My recent autism and ADHD diagnoses have prompted some intense reprocessing of my own memories and lived experiences. It’s like sitting in the chair at the eye doctor, and a new lens is flipped down. Suddenly, everything is clearer. Through the lens of neurodiversity, many things about me and my life make a lot more sense. Understanding myself as neurodiverse is by no means a magical key that’s unlocked all self-knowledge, but my self-knowledge is deepening.
Writing is integral to my life. Which is the same thing as saying I am a writer. It is part of my identity, it is a title I strive to deserve, and it is how I want to spend my time. But what on earth possesses me to sit alone in a room, thinking deep and involved thoughts, and spending hours and hours writing them down? Why do I do that? And why do I feel like I have to?
Writers tend to think about this a lot. They compose Artist’s Statements that deal with their motivations and intentions, if for no other reason than to explain themselves to people who just can’t understand why someone would want to be a writer. I’ve done the same thing. But now, I am looking at this question again, through the lens of my neurodiversity.
This is all new territory. In 2018, I self-identified as an HSP (Highly Sensitive Person), which means my central nervous system processes stimuli more deeply than 80% of the population. In November 2020, I also found out I am Autistic (Asperger’s) and also have Inattentive ADHD. (I wrote a blog post about my journey to assessment and meeting the DSM-5 criteria for these neurodiversities; you can read it here.)
I grew up without this self-knowledge. When I was a kid, I really struggled with school. I did fine as far as grades went. I taught myself to read before kindergarten, and the work itself was easy… But everything related to the logistics of the school day and social interaction was overwhelming. Making friends was confusing, the school day was exhausting, and the thought of going to school often left me with anxiety. I found participating in the world to be very difficult, if not impossible. I didn’t know why. I didn’t know how to express this. And–worst of all–no one else seemed to feel the same way.
The greatest conflicts and unhappinesses in my childhood revolved around school and social situations. The greatest happinesses came from reading. In books, and fiction in particular, I found a safe way to explore and experience a sense of belonging. A way that didn’t overwhelm or exhaust me. A way that allowed me to dissolve into strange new worlds and forget about the stresses of the day.
I read immensely and voraciously. I took home stacks of books from the library too tall to carry. I read for hours alone in my bedroom after school, coming out in a daze for dinner, and rushing right back to my book to read all night. I always had a book with me at school, too, and when I inevitably finished my desk work before my classmates, out it came.
I realize now that I was likely learning about people. In books, I could learn about the way people interact, how they live their lives, people’s motivations, how wanting certain things made them act, what the “rules” of given situations were, how friends acted together, and so forth. Then, if I found myself in a similar situation, I had an idea of what might happen, a sort of pre-uploaded guidebook to the situation. I was gathering and cataloging human social scenarios.
It’s funny. I have a vivid and active imagination. I can create entire worlds on the page. But in my own life, it’s very difficult for me to imagine an outcome or an option that I haven’t seen or experienced before. Books likely helped me expand my understanding of the world around me and its possibilities.
Books spoke to me. I wanted to speak back. So, writing followed naturally as a way I could express myself within and contribute to the literary worlds from which I gained so much.
Story is the structure through which I understand the experience of living. The creative discipline of writing is the action through which I process my own experiences and gain understanding. I can try out scenarios, watch what happens if my characters want certain things, and deal with the frustrations and joys of living in the laboratory of the paragraph.
Writing also fits the kind of life I want to live: a quiet one, maybe even a solitary one, or at least, one with space to sit alone and think.
I think all forms of art have to do with finding connection. Art begins with a person creating, using their experience and paint or ink or the lines of their own body. When they put that piece of art out there, they’re declaring their experience, but they’re also asking a question: “Does anyone else think this too? Do you connect with me?” Every piece of art is message in a bottle cast out into the infinite sea of humanity, a question, an invitation, a potential point of connection.
Being autistic has impacted me most in social interaction and participation. So maybe in the end, I’m writing as a means to connect with people. I’m throwing out my little bottles, hoping I’m not alone up here on my bottle-throwing rock, and hoping I can help someone else feel less alone.