I’m marking the fourth anniversary of my move to Chicago. Thing is, I grew up in Chicago, spending the bulk of my first 24 years here. But as we know, autistic people commonly feel uncomfortable, out of place, wherever they are–and since I didn’t know I was autistic, I just carried this mysterious and frustrating discomfort with me wherever I went. And I went a bunch of places, spending three years at school down in Urbana, Illinois, then five years in Brooklyn, three years in Los Angeles (split up among Glendale, Long Beach, and Hollywood), and just over a decade in Portland, where I was incredibly uncomfortable and unstable but my partner, Tom, had his dream job.
Kind of goes against the idea of embracing the familiar, having a routine, and avoiding change, right? That tells you about the level of discomfort I’ve experienced, the depth of my burnout, enough to push me into the complicated and expensive exercise that is an interstate move (over and over again).
Typically, I’ve landed somewhere, found a way to support myself, built my map, and set my routines, then run out of excuses for why I wasn’t flourishing to the degree I felt I should have been flourishing. Had I found my place and my people? Was I safe? Did I feel at home? No? Well, then it was time to save up a bunch of money and figure out my next move and hope that Tom was up for another adventure.
Not to dwell on the employment challenge for autistic people, since it’s written about quite a bit, but even with the abilities I do have and the (mostly invisible and silent yet self-destructive) masking I can pull off, I have never felt comfortable and content at a job. The closest I came was in New York, when I was the managing editor for Dial Books for Young Readers/Penguin. I was promoted quickly and the job involved me reading the behavior patterns of a lot of people and keeping track of a lot of things; my office was full of natural light and I could play my music and surround myself with plants. It was a tough job but very suited to my abilities and interests, and my team worked very well together. In a lot of ways I still felt like I wasn’t doing as good a job as I could have. And not surprisingly, I didn’t really connect with coworkers. We would go to lunch or the occasional happy hour, but I never fully invested myself in the people…or, more broadly speaking, the place. And that was New York, the city I still love to visit more than any other. How could I not be comfortable there? Tom and I earned enough to afford a decent apartment and buy stuff we liked and take vacations. We had good insurance and could take care of ourselves. We survived a terrorist attack, even.
I had no explanation. On paper, I was thriving. Inside, though, something was still very wrong and I didn’t know what to call it. It wasn’t depression, it wasn’t anything that I had the words for. The decision to move came at a point when Tom and I felt we needed to really establish ourselves and buy a home or find something else entirely. If we bought a home, that would trap me in a world that was somehow not right for me (again, without being able to say how or why), so we jumped as far as we could, to Los Angeles, where we’d reboot and see if that fit better.
It did not fit better. No place on earth would have fit better, maybe because no place on earth was designed for and inhabited by a colony of autistic people. My constant “What is wrong with me? I must be an alien” feeling was due to the fact that I did not have knowledge of my own autism, and would lead to my wearing myself down time after time trying to feel right or normal or whatever.
So what makes this stint in Chicago different? Shiny new autism diagnosis aside, I chose to return after visiting more frequently, coming for more events or to babysit my parents’ cats, since I was freelance editing and writing. Being away for twenty-some years seems to have made it new enough that I could start over but still have my map, to some extent.
I had gone a lot of years not meeting up with old friends, and in that time my different groups of friends wound up befriending each other. My connections sort of wove themselves together, so when I did visit and meet up with a friend, we bumped into other friends, and our stories started to involve one another. Now I’ve reconnected with quite a few, and they’re good, evolving, creative, and caring people who embrace strengths and weaknesses as just part of your overall character, without worship or judgment. We half-joke about the old punks retirement community that we’ll all end up in, because it’s seriously not a bad idea, retiring to art classes and Jazzercising to Bikini Kill and Gang of Four with these people.
As for my employment, I’ve started over a bit career-wise–again–but there’s still some project management and editing and print production involved, plus it’s a vegan company, so even the dullest or most challenging task is in the grand effort to end animal suffering. Bonus, they’ve paid me a living wage since day one, and prompted by the pandemic, I now work 98% from home–once we find a new apartment where I can have a dedicated office space that’s not a corner of my bedroom, I’ll be even more comfortable. I’ll likely never be confident in my job, but I know that’s in my head.
And the city itself? It carries the familiarity you’d expect, but also so much new, exciting culture. Pre-COVID, some nights I’d have a really hard time deciding which band to see or which event to go to. Walking around and photographing street art is one of my favorite things to do, and with the right shoes I can do that all the way to the lakefront, then hit the little Italian grocery/deli on the way back…and all the while feel invisible because the city is big enough and busy enough that nobody sees me as a target or a threat.
But back to that shiny new autism diagnosis. I often see the question of whether a child should be told they’re autistic. The parent’s fear seems to be the label somehow limiting or alienating the child. That fear comes from a good place, but I feel it is so, so wrong. That child will know something is different about them. That child will keep trying to fix themselves, to make their experience living match those around them–and they will fail over and over, because there’s nothing to fix. As autistic people, we will always have a different life experience from neurotypicals, and knowing that is incredibly powerful. It is literally life-saving information. Knowing that my physical being is different, that I have different tools and abilities (some more and some less) compared to most of the people around me, I can better assess my situation and decide how to fix what I can fix and how to accept what I can accept. That is the only way, no matter where I am, I can ever get close to feeling at home.