- Sarah Nannery
Book Nook: Odd Girl Out, by Laura James
Updated: Oct 25, 2019
I stumbled across Laura James’ book while I was doing some research on adult Autism for work. By this time in my life, I had suspected on-and-off for many years, most strongly during my college years, that I had Asperger’s Syndrome. But I had never really explored the idea or dug any deeper, having long-accepted my many quirks - a tendency for literal interpretation, a dislike for unstructured social gatherings, an unfortunately frequent lack of tact or contextual awareness, a quiet and highly analytical (yet gullible) nature - as simply part of my unique personality (which they still are).
But learning about Laura, and how, as a successful journalist in her 40s, she had discovered her ASD, and how it had explained so many things about her life and felt so freeing and validating to her - made me stop and think. Then I read her book (audiobook), and an entire world opened up. I was in tears half the time, listening to her describe experiences from her childhood and now from her adult work and love life that struck so close to home for me.
Laura described how hard it was to turn off her brain and relax, distracted as she was by every sound within what seemed like a 1-mile radius (down to the hum of a light bulb or the blinds knocking against each other in a breeze from the window).
Not only am I sensitive to sound (loud noises not only startle but physically hurt me), but sound can be particularly distracting because it is very hard for me to hear more than one thing at a time and be able to process the sounds simultaneously. A room full of talking people each having their own conversations is an auditory nightmare that I can only handle for a finite amount of time.
If both my son and my husband are talking to me at the same time - as happens often - I can only pay attention to one of them enough to be able to process what they are saying and react appropriately. Usually this means my son (who falls higher on my mentally-mapped "needs" priority hierarchy as he is only 3 years old and highly dependent on me) gets my first attention, and my husband has to repeat himself, which can lead to frustration for all parties involved. We have learned to proactively create space for me to hear and process one auditory input at a time.
If a fluorescent light is buzzing or an air vent is rattling during a meeting at work, I have to spend a considerable amount of energy actively tuning OUT the extraneous sound in order to hear and process what is being said in the meeting. To the point that often enough, I need to literally cup a hand around one of my ears and close my eyes in order to manually focus my senses where I want them to go.
Laura wrote about how, as a child, she would retreat into her own mental world where everyone followed the rules, where mistakes were met with reasoned, logical solutions, and where nobody's emotions ran away with them in the heat of the moment. Sounds nice, right? Sounds especially nice for someone with Asperger's, who, on the whole, likes rules, likes them to be followed, and dislikes emotional outbursts.
The "internal world" of an ASD brain is probably one of the most familiar tropes in pop culture representations of the condition. It makes sense - as a neurological difference, Autism/ASD/Asperger's does exist largely on an internal plane. ASD as a disability is not necessarily visible, and may manifest externally only in certain situations or under certain stimuli.
Much of a person with ASD's "personhood" can feel like it exists entirely internally, as well, due to a tendency not to engage in outward verbal communication. If I don't tell you what I am thinking or how I'm feeling, how will you know that I'm thinking or feeling anything at all? There are many, many compounding reasons why a person with ASD may not communicate freely and may seem to be living in their own world, which I will explore more in other blog posts.
For me, as a child I would "get lost in my own world" much more frequently and deeply than is considered "normal" for a "neurotypical"** young person, often unwittingly neglecting responsibilities or important dates or commitments as a result. Once, in middle school, I completely forgot about my school's choir concert (I was in the choir), and never showed up at the performance. I can still make this kind of mistake today - if I've had a particularly challenging day at work and am deeply embroiled in internal world-building about what I could have done differently or where certain things might have gone wrong, I can easily miss my train stop or get on the train going in the wrong direction, too lost in my own internal world to notice.
Social Faux Pas
Laura shared one interaction she had as a teenager with a group of "girlfriends" that resonated deeply with me, during which, having not naturally learned the social cues as her neurotypical peers did, she made a minor social faux pas. The other girls politely corrected her but not without some embarrassment, as they all intuited that by that age, Laura should have known better. Laura's subsequent intensely potent sense of humiliation - disproportionate to the minority of her mistake - ate at her for hours and even days after the encounter.
This is such an ASD quirk - things that I say the wrong way, or small mistakes that I make in social interactions, will replay in my mind over and over again, as if on repeat, for days afterward. We all do this, to some degree, imagining ways we could have handled something better or what we will do better next time. But this kind of brooding, in a non-ASD brain, is usually reserved for bigger mistakes, and usually easy enough to stop or distract from quickly. In an ASD brain, if I utter a single word out of place, it will cost me hours of brooding time, and the repeat-feature is extremely difficult to turn off. You can see how this quirk alone could result in a person with ASD preferring not to say anything at all, rather than risk saying the wrong thing.
Check out the Book!
I absolutely loved reading Laura's book, published in 2018. If you want to check it out, you can find it on Amazon here: https://smile.amazon.com/dp/1580057802/ref=rdr_ext_tmb
She gave me my first real glimpse at what a successful adult woman's life could look like with Autism, and a true sense that I am not alone.
**Note: Throughout this blog, I will use the term "neurotypical" to refer to non-ASD-affected people, brains, and behaviors. This term, however, is of course not fully accurate, as everyone's brain is different, ASD or not, and just as with ASD-linked brains, no two neurotypical brains will be the same, either. The term, often abbreviated as "NT," is widely used as the closest approximation of an antithesis for ASD-linked people, brains, and behaviors - in order to simplify conversation - but by no means do I intend to generalize or categorize beyond simply a differentiation between a person/brain/behavior that is affected by ASD and one that is not.