The Things We Do to Fit In

Assimilation may be the social norm, but it’s a value judgment.

As a young teen, I was actively engaged in an attempt to be liked by my peers. That’s not unusual for that age group, of course. But I wish I had known, back then, just how much the cards were stacked against me.

I’m on the autism spectrum, and I only discovered that about 2 weeks before my 58th birthday. I wonder what I would be like now if I had learned how to embrace, accept, and understand my differences then. Instead, here I am at 58, feeling like a baby giraffe just learning how to walk.

But in the late 70’s, early 80’s, most people knew very little about autism, so, like the countless number of undiagnosed people in my generation, I fell through the cracks. I got to walk through life knowing I was different, but not understanding how those differences wove themselves through every fiber of my being. I actually thought I was doing a passable job of faking it (whatever I thought “it” was), but now I realize that I wasn’t even coming close.

Without ever telling me, my family went to great lengths to push me toward “normalcy”. My mother wanted the best for me, of course, but that meant forcing me into social situations that felt like torture to me. Brownies. Dance Classes. Job Corps. I always wondered why everyone around me seemed to be able to thrive in those situations to some degree or another, while I found it impossible. I was never able to assimilate.

My mother meant well, but had I known of my autism, maybe I wouldn’t have tried so hard, and maybe others would have cut me some slack. Assimilation may be the social norm, but it’s a value judgment. There are countless ways not only to survive, but also to thrive. Maybe understanding my unique boundaries would have allowed me to live my life to its fullest without trying to force myself into realms that were as unnatural and as unwelcoming to me as the surface of Mars.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t work toward self-improvement whenever possible. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. Many weaknesses can be strengthened. But if a particular weakness is insurmountable, if it’s neurological and therefore can’t be “fixed”, wouldn’t it be better to focus on the strengths? Instead, I kept trying and failing to go with the social flow, and that had a disastrous affect on my self-esteem.

No sane person would even consider pushing someone out an airlock on the red planet. Preferring a breathable atmosphere doesn’t mean you’re a quitter, or you aren’t trying hard enough. It means you know what you need better than anyone else does. It would have been nice if, like water, I had been trusted to find my own level. Instead, to this very day, I’m constantly getting sloshed around by others. It’s as if adding bubbles will somehow cause me to have a bubbly personality.

Erm… no.

I was thinking about my clueless teenaged self just the other day, and I remembered something that’s either kind of funny or rather telling, depending on how you look at it. It’s just one example of the lengths I went through to try to fit in. As was often the case, this effort isolated me even more.

Somehow, I got it into my head that if only I could get as tan as my Florida peers, they’d accept me. So one summer I vowed that I would work on my tan and be gorgeously bronzed come September. Then surely my life would be transformed.

So, I spent the hottest part of that year fruitlessly crashing up against yet another one of my boundaries. You see, I come from a long line of pale-skinned Scandinavians. I am absolutely incapable of tanning.  It’s just not in me. At best, I can burn and peel and wind up just as translucently white as I had been before. I couldn’t care less about it now, but when I was 15, I saw that quality as a profound flaw.

I put a lot of thought into how I was going to achieve this swarthy metamorphosis. Maybe if I spent 3 hours a week tanning, and rolled over frequently like a steak that was lovingly tended on a bar-b-cue grill, I wouldn’t burn. Instead, after doing this all summer long, I’d wind up looking like a caramel-colored confection that no one would be able to resist. The boys would love me. The girls would want to be seen with me.

But if I was going to do this thing, there was no point in being bored silly in the process. So, I always carefully timed my tanning sessions with the weekly broadcast of American Top 40 with Casey Kasem. If I positioned the broken antenna on my transistor radio just right, I could enjoy the music as well as Casey’s fascinating anecdotes, and I would be sure to flip over on my beach towel after every three songs. Easy peasy.

Two weeks before school was to start again, even though I had tackled the tanning with the dedication of a lioness defending her young, I looked in the mirror and realized that I had made no progress whatsoever. I was white, white, white. So very white. I was still me.

So, two days before school started, in an act of sheer desperation, I slathered myself with Coppertone QT (the QT stands for “quick tanning”.). The instructions assured me that I wouldn’t even have to sit in the sun, although it was recommended for best results.

To be honest, I’ve never enjoyed the sun. It had been a long, tedious, sweaty summer. I’d much rather be in the shade. So I sat there, in the dark, slathered in Coppertone and wondering why I hadn’t thought of this before. I’m pretty sure I fell asleep.

Four hours later, I looked in the mirror…

…and I was orange. Oompa Loompa orange. (Trump was not even on most people’s radar at the time, so that comparison wouldn’t have occurred to me.)

I let out a horrified shriek and I leaped into the shower. I scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed, and nothing came off. And unfortunately, I hadn’t applied the Coppertone evenly, so I had splotches of different shades of orange all over my body. I was mottled and mortified.

By the next day, it started peeling off in patches, but the rest stubbornly hung in there, which made me look like I had been rolling around in mud. Isn’t it every girl’s dream to show up on the first day of school looking like Pig Pen? This would definitely not get me in with the in crowd.

I begged my mother not to make me go to school. But she would have none of it. I had been driving her nuts all summer. She was looking forward to my being kept busy and out of her hair.

From an adult perspective, I get that. But also, from an adult perspective, I can’t imagine sending someone off to the teenage equivalent of a firing squad. There was no way this could end well.

It took a week for the stuff to completely wear off, and I spent that whole time wearing long sleeves and unfashionable scarves in the Florida heat, and trying as hard as I possibly could to render myself invisible. (I’m actually pretty good at that. You’d be surprised.) I got a lot of weird looks and heard laughs behind my back. It didn’t exactly do good things for my Q score.

In retrospect, I can see that I was trying really hard to feel comfortable in my own skin. But thanks to my autism, I took that a little too literally. I thought that the best way to achieve that comfort was to make my skin like that of my peers. I went a little overboard. I wish someone had told me that I was just fine exactly as I was. But for some reason, people resist saying that to one another, even if they long to hear it themselves.

I wish I could go back and tell that kid that I like her just the way she is. Orange splotches and all. I’d also tell her that high school is just a hellish weigh station that one must endure on the way to an amazing life.

A message to every struggling teenager out there, especially the neurodiverse ones: Hang in there. It gets better.

Like this quirky little blog? Then you’ll enjoy my book!


Author: The View from a Drawbridge

I have been a bridgetender since 2001, and gives me plenty of time to think and observe the world.

One thought on “The Things We Do to Fit In”

    Gavin explains how he compensates for his neurodiverse issues to fit into a difficult and demanding job governing the largest sub-national economy in the world. His dedication is admirable and he gives some great advice.
    Barb, you’re fine exactly as you are. Making mistakes doesn’t make one a mistake. As for feeling comfortable in one’s own skin, literally… sun exposure for just 10 minutes causes intense itching. Seems I’ve developed an allergy to the sun and have to take supplements now to get my vitamin d. Yet another immune dysfunction to add to a long list. They may be linked to ASD

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