Most of us have experienced miracles in our lives. I would like to share with you one of the greatest miracles I’ve experienced during my life. My intent is to witness that God is real, and that He does hear our lonely prayers in the moments when we feel the most isolated. Many of us have experienced loneliness and social isolation, and for different reasons. Some of us may have lost our parents. Some of us may have experienced physical abnormalities. Some of us may experience same-gender attraction. Each of these experiences may potentially alienate us from those whom we care about. And often, it may not seem as if any of our prayers and pleas for companionship are answered.
I would like to add my voice to the many who have known and understood what it is like to feel alone. One of my primary motivations is to express my witness that the Savior’s atonement is real. Sometimes, we experience Christ’s grace in terms of a miraculous transformation. This is my experience. Other times, we experience Christ’s grace in terms of comfort, consolation, and strength to endure the trials we face. Both experiences are miraculous, and both are witnesses of God’s love for us. I hope that my story will be of value to those who someone who currently struggles with the experiences I had during my childhood.
Edward Hall, an anthropologist, once did a study about personal space. He catalogued four different “zones”: intimate space, personal space, social space, and public space. People generally only let a significant other(s) into their intimate space, and generally only close family into their personal space. Hall’s researched focused on physical space, but psychologists have drawn from his distinctions and have described emotional intimate, personal, social, and public zones. There are some emotional vulnerabilities we only share with those who are closest to us, and some that we are willing to share with the public. And while vulnerability is crucial to healthy relationships, making ourselves socially vulnerable for the wrong reasons to those who we do not know or whom we cannot trust can be potentially damaging.
This story is very personal, and has typically remained in the intimate and personal zones of my life. I have never shared this publicly until today. First, I’ve never felt emotionally secure enough to share the full story, and second, I’ve never felt that my motivations were right. One of the reasons I have never told this story publicly until now is because this is the first time I feel like I can tell my story without turning it into an apology for who I am. In addition, this is the first time that I no longer feel insecure acknowledging my past in any way. So while I am certainly making myself vulnerable by sharing this story, I do not feel as if I am putting myself in any danger. I consider my experiences to be entirely in the past. Since this is my first attempt to express the experiences I have had, I imagine that this article will likely go through a number of complete revisions over the coming months. I have only one request for those who read this: if you start reading this, please read to the end.
Diagnosis and Childhood
When I was a young toddler, I was diagnosed with autism. It was a rather sudden transformation. My parents tell me that I was speaking in clear sentences one day, and was mute the next, and didn’t talk again until nearly a year or two later. For most of my early childhood years, I was considered autistic. Later on, the diagnosis was high-functioning autism (a slightly milder version of autism).
For those who are unfamiliar with the disorder, one of the primary of the symptoms include an “impaired ability to make friends with peers” (About.com). For this reason, according to one source, “Children with high-functioning autism suffer from more intense and frequent loneliness compared to non-autistic peers.” In addition, “Making and maintaining friendships often proves to be difficult for those with autism. For them, the quality of friendships, not the number of friends, predicts how lonely they feel.” In other words, individuals with autism may have a number of friends and acquaintances, but still feel lonely, because they are unable to develop deep relationships. As I will describe later, I experienced this impairment acutely for a number of years. Although I had plenty of people who called themselves my friends, I had few, if any, friendships that were more than superficial.
According to another source, most social skills “presuppose an understanding of complex social expectations, coupled with an ability to self-modulate based on that understanding. People with autism generally lack those abilities.” In other words, individuals with autism are unable to recognize and internalize the social norms and conventions that mediate most communication and human interaction. For example, individuals with autism may not recognize the impropriety of interrupting a conversation. For many years, I experienced these symptoms as well. I was blind to the social norms and conventions that others intuitively understood. For this reason, not only was I unable to make others feel comfortable around me, I was naively oblivious of that fact.
