By Maya Petzoldt, TIWP Student
People often ask me what it’s like in my head, and I never tell them the truth, because in all honesty, who would listen? I give people minimum-word answers, answers they expect, like “Weird,” “Crazy-land,” and “Unexplainable.” These satisfy people, because they don’t really want to know, or they would have gone deeper.
Sometimes people try, and they point out movies and stories, and colorful billboards or idioms and say “That’s what it’s like in your head, isn’t it?” I never disagree, because why would I? I’m autistic, and the main thing about me is that I’m not neurotypical, I’m not typical. I’m not something you just understand.
But maybe I should tell people, then maybe they would stop asking me why, how I got there, how did I think of that? I’ll tell you exactly what it’s like in my head. It’s a bunch of neurons firing back and forth, reaching conclusions. There’s no special place, no castle of thought, no magical answer, not when I’m talking to you.
But when I’m alone, I like to imagine that there is a reason for why I’m like this. That I’m not the strange one. And maybe I don’t have a castle, I have a house, really it’s a hotel. Strange things happen in hotels.
You can walk on any story of the hotel, and find halls filled with rooms. When you open them, you may see a scene playing back and forth. Maybe one is John Mulaney’s Netflix special “New Kid in Town.” Maybe another one is a birthday party, where the cake tasted terrible but the activities were fun.
But most are filled with people, one per room. The room each person sits in is mismatched, filled with little bits and bobs. Some rooms seem to match, maybe the person’s bedroom. That means I know them well, I have a complete view of them, that’s just them. Others are just pictures, wall to wall. That means I’ve never met this person before, I’ve just seen them on TV or in a picture book. I don’t know them, just what they told me.
The rest are acquaintances. I don’t know them, but they don’t tell me things. I just make up a personality for them. I put things in their room that make me think of things. I put an ornate rug, I think they’re aesthetically inclined. I put in an apple, I think they’re athletic. Their rooms just fill up with things.
The people won’t talk to you, there’s no sounds in the hotel. It’s always silent. They can’t talk. But they look like it, sometimes there’s a little card on the door, it has a speech or a monologue, something I’ve imagined telling them. When you open the door, they’re moving, as if they’re speaking, but mute.
The truth is, they’re reacting. I can’t predict what people will say to me, but that rarely matters. The way they react is more important. I value their body language, because that tells me what they’re thinking. What expressions they’re making is their intended meaning, their movement is their level of comfort, and the lighting in the room is their mood, maybe with a smell as well, to add to the tone.
You probably wouldn’t get it, or maybe you would, and you would stop questioning why I talk differently to you than other people. Because you might not like me if I didn’t act that way, I might set you off unconsciously, and you may not notice. But I will, and I promise I won’t do it again.
When you reach the first floor, you’ll reach my favorite room, the lobby. It’s even more quiet than the rest of the hotel. You can’t smell anything, and it’s not too bright, or too dark. It looks homey, or comfortable, or modern, or unassuming. There’s lightly colored wood to make the desk, white tiles, seamlessly connecting. A white chandelier, and a black computer. Sometimes I sit on the couch or in a chair, other times by the computer, browsing the rooms.
But I’m not here often, just when you’re not there. When you’re there, I’m in the basement, in front of the switchboard. I’m a telephone operator, and I’m listening to you on my thick headphones. I look different, like a teenager from Hairspray, or a black and white photo from the 50’s.
But if you see my face, you notice it’s different. It goes back and forth, back and forth between confident and confused, stressed, scared. You’re on the line, you’re asking me a question. I know the answer, because it’s an opinion, I can’t be wrong. I’m scared of being wrong.
The switchboard has no labels, but I know where to go. I take my plug, along with its long and complicated cord, and plug in the right jack. I know what I’m doing, at least I think I do. But then you ask why, and I can’t answer that. You only wanted the answer, right? That’s what the jack’s for, but I can’t read the cord, I don’t know what the cord means.
So I panic, I’m scared, what if I get it wrong? I forget that it’s an opinion, and I can’t be wrong. Because now I can, and now there’s logic involved, and nobody has ever understood my logic before, so I’ve given up explaining that. I have to figure out your logic, and explain it to you that way.
I rush to get books from the stacks behind me, and I search frantically for a reason, but you’ll call it an excuse. But now I know, at least this explains it to you, because you walk away. I can tell you’re disappointed, maybe mad, or even confused, but at least you’ve left.
Now I know that “excuse” works, so I rip out the page and tape it above that jack. That’s what you took as an answer, so that must be right. This will happen over and over again, sometimes to the same jack. I’ll have three or four things taped above one jack, and I have to guess which answer you’ll like best.
A paper page, a flower, a broken pencil, a superhero figure. You like these answers, so this is what I say. I never feel bad about it, that I’m just giving people what they want. I argue with people too, I have set opinions, what do you think the tape is for?
I just love it when people are happy with me, that they think I understand them, because I know you’ll never understand me. It’s high time you stop trying. You can record all my triggers, my fears and anxieties, my likes and hates, my ‘depends’ and opinions, but you will never understand me.
I have stopped trying to understand you, because I don’t need to. We all work on different wavelengths, we all have different hotels, houses, huts, and castles. I have never needed to understand your reasoning for any one thing, because it does not matter. Your opinion is something you came to based on your experiences, and mine can never truly be like yours.
Sympathy is powerful, but so are its twins. Empathy and Apathy, both so rewarding. I catalogue body language to be empathetic, and I choose to be apathetic because it is also rewarding. To understand emotions, I had to watch other people, but to understand a situation, I had to ignore people. So yes, I am confusing, weird, and my head is crazy-land, but the only thing that bothers me is when you try to find out why.
Maybe my head is a hotel, maybe it’s Candyland, or maybe it’s biological chemicals being transferred between neurons in a squishy organ surrounded by a hard shell, but it does not have to be understood. So, yes, I’m autistic, and yes, this is what I think. Read into it as much, or as little, as you’d like.