Thursday, April 2, 2015

More on Maturity

"[Do y]ou ever feel like a little kid around people your own age?"

That was a question that somebody posted in an Asperger's group on Facebook the other day. I thought, "Oh, God, YES." Actually, I should clarify. I don't feel that way now at age 34, but sometimes I felt that way from adolescence up until my late twenties. In my last blog post, I wrote about how gender conformity is often perceived as maturity. Now I'm going to talk about some of the other arbitrary designations for maturity.

When I was in fifth grade (age 11), I noticed that all the other girls in my class were starting to get crushes on boys (or at least they appeared to-- I'm sure a few of them were actually gay). I felt like I was the only girl who didn't at least pretend to have a crush on a boy. Like many kids (girls especially, for some reason) with Asperger's, I couldn't see what the big deal was about "going out" with someone. That boy over there is cute? I didn't notice, and I really don't see what you're seeing. I just see another person who happens to be a boy. Dating? Kissing? Whatever for? For me that would just get in the way of my writing and drawing. In that same year, all the kids-- boys and girls-- were throwing around sexual slang left and right. Nearly every day I came home from school and asked one of my parents questions (usually my father, if I recall-- probably because his answers were more direct) like, "What does 'humping' mean?" or "What's a boner?" 

I learned the hard way that not at least pretending to have a crush on someone got me labeled as "gay"(keep in mind that in 1991- 1992, when I was in 5th grade, there were very few openly gay people) or "immature". I also learned that if I heard one of my peers using a sexual slang that asking what said slang meant would only earn me ridicule, usually in the form of being called names that indicated that I was immature or at least "out of it". I also remember being afraid to use the word "decibel" in that class when the teacher asked a relevant question during a science lesson. I thought my knowing that word would earn me even more ridicule (I was probably right). But why? Why does knowing "boner" make you "grown-up" but knowing "decibel" makes you a nerd?

I know what you're thinking-- what do 10- and 11-year-olds know about maturity? They're just repeating what they've heard in movies and they don't know what half of it means. Or, in terms of crushes, it's just something new for them so they think it means they're suddenly grown up. OK, fair enough. Except I continued to feel like a little kid all through adolescence and my teenage years whenever the subject of dating came up, no matter what the context. When I was in 8th grade (age 14), I recall one particular instance where my parents were talking to my brother (then 17) about school and his friends and in particular about whom his friends were going out with. I remember thinking, "This is the kind of 'grown up' talk that I'm expected to be part of, but I can't be part of. I don't know how."

Think that was just my perception? It didn't help when my mother kept nagging me throughout my teenage years, asking me whom I had a crush on. This was a topic I was enormously uncomfortable with. For one thing, my mother kept trying to engage me by pointing to celebrities on TV and saying, "He's cute-- don't you think?" That made me feel put on the spot. For another, when I got a little older and finally did start getting crushes, I refused to talk about it because the topic was too embarrassing for me. I experienced crushes very intensely and I knew that Mom wouldn't understand. When we had one of these conversations when I was 17, I tried to assure Mom that I had had crushes but that I just didn't want to talk about them. She didn't believe me and started lecturing me about how kids my age are interested in dating. She told me that I was at an age at which I was supposed to start feeling attracted to boys-- or girls, if I was gay. But I remember thinking that I found it hard to believe that every single person on the planet except me experienced romantic/sexual attraction on a regular basis. For me it was unusual (last year I learned this is called demisexuality), and I thought there had to be somebody else out there besides me who fit this profile. But what in the world did it have to do with maturity? Why not just another trajectory of development? 

I also recall a time when I was in the counselor-in-training (CIT) program at my summer camp when I was 17. The staff would not let me work with kids for the first half of the summer because my less-than-stellar social skills got translated as immaturity (nobody knew what Asperger's was in 1998). I understand now that they did have some valid concerns, but the same staff often did very appalling and unprofessional things that at age 17 I recognized were not conducive to running a summer camp safe for children. For example, a lot of the counselors did drugs. I don't mean on their 2 1/2 days off they went to New York with their friends and smoked weed (but I'm sure they did that as well). I mean they did drugs (usually weed, but probably more in some cases) on their breaks. They often even cut activities and let the other counselors pull their weight. During campers' rest times, the counselors often went to the staff lounge to smoke weed and left their kids unsupervised in the cabins. Even then I saw the clear hypocrisy in their concerns about me. I actually cared deeply about the kids and went out of my way to help them if something was wrong. But it didn't matter because of my lack of social savoir-faire.

As you might have guessed, at camp I had the reputation of being an anti-drug fascist. A fellow CIT finally asked me what I would do if I knew for a fact that a particular person on staff was doing drugs. I said something like, "Well, that depends. If it were something relatively harmless like weed, I would tell them how I felt about it and remind them that they shouldn't do it when they're supposed to be caring for kids. If it were LSD or heroin, I would probably report it because it's a safety issue for the kids." All the other CITs were completely stupefied and even upset when I said this. Why? Why were my social skills issues considered immaturity but doing drugs at a children's summer camp wasn't? Again, it's arbitrary. 

What I think it comes down to in all of the aforementioned cases is that people often mistake conformity as maturity. This is true whether it's gender conformity, conformity in expected psychosexual development, conformity in knowing the right slang, and above all-- conformity in social skills, even at the expense of doing the right thing.

Despite that uncomfortable discussion with the other CITs at camp, I didn't feel like a little kid around them. But that was the exception, not the rule. I often felt that I was much younger than my peers outside of camp because I just could not relate to them. I also felt like a little kid around people who were just a few years older than me inside of camp and out. This continued well into my twenties and it reached a crescendo when at age 27 I got a horrible crush on a Sergio, a guy 8 1/2 years older than me who had been a counselor at my camp in 1995. We had found each other on Facebook and hit it off immediately and became friends. However, he shunned me as soon as he figured out I had feelings for him. We haven't spoken since. That same year, my ex-best friend Melanie (1 year older) got married. She didn't invite me to the wedding and she cut me out of her life. Both shunnings were in 2008. It was a horrible year, and between the incidents with Melanie and Sergio, I felt like a little kid. I was not only too immature to have a friend 8 1/2 years older, but also too immature to have one of any age who was married. I began to feel that these little milestones that people take for granted were also a reflection of how immature I was. Because getting married wasn't on my radar, I was and always would be an immature little kid.

My feelings of being a little kid around my peers and people slightly older than me finally changed in late 2009 (age 29). I cannot divulge the exact details, but it did involve me becoming a regular on an Internet forum. People of all ages were interested in what I had to say. They thought I was interesting and intelligent and many praised me for my unique perspective. They didn't treat me like an annoying little kid who was dominating the forum (as did happen on a listserv in college). It was this kind of validation that I needed to be able to begin putting people like Melanie and Sergio behind me.

I hope this blog post gives everyone something to think about. I think it's important.

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