In addition, those with autism may not recognize the facial cues of those with whom they are talking. Some studies show that those with autism are less able to accurately recognize emotion in the faces of others. This makes it difficult for those with autism to empathize with others. Additional symptoms include an unusually intense focus on a narrow and abnormal interest, a preoccupation with certain subjects, strange eating behaviors, etc. Each of these symptoms are clearly documentable during most of my childhood. I can tell dozens upon dozens of stories that illustrate all of these symptoms throughout my childhood (such as singing at the top of my lungs throughout recess, reading books to other students on the bus who weren’t really listening, pretending that the playground was a giant spaceship, etc., and being entirely oblivious to the snickering remarks from other kids).
I was fortunate enough that my symptoms did not include any learning disability. For this reason, I was placed in the same classes as other children. Although my social behavior was wildly abnormal, I was able to keep up with other students in class and excel in academic subjects. I was always the “smart” one as well as the “weird” one. I was certainly not at the intellectual level of a savant, but I understood mathematics, reading, and science intuitively. For an example of this, I took AP Calculus as a sophomore in High School (it is a class normally taken by seniors), without having taken any of the prerequisites (such as College Algebra, Trigonometry, or Geometry), and received the highest score possible on the exam. I took the AP Biology exam without ever having taken the class, and also received the highest score possible (and a higher score than any of the students that were in the class). I can’t help but wonder if the intuitiveness of these subjects for me was at least partly related to autism.
I can’t tell you a whole lot about what the experience of autism was like as a child. My memories of childhood have always seemed somewhat dim. I don’t often remember why I did the things I did, or what my experience of life was during that period. I can, however, tell you quite specifically what the experience of recovering from autism is like. Those memories are burned indelibly into my mind.
When I was young, I was blissfully unaware of the fact that I was different. I didn’t know that there were friendships and relationships that I wasn’t capable of fully experiencing. Then, during my junior high school years, something happened that changed my life. I received my patriarchal blessing, and in the blessing, I was promised that I would experience many, many genuine friendships. Something about that promise stuck out to me. I remember kneeling in my bedroom and asking God what that meant, and how I could experience it. I prayed that I would experience it sooner rather than later. I believe that simple prayer set in motion a chain of events that changed my life forever. In addition, and I suspect in response to spiritual proddings, I repeated that prayer night after night.
At first, and for a long time afterwards, God answered my prayer with pain. Let me explain what I mean. I don’t know when it happened, or how it happened. It may have been when I was still in junior high. It may have been when I was a sophomore in high school. One day, I simply realized that I was different. And at the same time, I realized that I was alone. Not physically alone, but alone in at least two ways: (1) I could not relate with others, and (2) others could not relate with me. The first was a result of autism and the fact that I just couldn’t make friends the way others could, and the second was a result of the fact that no one I really cared about could understand what I was experiencing. I discovered that I had been blind to what I was missing. Christ healed me of that blindness, and it hurt.
For the next four years or so, no matter how many “friends” I surrounded myself with, I still felt alone. No matter how social I became, there still seemed to be an invisible barrier between me and the others around me. At times I picture myself during those years as a young man trapped in a soundproof glass box, screaming at the top of my lungs for someone to help me escape, and yet unheard by those around me. I would slam myself against that glass wall with all my weight, and it wouldn’t crack (and sure, people would notice, but all they saw was me acting oddly). I remember one time, when I was on choir tour during high school, that I just sat alone and watched everyone around me engaging in friendships, pairing up as boyfriends and girlfriends, and just relating with each in ways that I felt incapable of doing. After a while, all I could do was simply withdraw, find an empty seat on the bus, and cry. My experience could be described as a perpetual thirst amidst an ocean of water. I sometimes thought of myself as a shipwrecked survivor on a life-raft, surrounded by liquid but desperate for a drink.
Still, I continued my prayers. Slowly, I also became acutely aware that my behavior violated social norms. But I didn’t know how to fix it. This presented a huge challenge, because whereas before I was blissfuly unaware of my awkward and deviant behavior, now I was fully aware of it, but at the same time unable to change. The perception and opinion of others mattered to me, and I knew that I was being weird. And yet, the social conventions that demarcated the parameters of normal human interaction were still invisible to me. I discovered that I was still blind in ways I had never even realized. I could not figure out how to be normal. It felt like I was being laughed at and humiliated every time I stepped out of an invisible and fluctuating circle. Learning how to navigate the corridors of social convention is much more difficult than learning a foreign language. It might be like a deaf person who can’t read, learning a foreign language by learning how to lip-read it. This is because, unlike grammatical rules, social norms are rarely explicitly documented, and it requires an intuitive sense of the expectations of others. This intuition is something that I hadn’t yet learned. So I added to my prayers, and continued to pray.
