So I’ve got this thing where I design challenges based off the good qualities in my cats.
She was so aggressive, you’d have to explain to your friends as you’re walking through the front door, “You can pet the short-hair cats, but don’t pet the long-hair one; but if you have to pet her, wait until she sniffs your hand…then she’ll probably hiss, and if she rubs her face on you, you’re good.”
I’m not sure how many people she drew blood on.
Sometimes she combined her hiss with a swap attack, and of course lots of people put their hand out there, curious about this creature who came with a warning label.
After my mom moved to Idaho to cohabitate with my grandmother, Cleo sat on top of the refrigerator. She’d wait for Grandma to open the freezer, then appear out of seemingly nowhere, sink a talon into the top of her hand, and growl.
Back when I was in high school, when my mom and I took her to the veterinarian for the first time, he said, “This not good pet,” and she was still in that curled-ear kitten stage. I’m not sure how you determine kindness in curled-ear kitten stage.
But in Idaho, Cleo also played in the snow. She loved the sensations of nature, wind in her hair. Since she was an indoor-only cat, she only experienced these pleasures in my mother’s catio.
Outside, you could pet her, if you touched her the right away.
She was always like this alien creature to me, massive and muscly, difficult to get along with, yet I fell in love with her the way you love any family member you live with. And I think this is how many people view their family members with autism. Since so many of us have different reactions to sensory input than neurotypicals—different reactions to the snow, or to heat, to light and sound and definitely touch—in other words, we’re so difficult to understand, while family may love us, they give us massive space.
Or maybe they don’t.
Maybe that’s why we’re difficult to them, because they want to hug and gather close, because they lack any boundaries. They want to spend all day together, but you need to know the hug is coming, see it approach, be cool with it, or you might not like the hug, and you always look really different in the pictures, deer-in-headlights about which family member will oogle all over you as part of the Thanksgiving ritual, like you’re so different from the rest of your family tree, it’s terrifying to even move; that’s why they used Polaroids to help diagnose you, which thank goodness for that, because the diagnosis is the only reason you don’t feel guilty for wanting to be alone a few hours a day.
It can happen the other way, too.
After asking to be left alone too often, or resisting the touch of our loved ones too much, we may be taken to the doctor, who says, “This is not good development,” and that’s when the diagnosis kicks in; and in a different era, that’s also when autistic people were checked into hospitals to live their lives in a controlled place, like the stories told within In a Different Key: The Story of Autism.
Now autistic people are relegated to strange corners of education, family, and society. Life’s gotten better, but there are still many changes I hope will come. So I want to channel my memories of Cleo—that lovable cat that, I’m pretty sure, loved me too, but I was unfamiliar how to respond to her behavior—and take a 30-day journey through April 30, answering the question, “What’s it like to be on the spectrum?”