For the majority of my 9 year old autistic son’s life, he’s lived in a fantasy world made up of fictional characters. He becomes those characters. He believes in them. To him, they’re real.
It’s escapism. A way of coping with a confusing world and I understand it because I’ve lived in a fantasy world of my own, particularly as a child. One thing my mother picked up on was how I was never ‘here’. The reason for that was that ‘here’ was (and still is) overwhelming and causes me a great deal of anxiety.
As I grew older, I escaped into music and books. Music conjures up vivid imagery to me and my mood changes with tempo. It would seem that I am wired to physically and emotionally react to music.
Music provides me with the protection that my imaginary world once did with fictional characters. With music, I’m physically here, but mentally (spiritually) I’m elsewhere. Walking down the street becomes a tolerable experience with my ear buds in. I know that people can see me, but I am anesthetized to them and the environmental noises that make me anxious.
I need escapism. While it’s not the same world I inhabited as a child – my need for an alternate universe remains the same. The difference is that I understand what is acceptable (and what is not) of me as an adult. But make no mistake – when I listen to music or lose myself in a book, I am as far away as I ever was.
Being autistic, I don’t have interests, I have obsessions and one of mine is death and true to my autistic self, if I can find a way to weave my obsession with mortality into a conversation, I will, but don’t worry, I haven’t gone off on a tangent. It’s relative, so bear with me.
I don’t see my interest in death as being morbid. It’s something that is going to happen to me, so I need to familiarse myself with it because – the fear of the unknown, right? I’ve already planned my funeral and one of the songs I have chosen is David Bowie’s Life on Mars.
You see, Bowie knew a thing or two about misfits. He knew that they would identify with his style – visually and musically – thus making him a very rich man. Arguably, one of his best tracks is Life on Mars – a song which Bowie labelled, “a sensitive young girl’s reaction to the media” and added, “I think she finds herself disappointed with reality… that although she’s living in the doldrums of reality, she’s being told that there’s a far greater life somewhere, and she’s bitterly disappointed that she doesn’t have access to it.” For me, it’s reminiscent of own crushing disappointment with reality. I was the ‘girl with the mousey hair’ watching movies over and over (and over) again – wondering why reality could never live up to them. I know that my family will struggle to understand the song’s meaning, but if ever a song existed that was my song – it’s this one.
In fact, in my fantasy world – Bowie wrote it for me, innit?
A lot of autistics live (or have lived) in a fantasy world and if you understood how hard it is to live on a planet that’s not compatible with your needs, you would understand why this happens. The bottom line is this: Our imaginary worlds are where we have complete control over ever single thing that happens.
Control is something that we have little of in the ‘real’ world. It’s the reason we flounder through life – succumbing to mental illness. Some of us will take our own lives. Many of us will die prematurely from stress related conditions and diseases such as cancer and heart disease. The rest of us will struggle with chronic health conditions that won’t kill us, but which will impact our already limited lives. But inside our mind is a place where we can be ourselves. A place where we don’t have to fight to be heard or accepted. A place where we can be ourselves, without fear.
How sad that this is the stuff of fantasy, instead of reality?
This is our reality.
I know how crap this world can be. I know how unkind human beings can be, so I indulge my son’s need for fantasy because I understand his need for escapism. The real world disappoints. It hurts. It makes us anxious. I wish that I could spare him all of this, but I know that one day his imaginary world will no longer protect him. I dread that day, but I know that it will because this isn’t our world. It isn’t autism friendly. Not yet. Not by a long way. This is why so many of us describe feeling as if we are from a different planet. We’re aliens having to work exceptionally hard to try and fit in here.
In our fantasy worlds, we live, rather than exist.
In reality, we exist, rather than live.
Whether escapism is being a fictional character, or losing ourselves in the lyrics of a song or the pages of a book – it’s important that we do it and it’s important that people, especially parents, understand why.
“For a child with Asperger’s, especially a fantasy subtype, fantasy can become an obsession. If fantasy becomes an obsession, it may take therapy or perhaps medication to correct the situation. Do not hesitate to contact a psychologist for help if your efforts are unsuccessful. A child locked in fantasy is a child lost to reality.”
I came across this on a website specifically for parents of children who have Aspergers. The last sentence in particular suggests ignorance of the importance of escapism and it’s function. Is intervention really in the child’s best interests? Or is it another example of autistic children being forced to adapt so that non-autistic people can feel more comfortable in their presence?
Our autistic lives revolve around escapism and obsessions. If a child’s obsession involves wearing a Jason mask AND nicking your kitchen knives, it’s probably best that professional help is sought – pronto. Otherwise, leave them be. Escapism is serving a purpose. It’s keeping them sane. The important stuff is going in. Nobody was more ‘locked in a fantasy world’ than I was as a child, but I do understand the difference between fantasy and reality. It’s just that reality overwhelms me, so I need to intersperse it with frequent visits to my fantasy world – medication not needed.
“Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?. If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!” ~ J.R.R Tolkien