Finally Finding Ease in My Own Skin

Rick Bondy

Rick Bondy

About the Author

Prior to retirement as a teacher, school counselor, and Transitional Youth Services Provider, Rick worked with Autistic students and clients from 10-21 years of age. He seeks to bolster knowledge and understanding, and to connect with very late diagnosed adults.

I first identified my own Autism nearly three years ago, at the age of 69, but Autism is an ill-defined term. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition, has established its criteria, defining it as a disability, which therefore highlights what an individual cannot do well. While that approach may satisfy some in the medical and mental health communities, it does not work well for many of us who identify as Autistic. Primarily, it fails to acknowledge those traits that make Autistic people unique and successful in an array of skills. Many individuals are also writing articles, books, and blogs about autism (as they experience and understand it), and are podcasting too. As a reader or listener, I often relate to certain elements but not to the whole picture that each one provides.  I have concluded, therefore, that there are too many definitions, or conceptions, to use the term with precision. In reading the work of Susan Cain about introversion, and Elaine Aron about “highly sensitive people,” I see a lot of intersection with their descriptions and the traits used to describe Autistic or Asperger’s folks.

I have concluded that I may be better served by adopting the concept of an “alternative operating system.” In other words, it is clear to me that I am wired differently from many other humans (who are now dubbed “Neurotypicals”).  It is not that long ago that I even began to allow for an Autistic self-identity, even though many experiences of the prior seven decades had provided clues. Although the exact terminology seems unclear thus far, I can assert that when I first tried on the “autism” suit in March of 2021, it made me feel so comfortable and so liberated that I could barely resist doing cartwheels. I’m not sure that I had ever, in 69 years, felt so at ease in my own skin. I could suddenly connect many dots to make sense of many experiences, in a coherent manner never before possible.

Since that time, I have adopted the autism label, allowing that “Asperger’s Syndrome,”  might be a better fit. However, in my 69 years, no one, including an array of mental health professionals had ever named it. (Had they even suspected it?) Long ago they diagnosed me with depression though, which is very common for Autistic individuals, but they apparently missed the larger picture that would have led to a more accurate and useful understanding of me. In fact, I had functioned “well enough” to marry, father two wonderful daughters, and manage a 28 year career as a teacher, school counselor, and community counselor. 

On the other hand, there were questions had vexed me for years and years:

  • My track record shows that I was quite good at getting hired but then frequently ran into performance problems. What was that about?
  • It appears to me that I matured much more slowly than my peers, and in fact, did not marry, start a family or find my proper career until age 40. Yet, those were all goals I pursued heartily. What was that about?
  • Why have friendships been so challenging since childhood and into adulthood?
  • Why have I always gotten along so well with women when so many guys have given me a hard time or simply distanced themselves?

For many years, unfortunately, the qualities I exhibited caused me embarrassment and a lot of misunderstanding with others. After all, when it seems as though the rest of the world is dancing to a tune that you cannot hear, it is easy to feel out of step, clumsy, or even stupid. So, reexamining this lifetime of misunderstandings now compels me to enumerate some of my own particular traits and to celebrate all of them. I now understand that it is far more profitable to invest in this authentic self, whatever I call it, than to direct any further efforts at poorly imitating a Neurotypical person. Knowing myself in these ways continues to enhance my sense of liberation. Nor do I believe that any of these traits fits only me. I would imagine that the reader can identify with various parts, but it’s the Whole of Me that I am advocating for.

  • Many times, I think differently and perceive things differently from others. Sometimes I can recognize when that is happening but not always. I realize that we are all individuals and that anyone can claim their thoughts as unique.
  • Being with groups of people can be quite challenging for me. I have difficulty with the conversational exchanges, the noise, the unspoken communication, and the overload of sensory information. Being at a dinner table, for example, in which eight people are swapping stories, opinions, and jokes seems benign, even to me, but rarely can I keep up with the pace of the conversation. 
  • I prefer and enjoy most one-on-one conversations. There is so much less to attend to in a one-on-one. However, the stimulation from even one hour of talk usually begins to strain me. I start to get dysregulated, even in this favorable social setting.
  • Relationships can be quite tricky for me. Trying to fit in, or appear to fit in, has caused me a lot of pain and sorrow and harmed many relationships.
  • I am sensitive to violence and aggressive behavior in personal encounters, in football games, in TV shows and movies, in news stories and, therefore, I choose not to expose myself to them.
  • I am strongly attached to my Higher Power, who I cannot define but to whom I devote time daily in prayer and meditation.
  • I am inclined to wonder and awe. Every day I seek wonder and awe in the life around me and sometimes I am moved to tears by it, as well as by sorrow. I see these tears as very healthy and healing.  
  • I am very responsive to colors, especially bright ones, which usually make me feel happy.
  • I prefer to be receptive—looking for the beauty and connections among things. As closely as I can determine, it’s the way God made me.
  • Others have told me that I am “too nice” or “not assertive enough.” I have come to understand that this is a matter of perception.

This tendency to get dysregulated is a major factor in my daily functioning.  Here is a definition: Dysregulation, or emotional dysregulation, is an inability to control or regulate one’s emotional responses, which can lead to significant mood swings, or emotional lability. It can involve many emotions, including sadness, anger, irritability, and frustration. 

Here is an example:

Just last week I had a lunch date with my younger daughter, who was visiting for a few days. The restaurant we chose had a one hour wait, which then directed us to another favorite nearby. After relocating, parking and entering, we found no empty tables and a line of people waiting to order. “OK. Let’s walk down the block and check so and so.” Nope, not open. Finally, we drove a couple of miles away and found a suitable place with open tables and enjoyed a good meal. Before long I began to vaguely sense the familiar feeling that something was “off,” which confused me at first. “What the heck?” I thought. “I enjoy my daughter’s company immensely and only wish we could spend more time together. The food I ordered tastes fine.”  By the time we left, however, it dawned on me that I was feeling dysregulated.  

I might add that I have had such random dysregulation experiences thousands and thousands of times in the course of my daily existence. Sometimes the cause is apparent, such as having to try four different restaurants before settling in, or someone saying something unpleasant to me, or encountering a lot of traffic when I need to get somewhere on time. But more often, this “something seems off and makes me feel uncomfortable” sensation has seemed to arrive from nowhere. For most of my life, I had very little idea of what to do about it. Unfortunately, I often attributed it to something my wife or my mother or my friend said or did, which made many situations worse. Now I can see that those were often mistaken assumptions and that I get dysregulated by many things, ranging from noisy traffic to annoying radio talk or music to…I don’t even know what.

I have, in the past couple of years, discovered and developed strategies for handling dysregulation, including relocating to quiet places, taking walks, listening to soothing sounds, spending time in nature or looking at nature photos, lying on my couch, or doing crossword puzzles. I need to use them quite regularly.

Noise of various types is difficult and often causes dysregulation. I find most truck engines too loud and react to the sounds of lawn mowers, leaf blowers, motorcycles, noisy restaurants, parties and loud music. On trash pickup days, for example, when it gets to be too much, I insert foam plugs into my ears. Unfortunately, that sort of intervention does not work so well in public spaces where communication is needed.

In recent months, I have shared this list with a number of friends and family members and received very loving responses. This is one important way that I choose to affirm my authentic self in the world.  I am indeed getting to know myself in the present while I continue to reevaluate my past with greater understanding and forgiveness. Although this endeavor brings sadness, it is also yielding substantial relief and a much greater sense of inner peace.  

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