[This was written to help support author AJ Scott’s effort to spread awareness about World Autism Awareness Day which happens on April 2, 2011. My story is actually about Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, but Scott obliged me with the topic! Check out Scott’s site, Raising Disability Awareness on WAAD for more stories by other writers!]

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Three Minutes in a Restaurant

The wood grain goes from left to right in front of her, nearly obscured by the industrial coating of polyurethane. The wood itself is dark – or stained that way, one can never tell. Briefly, she studies the lines,  where they end and where they start and how they never cross. In that small way, wood grain is always pleasing. Knots never cross lines either, even if the lines sometimes fade out into each other. Bothersome, but not disturbing, and not worth following. She is old enough to know that about wood knots.

She touches the plate to nudge it up a little. A small touch, a small shift which nearly but not quite aligns it to the wavy line of the wood grain underneath it. She hesitates to push it too much, fearing that she might overdo it and have to pull the plate towards her again and start over. That would be an obvious tic, one that gets people to noticing what she is doing, and she avoids it. It is easier to just make little adjustments, a push here or there, a straightening of things in small doses. Alignment is never perfect, anyway, so it is an endlessly frustrating process and one she keeps to small gestures.

The plate is not quite settled, but the edge touches over the line of the wood grain, so it has to be something else. Something within the framework of relationships of forms on the table, something that is not right and throwing the plate out of true. Being round, the plate is difficult, but still, it looks like the distances were right from each edge of the table. So. Something else.

Her mother talks about the food, deciding what she wants to order. Her daughter, on the other hand, closed her menu and pushed it towards her mother’s side of the table right after they sat down. It is a random element that the waiter will remove soon, if she looks like she is done with it. That is not what is throwing the plate out of balance. While answering her mother’s comments, she eyes the silverware – straight and aligned to the table’s edge, although the knife…yes, it is the knife, partially tilted, angled away from the plate even if it looks parallel to the edge of the table.  Either everything is misaligned, or the table corner is not a perfect 90 degrees. She glances at it, deciding it is possible since even a degree either way would make the knife crooked. The touches the knife for reassurance, then decides that the only recourse is purposeful randomness. She picks up the salt shaker and tucks it over by the out-of-true table corner, hoping that the pretense of wanting the salt handy for her meal will keep her mother from looking too closely.

Her mother never sees the patterns, never even looks. She only knows when her daughter is being ‘fussy’, when she’s doing something that ‘doesn’t make sense.’

Touching the knife again is less reassuring now that the random salt shaker placement has tilted the axis. She nudges the plate up the table to the next line of wood grain, wondering if the wood grain is a false illusion of order, if she should set up an imaginary line fixed to the bottom edge of the plate, the silverware, and the folded napkin. That seems right, as she can extend the line out to the salt shaker on her left.

It fixes things, to make that line, even if it cuts across the wavy wood grain under it all. She wonders if she can fix her invisible line to two points of one the wood grain lines, or if that is too obvious, then looks up at the waiter as he approaches to take their order.

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AUTHORIA: I wrote this as an answer to all the “high-functioning” labels being bandied about. I was (and am, I suppose) “high-functioning” OCD, and the scenario above is a fictionalized retelling of my own perceptions at the height of my disorder, which occurred in my late teens. What people don’t realize about high-functioning anything is that it doesn’t feel that way on the inside, the mass of instinctive actions only being dialed down at the surface. The interior life of someone like me, who is high-functioning, is still obsessive (allowing for individual experiences, of course; that’s just my conclusion based on personal experience and the writings of others). That is one reason why I specified that this story takes place over the course of only three minutes, to highlight that in that small span of time someone who does not suffer from OCD would simply look at their menu and decide what to eat, the person with OCD shuffles and reshuffles her entire world through making small adjustments of her plate’s position on the table. To be “high-functioning” is, in a lot of ways, a gift for me, but I think the term often ends up negating the seriousness of the disorder/disease in question. People with autism, OCD, Asperger’s, etc. who are high-functioning still deal with our issues on a second-by-second basis that is nearly incomprehensible to others.  Being “high-functioning” isn’t a cure, and it sure isn’t easy, and this is why continued research into these types of disorders/diseases is so vitally important.

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