The handcuffs slid on so silently, they caught me unaware. I hadn’t run entirely amok to that point, but the standards of society had not yet made their way into my little life.
First, they encouraged me with smiles and sing-song voices and hopes of growing big and strong. “Good girls eat their vegetables!” Then, they bargained, promising rewards of playing outside and stickers and a coveted spoonful of peanut butter. Finally, they laid down the law: “You’ll sit here ‘til you’ve eaten that broccoli!”
Shocked at the demand, I startled. Angry, I sulked. Tired, I slumped. Exhausted, I finally slept… right at the dinner table. Having committed my first crime against Good-Little-Girldom, the cuffs were silently slipped over my wrists and locked in place.
The experts insisted, “She’s smart enough to figure it out! She’s just stubborn! Starve her out and she’ll cave!”
The food police didn’t know, for I couldn’t tell them, that raw fruits and vegetables were as appetizing to me as my muddy sneakers or a pile of dried leaves. How many positive thoughts or stickers or promises of candy would they need to overcome the part of their brain that tells them not to eat those things? I couldn’t say much, but my vomit spoke volumes.
First grade was a jail cell disguised as a circus tent. My first exposure to life in the general population taught me the cardinal law of childhood: Different is bad.
Two dozen pairs of eyes had been bright and expectant in September. By November, some stared dimly at the rainbow walls, now immune to the same messages hung there day after day. Others intently picked the wood back from the point of their pencils or shredded paper in piles on the floor, mindless actions to keep themselves awake as the warden droned: “Put your name on top and write the correct color word underneath the picture.”
My eyes had glazed over—sensory onslaught coupled with intellectual deprivation—but they suddenly exploded with light. I likely didn’t raise my hand, but the words wouldn’t stay down. “What if my mom taught me that blue was really yellow, and red was really green? Would my brain still know or could a kid be taught wrong and…”
I heard the tap of two fingers on the corner of my desk. Looking up, I saw a finger raised to puckered lips. This was our code, the one she used only with me.
I had read the formal reports. “She has to learn to stay on task! She’s smart enough to know better! She has to be more organized before she can have more difficult work!”
The warden didn’t know, for I couldn’t tell her, that I didn’t do the work because I spent my evenings lost in my sister’s sixth-grade text books and Discovery Channel documentaries and The Hobbit.
I only did two years of my three-year sentence in the district prison. The building was massive but invisible to outsiders, the faded brick so plain brown it faded right into the standard, dreary Pittsburgh skies.
Even at the end of my stay, I would turn a corner only to find myself lost in the monotony of the plain white plaster walls, uncertain which corner I’d turned, which room I sought, what time or even day it was. Scores if not hundreds of separate rooms, and I only knew where to find a single window, a rare six-inch slit of clouded glass, partially obscured by shelving. Built in the 1970s, air-recycling vents were the state of the art technology that meant a stench from a chemistry experiment might turn up on the opposite corner of the building in the gym.
The bells rang by the oft-broken clocks, making them impossible to predict, and my aversion to beeping and ringing meant they hit me like gunshots. Arms rigid, fists tight, I walked through a battlefield, every bump from a fellow automaton a bomb for my senses.
Cliques formed and taunts flew under the surveillance of guards who insisted: “She’s too sensitive! She’s disrespectful of authority! They wouldn’t be so cruel to you if you weren’t so maniacal.”
The sheriff didn’t know, for I couldn’t tell him, but trying to force this square peg into round holes only damaged the peg.
I’m disabled, not broken.
Sub-standard scores do not mean sub-human lives. Delayed means all in good time, not permanently impossible. Autistic means radically aware, not locked away.
The jails are not built of autism but expectations. A brick at a time, my purpose is to tear them down. Every key typed opens an old lock:
I value my education more than the acceptance of my peers. I found myself a square-hole drill.
Being smart doesn’t mean I understand social cues or that I can’t learn them. Teach me, don’t force me; value cooperation, not compliance; challenge my intellect, engage my mind.
My brain doesn’t register that broccoli as food. The handcuffs fall off, my hands and my spirit are free.
(Written for my Place and Setting class; my thesis is in, and I am seven days from finishing my MFA!)