Amy Gravino is a certified college coach for individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome, and is diagnosed as having AS herself. She is currently attending graduate school at Caldwell College in Caldwell, NJ, where she is working to obtain her Masters degree in Applied Behavior Analysis. Amy is also authoring the book, “The Naughty Autie,” which chronicles her experiences with dating, relationships, and sexuality as a woman on the autism spectrum. (For more information, please visit www.amygravino.com.)
Editor’s Content Note: This post discusses being locked in a closet, and may trigger a claustrophobic reaction.
It all starts with a doorknob.
The palm of my hand wraps around cool metal. Smooth and solid against my skin, gaining me entrance to my place of peace. I can hear the other children’s voices somewhere distant, far away on the Big Toy. They play outside, running over hot blacktop, skin freckling in the sun. But I am in here, in the dark.
I move into the closet slowly, acutely aware of my Velcroed sneakers touching the tiled floor, one step at a time. The shoes are too tight, and my feet are throbbing and cramped. They’re trapped, along with the rest of me. My muscles are tense and twisted in preparation for the onslaught of adolescence soon to come. I’m in the middle of the closet now, standing right below the light bulb. Without hesitation, I sink to the floor and arrange myself in a cross-legged position. I have no concept or inkling that any of what I am doing is not normal. I don’t even think that anyone notices me retreating in here day after day. I’m a matchstick girl—legs spindly and awkward, all too sensitive, waiting to be set alight by the outside world.
I try to breathe, for what seems like the first time all day. Tiny hisses of air pass through my clenched teeth, which are aching behind omnipresent metal braces. I can feel the blood rushing through my gums to the enamel, and back again. So much awareness, and yet it is this same awareness that fails me when I try to interact with my peers.
Thoughts of past and present social failings dart through my mind, each delivering a momentary but painful sting: a student’s science project in Mrs. St. Pierre’s classroom two years ago. A flood of red, followed by a loud rumble and a hiss from a homemade volcano sends me running out of the room screaming. Gym class two days earlier: a silent mantra—I will hit the ball this time, I will hit the ball this time. And I did—with my face, courtesy of an intentionally too-hard lob from the other side of the net. Home Economics, one year ago. Untrained hands move clumsily, twitching from the sewing machine’s vibrations. I’m bent too far over, and it’s only seconds later when a mousey brown strip of my Rapunzel-esque hair catches beneath the needle. My classmates stand nearby, taking in the spectacle, making no move to help me. While I shriek, they laugh.
The emotions that poured out of me in each of these situations come back to me now, as powerful as they were when I first felt them. I become so lost in my anything-but-pleasant reverie that I do not notice the closet door slowly shutting behind me. The sudden click of the lock jolts me upright.
“Haha, you’re locked in the closet!” one voice jeers.
“You’re not allowed to come out!” another joins in.
Two girls. Ella Ringway and Kelly Rockpoint. I recognize them immediately. Why are they doing this? What did I do wrong? I grab the doorknob and it turns, but the door won’t open. A swell of panic rises in my chest.
“Please, let me out! Please!” I cry. But the taunting continues. With all the might my miniscule form can muster, I push against the door, but their backs are up against it on the other side, and I feel the weight of their bodies countering my efforts.
“Come on, you guys! Let me out of here!” I again implore. But they ignore me, and I can hear them laughing at my expense. My safe haven is now a prison, and I cannot escape.
Eventually, Mrs. Plotz, the math teacher whose closet I am trapped in, arrives, and sets me free, shooing Ella and Kelly to their desks so that class can begin. I emerge from the closet as slowly as I went into it, nerves destroyed and heart scarred from my ordeal. My sadness and anger are barely concealed as I find myself forced to complete long-division problems with my former captors.
You call this justice? Does the Geneva Convention mean nothing to you people? I wonder while fuming silently.
But this was middle school, and there was no justice to be found. Not for anyone, but especially not for me. This continued all through high school, unrelenting, unending. I was, I thought, trapped in an invisible closet, one of my own making, unable to connect to anyone or anything. It is only years later that I now see how they were the ones truly in the dark.
This precise memory—of the closet, of being locked in by my peers—has not passed through the fore of my mind in a long time. It had no reason to until last year, when I received a message on Myspace from Ella herself. I was surprised more than anything else, and did not know what to expect when I started to read it. What could she possibly have to say to me? We had neither seen nor spoken to each other since graduation, and I couldn’t imagine why she would have a need to write to me. It was only after I’d read the entire message that I realized she had apologized for how she’d treated me. She said she wished she’d known more about Asperger’s syndrome at the time, and that maybe if she had, she would have acted differently. But the would-haves and could-haves meant nothing to me. What did mean something was that, out of all the people who’d tormented me back then, Ella was the only one who had the courage to come out and apologize for it.
Sometimes I can still feel the closet around me. The odor of mildew and old math books collecting dust is as strong in my mind now as it was then, but other smells now provoke other memories. They are locked up tight, while I sit in front of the door to keep them from getting out.
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