Again, God answered my prayers with pain. Many times, I’ve compared myself to Tarzan. When Tarzan first encountered another human being, he was completely unaware of how to communicate or engage in a real relationship with another human being. He was oblivious to social conventions that we take for granted. In order to learn about them, he had to first violate them. For example, Tarzan had no way of knowing about the taboo against looking up a woman’s dress until he tried. It was only by trial and error that he was finally able to make himself into a gentleman. Fortunately for Tarzan, he was able to maintain a certain endearing manliness throughout the whole process. In contrast, for a number of years, I lived in a state of perpetual embarrassment.
Let me describe some examples of this perpetual embarrassment. I asked a girl on what I thought would be my very first date. I was oblivious to the fact that her boyfriend was sitting right next to her. In fact, I’m not entirely sure I knew at that time what it meant for a girl to have a boyfriend. In addition, I asked her in such a way that she didn’t realize that I was asking her out, and agreed to go. It was only a few days afterthe “date” that I realized that (1) she had a boyfriend, and (2) she didn’t realize that I considered it a date until we were already on the “date.” The only way for me to save face was to pretend to myself that I never considered it a date. Another example: I went to a dance with a girl, but I didn’t know how to dance. I mimicked what others were doing, but apparently I was doing it very poorly. Several times she asked, with both frustration and embarrassment, “Can we just dance like normal for a bit?” No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t seem to figure out what that meant. These seem like they could be ordinary, occasional teenage social goof-ups. However, this was often daily life for me. So I continued to ask God to help me to see the invisible lines that guided the thoughts and behavior of others.
God answered my prayers with friends. I was blessed with a number of friends who helped mediate this awkward, painful, and sometimes humiliating journey. I never told any of them about the details of my condition or my experience, except one. To this day, I have no idea if he told any of my other friends. So, added to my embarrassment of never knowing what to say or do in any given social setting, I also had no idea how others perceived me. I had no idea if they thought of me as disadvantaged in any way, or if they just thought I was weird. Either way, my friends Nathan, Ben, Jeremy, Maggie, Jessica, Tahsha, Daniel, Robert, Rachel, along with several others, adopted me into their social clique. Their group was one of the most visible, popular, and exclusive groups in high school. I think that I kind of forced myself into the group (although I didn’t fully realize this at the time). To their infinite credit, they considered me one of their own, even though I was socially awkward. I attribute a large part of my personal transformation to their example and friendship. They helped me to see what had before been invisible to me. They were patient and helped to teach me the intuition that I had before lacked.
I can witness that it was Christ who opened my eyes and allowed me to see. At first, it seemed to hurt more than it helped. But eventually, the promise God made in my patriarchal blessing came true. The “impaired ability to make friends with peers” eventually dissolved. I remember, near the end of my first year in college, I was singing with the ward choir a song written by Sally DeFord. I began to weep, because the lyrics seemed to tell the story of my life for the past 5 years:
Savior divine, thou who hast made me whole
What joy is mine! What words can my gratitude tell?
Dark were mine eyes, made by thy power to see
Withered the hands, raised now in praise unto thee
Weary and lame, lifted and healed at thy hand
Laid at thy feet, risen before thee to stand
Hungered my soul, fed by thy word and filled
Anguished the cries thou in thy mercy hast stilled
Learning to make lasting friendships that could ease the feeling of isolation I experienced didn’t happen right away. It was a gradual process that took place over the course of years. This transformation extended well into my first year or two of college (I graduated from high school a year early). Awkward and embarrassing experiences became fewer and rarer. There are still plenty of stories I could share about me doing ridiculously embarrassing things during my freshman year at BYU. However, by the time I was preparing for my mission when I was 19, I feel as though my behavior was well within the parameters of normal human behavior. By that time, not a single diagnostician would ever have classified me as autistic in any way. In other words, by the time I left on my mission, I had developed the capacity to develop friendships, communicate, and recognize social conventions just as well as others. I served a full-time mission, returned to BYU, and have since had an active and healthy social life and many exciting dating experiences.
