More Hank Than Max – Part 3: The Hidden Syndrome
I’ve seen Asperger’s referred to as hidden: the hidden disability, the hidden autism, the hidden syndrome. The word “hidden” is used because many so-called “high functioning Aspies/Autistics” (HFA’s) have the seeming superpower of being able to fit so easily into “neurotypical” society as to go unseen, like leopards in the jungle, say, or “aliens among us.” So “normal” do some HFA’s appear to be to the people around them that, upon their decision to disclose their diagnosis, they are greeted with disbelief, denial, and derision.
Which sounds like fun, right? I mean, who doesn’t like having their reality denied by others? Especially when it feels like a great risk to share that reality in the first place.
We can, of course, blame this denial on the Asperger’s stereotypes in operation. If the stereotype says that Asperger’s looks like Max, and I don’t look like Max, then I don’t have Asperger’s. It’s a simple equation. An easy matter of Venn diagrams. And the human mind likes things easy, as was so beautifully explicated in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. The stereotypes operate for a reason, I think, so we need not wonder that they exist. If the diagnosis of Asperger’s or Autism is a claim to differences, then it only makes sense that people will highlight the most obvious, observable differences and turn them into a “type,” something that they can wrap their minds around. But since the type doesn’t do justice to the full reality, those who seek the truth will need to see beyond it, and it can take a great deal of time, energy, and education to displace such easy beliefs with more nuanced reality.
But it’s more than just a matter of falling outside the stereotypes, I think. At least for me. Truth be told, I worked hard to hide. I embraced my outer Hank and turned my back on my inner Max. I chose to fit in as best I could, and painted my fur with leopard spots to blend in with the sun-dappled foliage of neurotypical culture. I kept myself hidden, even from myself.
Until I failed, that is. Until I stopped.
That I went into hiding is completely understandable, of course. “Sticking out” can be painful and frightening. “Fitting in” can feel safe and comes with rewards. Ask The Ugly Duckling. Ask Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Even the birds know this.
I don’t really remember how it started, but there is a telling piece of archaeological evidence that has helped me, along with other bits of data, to connect together the skeleton of a story. In the late 90s, while putting together a scrapbook of my life for a Landmark Education program, I uncovered an ancient relic: my kindergarten report card. Written on the back was a note from my teacher, explaining that while Timmy was a joy to have in class, he was extremely sensitive. She was working to correct this, she said, as I would be much happier were I not so easily affected.
Looking back over my life now, I can imagine that extremely sensitive Timmy, and the pressures on him to hide. And from this current high vantage point on my life’s trail, I can see how successful he was at it. He was extremely smart, a skilled and talented observer gifted at pattern recognition. And he had two older brothers modeling possible paths for him to take – the “good boy” and “the rebel.” He was no dummy, and could see which side of that particular piece of bread was getting buttered. He followed the good boy.
He also had the good fortune of growing up in a rather idyllic situation. He spent his formative years in the rural Michigan countryside, surrounded by fields and woodlands and streams and farm animals on the one hand, and by a large extended farming family on the other. And he attended a one-room schoolhouse of maybe twenty students total, where his tiny cohort of four or five advanced together from grade to grade with the same teacher. When he needed solitude, there were places to go to get away. When he needed help or understanding, there were many relatives from whom he could choose. If he had quirks or oddities or sensitivities, they were such old news that they scarcely registered.
He found a way to be okay, this lost little alien walking amongst them. He took on understanding the ways of human beings as an anthropological research project, and learned to mimic their gestures, speak their languages, and participate in their rites and celebrations. The Max part of him he hid as best he could. The Hank part of him he showed to the world. Because he lacked, or had learned to hide, some of the more obvious outward traits of an Aspie, he fit in quite well, rarely raising suspicions.
And all it cost him was that he had to almost totally shut himself off from his true nature for most of his life.