By Sam Ready
Photo darwin Bell | Flickr
I want to get up and wear dark colors under a trench coat with aviator sunglasses and bedhead. This was my look in high school, and I still like the way I feel in it. But instead I will wear a pink shirt and khakis, with a hoodie and a colorful vest, because I know better now.
People have found me intimidating for my whole life. Some of it is verbal; I know now, for example, that kids with no nonverbal learning probably shouldn’t attempt to mimic the old “He’s totally going to kill me/I’m gonna kill you” line. Apparently this hyperbolic and idiomatic use of the word “kill” is one television imitation reserved for the “normal” and neurotypical. I know that now; mea culpa. I know to use my inside voice and a vocabulary of more common words. But I had learned and compensated for these things before the end of high school, and, as long as I wore the coat, people still feared me. My main barometer for this, other than what I heard here and there, was the inversely proportionate relationship between tragedy and proximity: Every time a school shooting was reported on television, people walked just that much farther to the side of the hall when I’d walk by. The pattern never failed, to my last, graduating day.
This isn’t just simple impressions anymore. The truth is that while schizophrenics and borderline personalities often take the lion’s share of mental health stigma in everyday conversation, the aloof Asperger kids have also gotten an undeserved bad reputation, associated incorrectly with threats to public safety. Why? Because we are eccentric, don’t say much or dress differently. I guess we’re just more likely to break social norms and attract attention to ourselves. Simply put, we have entered an age of neurodiverse profiling.
That this connotation should fall on the benign Asperger kid is absurd. But Columbine couldn’t ruin neurotypicality (which the perpetrators were) for everyone, so it ruined trench coats instead. It’s an entirely too easy leap to scapegoat the nonsocial guy in the coat as the antisocial ticking time bomb, even though one has absolutely nothing to do with the other. I am continually refreshing my wardrobe with softer patterns, cooler colors and carefully planned accessories to foster a more approachable image. I’m not really convinced that it’s working, but I still try. I have to try, because that’s a new burden on the autistic spectrum and on the neurodiverse in general. I’m not saying that it is the same thing as other prejudices in our society, but it is real, and it is a burden. I think about it every time I plan an outfit or cosplay a character with any sort of firearm; because apparently even the obviously fictional phaser is too real a threat in my hands.
I love putting on my retro patchwork vest and my kooky accessories and even my pink shirt. But I know that, if it didn’t matter, I’d wear the trench coat and aviators instead. That I don’t do so makes me feel that I don’t really even have a choice in the matter. As an example of the accessories, I have a fun yellow wallet with robots on it. Why? Because I love bright colors and robots are awesome … Or was it part of a larger, calculated scheme to systematically reinforce to onlookers that I’m completely harmless? I actually don’t even remember anymore. I don’t remember the origin for a lot of the things I do.
I used to not care about appearances at all. You probably figured that out from the bit about the trench coats and sunglasses. But now one might say I have a sort of obsession lingering in the corner of my mind. It’s honestly getting ridiculous. And now that I have glasses always slipping down my nose, I’ve gone full George McFly, patron saint of pencil necks and poindexters. The simple answer would probably be to ditch the formalwear pieces for a nondescript T-shirt and jeans, but that’s not me. I like to dress up. There is a projection outward and inward. But my erring on the side of the silly is getting out of hand and perhaps still getting me nowhere. If the button I picked up at Active Minds is to be believed I am supposed to be a “#stigmafighter,” whatever that means.
Threat assessment for unstable personalities and future perpetrators of violence pretends to be an exact science, but it really isn’t even close. The end result is usually a broad reaching-out of support resources for all like the Emory Helpline (the right way) and the singling out of the guy in black wearing sunglasses indoors because he’s clearly of a different mindset (the wrong way). This is why the Aspie needs to wear the outrageous sweater, and fast. And lose the sunglasses, no matter how exponentially it hurts your social game. It’s surface judgment, and it cuts both ways.
Because it’s not just my ties and slacks I worry about, either, anymore; it’s other people’s, too. I find myself constantly in a state of Terminator-like vision, scanning and breaking down every outfit I see into baseline research for how not to look like a potential school shooter. That and judging people. I’ve been judging people a lot; who’s smart or not, who’s cultured or not, who’s mature or not, as if such things could even be quantified externally. But to be honest, I shouldn’t be surprised at that; my entire scheme depends on people judging other people by their clothing, and one can only attempt to reverse engineer that process for so long before succumbing to its elitist itemization oneself.
This obsession is unhealthy. I still wear one of my long coats sometimes as an overcoat in cold weather, but only if I’ve got something cheerful or colorful to balance it out. The pink shirt, perhaps. Or that colorful vest that makes me so happy when I put it on and so depressed when I “have to” wear it to class. But until our society gets to a more knowledgeable and understanding place about mental health, people like me just have to play the clown. I pray we won’t have to wait long.
Sam Ready is a College sophomore from Atlanta, Georgia.