Leonard, the friendly vegetarian lizard from an alien oval planet, is my alter ego.
There’s an expression in the autistic world called “pretending to be normal.”
It refers to a learned behavior by autistics to assimilate into normal society without appearing too weird. In other words, the power to blend in.
When I was little I didn’t know how to be normal nor did I know that I needed to pretend to be normal in order not to be bullied and made fun of.
Instead I was just myself and somewhat locked into my own world.
I had a severe speech disorder that is technically referred to as Developmental Verbal Dyspraxia. I tried to blurt out words and sentences as fast as my brain was thinking. When I did that, the words were jumbled and out of order causing me great frustration since no one other than my mother and grandmother could understand me.
I was very clumsy and always had bandaids on my scratched up knees from falling over my two left feet. That’s called Developmental Coordination Disorder. I always wanted to go from point A to point B as fast as possible, and with two left feet I generally ended up on the ground during that process. I also think that my lack of balance while walking was part of the impetus to move as fast as possible to get to where I wanted to go.
I was expelled from kindergarten after the first two months for a couple of reasons. When it was nap time, I couldn’t fall asleep so I’d walk over to the crafts area and start fiddling with stuff. That made the teacher really angry.
We had one bathroom for the kindergarten classroom and if I needed to go pee, I’d just go in there not realizing that a little girl might be in there using it at the same time. That made the teacher really angry.
I wouldn’t respond to my name when it was called because I had no idea why the kindergarten teacher was saying it. That made the teacher really angry.
I pretty much did what I wanted to do because it was my world and I controlled it. That made the teacher really angry, and I suspect that was the main reason that I got expelled from kindergarten.
The following year I was old enough to be enrolled into first grade at age 6. Instead of sending me back to that public school, my mother enrolled me in our local Catholic grade school, St. Michael’s in the center of Los Angeles. We were Catholic so that made sense.
After the first six weeks of first grade in October of 1958, my mother took a day off work and hauled me to our family doctor. I was sitting in the examination room while my mother and the doctor were having a rather heated discussion in the hallway; the door was wide open.
I heard her tell the doctor that the school didn’t want me to come back, and one of the main reasons was that the teachers couldn’t understand a word that I was saying. I suspect my behavior had a lot to do with it as well.
That was the first time that I heard the word ‘autistic’ while coming out of the doctor’s mouth and the doctor subsequently recommending Speech Therapy, whatever that was.
When we got home I immediately went to look up that word ‘autistic’ in the dictionary; I was able to read since around two and a half thanks to all of the Life Magazines that my mother liked to buy.
Unfortunately I wasn’t a great speller yet and I assumed the word started with an ‘o’ and a ‘t’. Consequently, I couldn’t find ‘otistik’.
Since my cousins always referred to me as a ‘brat’, I assumed the word ‘otistik’ referred to my bratty behavior.
Somehow my mother forced St. Michael’s to keep me enrolled and I subsequently spent a lot of time during first grade in the ‘cloak room’ for getting into trouble or had my thumbs smacked with a ruler by one of the nuns. That was their method of disciplining a child with bad behavior.
That same year was the start of my Speech Therapy. My mother found a speech therapist that also taught singing lessons at a local theatrical school in Los Angeles. She enrolled me in singing lessons, tap dancing lessons, and drama lessons.
The singing lessons helped me to learn how to slow down and enunciate words in a more intelligible manner, at least while I was singing a song.
I liked playing games and I liked to win so I treated the singing lessons like a game to win.
When the teacher would hand me the sheet music with the lyrics, I would read the lyrics twice and imprint those words and odd looking symbols into my mind. Back then I didn’t know the term ‘photographic memory’ but that’s how I did it. Those odd looking symbols had a pattern that I could associate with each word in the lyrics. I didn’t know what they were called and it didn’t matter. There was a structure that somehow made sense to me to interpret, and in turn I could associate each symbol to a particular musical note.
The tap dancing lessons helped me to learn how to control my legs more efficiently and limit the necessity of bandaids on my knees. There was a structure and pattern to those as well, and since each dance was intertwined with music it made it easier for me to remember how to associate each leg and foot movement to a particular song.
The drama lessons were probably the most important therapy that my mother implemented. They helped me to learn how ‘normal’ people interact with each other. Each play was an alternate world mimicking some type of social interaction or exchange of emotions. It was a game to me as well, and since I liked playing games and winning, I worked really hard learning how to pretend to be one of the characters in a particular scene.
The following year while in second grade at age 7, I realized that the other kids didn’t know how to fit into my world. So I started to observe them in more detail.
I watched how they interacted with each other, both verbally and in actions, and applied my new knowledge that I learned in drama lessons to try and mimic them.
That period in my life was the beginning of my study of human behavior.
And since I was Leonard, the friendly vegetarian lizard from an alien oval planet, I needed to learn how to assimilate amongst humans…
To be continued…