Sure, I commit social faux pas every now and then. But so does everyone else. One of the reasons I’ve kept largely silent about my past for so long is because I’ve discovered that when someone knows about my past, they will often (without even realizing it) interpret my ordinary idiosyncrasies in light of who I once was. They will sometimes interpret any faux pas I commit or any eccentricities in my personality as symptoms instead of ordinary social mistakes and simple personality differences. This can be rather frustrating, because the resulting scrutiny can sometimes act as a psychological box that keeps me from fully expressing myself. Or, to put it in other terms, when others interpret my personality and my actions in terms of my past, they do not authentically respond to them as they would respond to others. For this reason, I have most often chosen to not make that interpretation of me and my behavior available to them.
I don’t blame others for this—it’s only natural to make sense of me in terms of the label that once described me. Our society trains us to see autism, Aspergers, and a host of other behavioral problems as if they are permanent in some way. Some have even suggested that I wasn’t ever really autistic, since autism is normally considered a fairly permanent condition. A professor of mine once advised that should say instead, “When I was young, my behavior was so abnormal that many people mistakenly considered me to be autistic.” His intent was that I could then evade being slapped with a label. However, I find this approach to be rather pessimistic. It doesn’t express a whole lot of faith in the ability of others to see me for who I am now, rather than who I once was. In addition, it implies that those who are truly autistic are not ever going to change, and that if they do, it means they didn’t truly have the condition. This is not true. I find this assumption rather disheartening and unfounded. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is centered on the capacity for the Savior to heal us physically and spiritually. I believe that I experienced a healing process that can only be considered a gift from God. To deny that is to deny the miracle I experienced.
It hasn’t always been smooth sailing. My past has, at times, wrecked havoc on my dating life. For example, I dated one girl for 3 months, and we were starting to take the relationship pretty seriously. I hadn’t told her about my past, however, because I was still pretty insecure about it at that point. However, one day my mom spoke with her and told her about my childhood. However, my mom did not tell her the full story, and for the next month, my girlfriend interpreted a lot of my personality in terms of my past (something I don’t blame her for, since she wasn’t aware of the full transformation I experienced). Eventually she ended the relationship. It wasn’t until months later that I was became aware of the real reasons for her actions, and I was able to share the full story with her. Today, we are now good friends, and have even considered dating again on a number of occasions. However, this is the only relationship since my mission that has been directly affected by my past. I’ve dated a number of people, and was in one relationship for nine months.
Sometimes I consider myself a little like Wall•E, who on occasion naively transgressed norms and customs in a simple quest to find companionship. However, I do not believe I am defined by the condition that I experienced when I was a child. Rather, I am who I am now because of choices that I’ve made. I am happy with who I am, and who I am constantly becoming. One of the fortunate consequences of my experience is that I now know that I am always able to change who I am for the better. An additional consequence of learning social conventions as an outsider is that I don’t feel beholden to them in the same way that others do. Certainly, social conventions and norms act as an interpersonal lubricant that mediates social relationships. But at the same time, we sometimes unconsciously elevate social norms to the status of moral law. Being a good person and following social norms are not synonymous. Most people learn how to follow social norms, but few learn when to bend, flex, and break them. I’ve learned that discovering wether a person is good at heart requires more than learning how smooth he or she is with other people.
I think one reason I’ve shared this publicly is that among my social circle, friends, and neighbors, there are some who know about my past, and others who don’t. Enough time has passed that I no longer even know who knows, who doesn’t, or what others have been told. Those who don’t know the full story may not fully know what this means for me, or if it still affects me in any way today. They may not know what to think. Gossip, partial information, or misinterpretations of the story disadvantage me in that way. Telling the story publicly gives me the opportunity to give input on others’ interpretations of my past, and the opportunity to direct in some way the way they make sense of it.
