The Writing Was on the Wall; We Just Couldn’t Read It

My mom sent me some images, pages out of my baby book. I don’t know if they still do baby books or if it’s ever been a universal thing, but it’s a book full of prompts for parents to record their child’s development. For example, there’s a grid for first through fourth years, likes and dislikes, and spaces to record first words and steps and such. Mine is a little spotty, as I imagine most are, but what is there is a real gift. What I gleaned from the pages she sent was that my brain is in fact the one I was born with. Also, that my parents did the best they could with what they had.

The information in my book reinforced some obvious basics. From infancy, I was not into strangers. Into my toddler years, I was notably a “fussy” eater. (On pages she didn’t send me, I know there’s a long list of foods I didn’t like, including specifically egg yolk, because of the consistency.) My development making friends was slow–and looking back, it was complicated and still is, to some extent. And in kindergarten (age 5), I was testing at the top of my class and was “very good in math abilities.”

I’ve explored my relationship with numbers and math a bit in this previous post. My dad gave me the phrase “Numbers never lie,” and it’s something that stuck with me. Surely my obsession with math coupled with my general awkwardness to this point may have raised some neurodivergence flags if it weren’t the ’70s. I mean, look at this photo of me on Christmas Day, 1978.

Adorable, yes, but what’s that in my hand? Must be pretty cool if I’m ignoring everyone around me. Well, it was a calculator, the National Semiconductor Quiz Kid, a math quiz game where you’d enter the problem and then your answer, and either the green light or red light would tell you if answered correctly. I loved that thing. A year or two later, I’d level up to the Coleco Quiz Wiz–there’s a funny Christmas photo of me being very proud of it somewhere.

My parents did always have extra learning games and puzzles around, because I just soaked it all up. By second grade (7 years), they had entered the phase of tough teacher talks. Teachers were concerned about the pressures placed on me, but it turns out they were all self-imposed. One note from that year: “Michele has had a lot of trouble growing emotionally. She is very intelligent and needs to be kept busy.” And by the following year I had noticeable nervous habits, and “I’m afraid she will work herself to being sick, almost hyperactive.” Through all of this, they still did their best to see that I had as normal a childhood as possible. They kept me in public school, and I did scouts and tried a few lessons here and there, different instruments and the like, but when I had a flute or piano lesson and didn’t master the thing on my first try, I rejected it. I was only interested in the things I could magically, automatically do very well.

They also declined the proposals to have me skip grades. Since I was not maturing emotionally or socially, they figured it would only be more difficult to add the distinction of being the younger kid and having to spend my days with a whole new group of kids. My teachers tried to help with extra assignments and such to keep me busy, gave me opportunities like being a tutor and a computer aid (when we got our first school computer–ooooohhh) and in fourth grade, three of us were taken out of our normal reading/English lesson to attend the fifth grade class. So it was a little weird, but at least I wasn’t alone. I had my male counterpart in the annual Most Outstanding Student award, Darvin, and Paige, who became my default BFF (except not forever and we didn’t actually get along most of the time). Bonus bit of luck: We were not bullied. Smart kids, for whatever reason, could be “cool.” Darvin ended up our prom king in high school–and no, he didn’t also play football or have a cool lake house where the kids could party or anything like the prom kings in movies.

This one’s a treat. The prompts for the baby book had run out by this time, but in 1983, when I was 10, my mom wrote this: “Michele is a challenge to everyone, including herself. I hope I live to be 100 and see her with her own family, if she chooses to have one.” This is such a telling statement. Yes, I was a challenge, but she clearly knew that I’d be okay. Also, the idea that I might not want kids was already a thing. Not a maternal bone in my body, but my parents embraced whatever I was because apparently I was a decent person with something worthwhile going on.

I would continue to have challenges emotionally and otherwise, and it would culminate in a breakdown a few years later, but I made it through that as well, with their help. Again, they had no guidance for what I was. They were 23 when they had me (well, my mom would be 23 on my tenth day), and they’d had my brother less than two years later. It was the ’70s and ’80s. Even if people were starting to get help for brain-related issues, they sure as hell didn’t talk about it. It wasn’t until I was 13 that I was given The Gifted Kids Survival Guide, when I was invited to take the SATs as part of some program or another, and maybe it would have been helpful in some way, but it was too late. I already had a lot of scarring and still carrying some unique wiring that no book could have addressed in few enough pages to bind with staples.

When I started exploring the idea that I was somehow neurodivergent/on the spectrum/autistic, and started asking questions of my mom, she wasn’t super on board. She said “Don’t search so hard that it hurts you more than helps you… Don’t dig up old pain.” She’s come a long way in the past two months, I think understanding that there isn’t any pain at all involved in this. It’s so comforting to see that the struggles I had weren’t from something anyone did. The ways I did or didn’t (and still do and don’t) relate or interact with others aren’t anyone’s fault. Nobody treated me horribly, there was no trauma–it’s my brain, a condition to be understood and accepted and made space for. I am beyond grateful that my parents are still around to help me fill in these blanks, and that they have this opportunity to look back at those challenges and realize they were something they could have gotten help with if we were going through this today. We were all doing so much work on our own back then, and all things considered, we did a pretty great job.

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