realm. Most of the time I’d rather not think about it, because it makes me go crosseyed. But sometimes I have to make major life choices, and these choices are to some extent dependent on what I can and can’t do.
So how retarded am I?
For instance, something I’ve been trying to figure out lately is whether I can work. The vast majority of people know this about themselves, but for me there’s been some considerable debate as to whether or not I can hold down a goddamn job.
I’ve worked twice in my life, both for fairly brief periods of time. The first job required me to co-facilitate a social group for the socially disabled at the U of T. It was great, except for the parts where people tried to tell me what to do.
The second job involved acting in an instructional video about social skills. That was great too, except the director was so impossibly nice that I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop (it never did).
I consider my writing to be my job, which is great, except it doesn’t pay. I’ve been involved in more than one philosophical discussion with friends and family about the nature of work, and what defines a job. The troubling conclusion I’ve arrived at is that if someone someday pays me for my writing, then everything I’ve written retroactively becomes a job. If nobody pays me, then this has all been basically masturbation.
You can see why I don’t like thinking about these things too closely.
So what about work that pays on a regular basis? Is it possible for me to engage in that? If not, what stops me?
Like all serious philosophical endeavors, there are a few different schools of thought. My mother thinks that because I have autism, I may never be able to hold a regular job, and that I shouldn’t necessarily be expected to do so. She believes I shouldn’t push myself too hard, and that if I force myself to work, it might amount to me denying the extent of my disability.
Hannah believes that I have an inadequate amount of information as to whether or not I can work, and that I’ve let a few negative experiences (co-op in high school, as well as the fact I was fired from U of T) define my attitude toward employment. She believes it’s reductive for me to assume that all jobs would be impossible for me to perform, and that there must be something I can do that I would feel enthusiasm for.
My sister believes that I refuse to work because I feel that many perfectly good jobs are beneath me. She thinks that this is due to classism, arrogance and a God complex. She has told me that my priority should be finding work- any work- that I could theoretically do.
I think all three of them have valid points. My disability has a serious impact on my functionality, I have little work experience to base any assumptions on, and I definitely have some attitude problems.
But there are other factors too which might be even more relevant than these; factors which go to the heart of what Asperger’s is and how it affects me.
The most significant thing is that I can’t connect with people. I just don’t feel anything for almost everyone I meet. There’s nothing there. I believe intellectually that everyone is worthwhile and has something to offer the world, and that everyone has an intrinsic worth and dignity that should be protected. These beliefs are deeply held, but they don’t have an emotional basis.
So how could I perform a job if I don’t care about the people I work with, or if I don’t care about my boss? In all likelihood that would translate to me not caring about whether the organization succeeds. I’d do my job because I get paid for it, and for basic ethical reasons, but there’d be nothing deeper than that.
I know a lot of people with depression, and something I’ve frequently heard is this feeling of emptiness they have inside of themselves.
I’m the opposite. My insides are full, and I have a rich, deeply satisfying inner life. But I feel empty outside. Beyond myself and my small circle of loved ones, there’s nothing but a vast blankness.
Everyone with autism finds themselves thinking from time to time that there must be something really wrong with them, and that maybe they’re crazy or broken. We all have our own reasons, and this sense of emptiness is mine.
Almost every time I see other people, part of me flinches. I can’t stand being around them. Sometimes I can’t even go to the grocery store without feeling burned out and irritable. Sometimes I can’t even walk down the street without feeling that way.
I never feel lonelier than when I’m around a bunch of other people. When I’m by myself, writing or reading, I’m at peace. When I’m with Hannah or other members of my family, I’m happy.
But outside of that is an abyss.
So the question of whether or not I can find work is a lot messier and more complicated than it would seem. I wonder if this is the same for other people on the spectrum. I doubt they have exactly the same issues as me, especially if they’re hyposensitive.
But I’m willing to bet that people miss an awful lot when they talk about whether autistics can work. They focus on building social skills and lessening social anxiety, and on improving organization and time management. That’s only a small piece of the puzzle.
You can try to train us all you want, and try to include us as much as possible. But nothing you can do will change the fact that we’re aliens, and that we might very well be the most other of others.
The real questions are whether we can be with you at all, whether we want to, and whether that would be in our best interests.