If you know me personally, don’t be afraid to ask me questions about my experience. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge that you’ve read my story (and, in fact, please do). If this story becomes an elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about, this article will have been a failure. For example, when my ex-girlfriend learned about my past, she didn’t feel as if she could openly talk about it. She was afraid that it was too sensitive a subject, and this stilted our interactions for a long time (and this also prevented me from discovering the real cause of her concerns about our relationship). So don’t feel as if you have to walk on eggshells around me. What I want more than anything is for others to realize that right now, there isn’t anything different about me. Yes, there is something different about my past… and that is where I want it to stay. It matters to me that people see it as something in the past, because otherwise it (unfortunately) affects the way people interact with me (such as, for example, how willing someone is to go on a date with me). Not because I’m ashamed of it, but because I am no longer defined by it. I consider it a childhood condition much like a broken leg that has now healed.
There is, however, one way my past affects my present. I’ve heard stories of young children who are brought to America who grew up in developing nations where food is scarce and starvation is an imminent possibility. They will sometimes stockpile food, because no matter how frequently they are told that it is unnecessary, they have a difficult time trusting that there really could be such a thing as a surplus. In the same way and for the same reasons, I crave personal relationships as if they were a scarcity, even when they are not. Just as those children know the value of food in a way that we never could, I can say that I truly understand the value of friendship. I cherish every hug that is offered me, every invitation that is extended to me, every moment someone calls just to say hi. In other words, because of my experience, I can now experience love, joy, and compassion in personal relationships in ways I would never have been able to otherwise. The truth is, today I can say that I’ve experienced companionship and joy that more than compensates for the experiences of my youth. With Alma, I can say: “And oh, what joy, and what marvelous light I did behold; yea, my soul was [and is] filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain! Yea, I say unto you, my son, that there could be nothing so exquisite and so bitter as were my pains. Yea, and again I say unto you, my son, that on the other hand, there can be nothing so exquisite and sweet as was [and is] my joy” (Alma 36:20-21).
Throughout this experience, I’ve learned firsthand the transformative and comforting power of the Atonement. I’ve known a loneliness that few of my peers have experienced, and it was only consolation from Spirit that carried me through. Because of that loneliness, I’ve learned to treasure friendships in a way that few others do. And one of the greatest miracles of all for someone with my background is that I have complete confidence that in the not-too-distant future, I’ll find Jane, or E.V.E., and I’ll be able to forever quench the loneliness that still occasionally haunts my nightmares. And that is quite the miracle.
Let me be perfectly clear: I also do not want to send the message that having been autistic is an embarrassing thing. Yes, the journey I experienced was at times very awkward and embarrassing to me. But it does not have to be experienced that way by others. First, if we can educate people to understand what the experience is like, and if we can help those who are autistic to feel understood, we can help them interpret their experience differently. I believe in the constructivist school of psychology, which means I believe that we are in charge of how we experience reality. With our help and coaching, others who experience autism do not have to interpret their differences as awkward or embarrassing. We can help them explore and expand the boundaries of their social world without teaching them to be ashamed by their condition. In addition, there are many who have the same childhood experience that I did, and who never experience the transformation that I did. They are not any less loved by God than I am.
I don’t fully know why God has blessed me with this miracle. It always sounds trite when people say in testimony meetings, “I know God is real because He helped me find my car keys the other day.” I’m sure that was an experience with the divine, but what about the mother who is pleading with God not to let her sick child die? When they’re burying their child, do they conclude that God doesn’t exist because He didn’t help them? What about others who experience autism and who also pray for companionship, and yet still experience isolation? What of those who experience same-gender attraction, who pray for relief and transformation, but the trial never seems to end? I don’t have answers to these questions. All I know is that God responded to my prayers with a transformation that changed my world in ways I never expected. My message for those who struggle with seemingly endless feelings of isolation: do not give up hope. And my message to parents and friends of those who struggle with autism: love them for who they are. They may never experience the transformation that I did, but it is fully possible to love, embrace, and befriend them anyways.