One thing about being a midlife-diagnosed autistic is that people get caught up in the occasional post-mortem of the pre-diagnosis decades, especially the childhood years.

Somewhere back there must be evidence that went unnoticed, unremarked upon. Or mistaken for something else. In my case we’re talking about the 1970s and, really, kids back then were not getting diagnosed as autistic unless they were constantly in corners rocking or flailing so much doctors put them in helmets.

As my new psychoconsultant said to me today, other types of autistic kids weren’t getting diagnosed to any serious degree until the 1990s.

If anything, I’d likely have been diagnosed with something else. We can debate whether I’d have been better off with a misdiagnosis rather than no diagnosis, but even that seems pretty pointless. The history lesson is productive not because it assigns blame but because it reinforces the diagnosis. There’s no need for guilt.

This is important not just for strategic reasons, like trying to convince Social Security that, yes, I really am disabled under their rules despite the lack of any medical or psychological record prior to 2016, but also because late-diagnosed autistics need to reevauate their past life. Late diagnosis comes with a sort of identity crisis, because it turns you spent all those years, or decades, impersonating some socially-informed idea of a normal person, just, you know, very, very poorly.

So when a family member tells me about going to see a therapist after my parents split up and how I simply snorkeled myself up in my snow jacket and stayed that way until it was time to leave, that’s not, to me, a story about how the people around me failed to notice I was autistic (because mostly no one, back then, would have recognized anything I was going through as autism) but instead a story that helps me peg down a narrative of my past that’s consistent with the narrative of my present.

The post-mortems aren’t about blame, they are about trying to find how the story of one’s then connects to the story of one’s now.

That kid hiding in the snorkel jacket is me today. That kid who went to a crowded scouting orientation, feaked out, and left is me today. The teen who blew through his twenty hours of community service in something like five is me today. There was no reason, given the time, that anyone would really see him then. It just matters that I can see him now.

“If you didn’t know you were autistic,” I was asked today, “and were (as you are) strung out with the herd move issues, worried about money, and dealing with sleep and muscle pain issues, would this situation have affected you the same awful way? Would you have been able to deal with it better?”

The thing is, that experiment has been run, in more than just thought. It’s called the four decades prior to me being diagnosed in midlife.

In those prior decades, I had stomach aches that kept me out of school sometimes. I remember getting so frustrated with something that I kicked and broke my bedroom door. I freaked out after just one semester of college and never quite recovered a sense of direction. I slept with people I shouldn’t have, because I didn’t know who I was and deference is something I did.

If you go back and read the things I’ve posted elsewhere about autistic burnout, you’ll find me talking about the idea of masking—be it intentional by a diagnosed autistic or just the hidden force of social conformity pushing down on an undiagnosed one—generating a sort of psychic plaque.

Introversion and autism aren’t interchangeable things. The levels on my autism soundboard are set differently than on yours, and there are autistic people who are far more extroverted, and those who are far more introverted, than I am. It’s just that the feature set of introversion happened to overlap enough with the feature set of my undiagnosed autism to make it, for a time, a passable if incomplete substitute for addressing some social components of my life. What I’m getting at here is the idea that living my life as a presumptively-neurotypical person who was just extraordinarily bad at so much of the life of neurotypical people, while all the while actually being unknowingly autistic, was a de facto form of masking. One in which, unawares, I was engaged for my entire life. All the while, then, that psychic residue was building up in the arteries of my undiagnosed autism.

At some point it causes the emotional equivalent of a stroke, and your psyche is ravaged by decades of scar tissue suddenly flaring up in pain.

Autistic burnout, let alone its concomittant increased sensitivities, is tough to explain to some people. Especially for the late-diagnosed, it can sound to other people like you’re simply taking advantage of your midlife diagnoses to do less, to shirk responsiblities. In my case, the problem literally ends up being the opposite. I took my diagnosis to Vocational Rehabilitation precisely to use it to attempt a return to gainful employment. Then the increase in stressors due to those changes in my circumstances — going from no paid work to twenty hours a week of paid work plus an hour commute both ways — landed atop the “psychic plaque” of those four decades not even knowing I was masking, and I broke. Now I can’t tell from one week to the next what thing is going to turn out to be a stressor that puts me on the edge.

Late diagnosed adults often talk about how things seemed to “get worse” after diagnosis, but that’s doesn’t mean the dams were not going to break someday even without that diagnosis. It’s just that diagnosis brings it all to the conscious fore.

What happened in that four-decade experiment of not being diagnosed was that rather than going through life as an autistic person who could seek ways to mitigate the downsides, I instead went through life as a failure and a fuck-up.

Things are so bad now not because I was diagnosed in the comparative today but because I was not diagnosed in any of its yesterdays.

Buried and mostly unaddressed in “An Expert Discussion on Autism and Empathy” from the forthcoming journal Autism in Adulthood, Dr. Christina Nicolaidis posed what for me is a crucial question.

We have been talking about double empathy and nature of empathy and the difference between cognitive empathy and affective empathy and limitations of those distinctions. One thing that has not come up is the notion of being overwhelmed by feelings of empathy. I am not an empathy researcher but in my research and discussions with autistic friends and colleagues, one thing I often hear is this notion of experiencing other people’s emotions at such a great level that it almost feels like you have to shut down or it feels like an overwhelming, overempathy type experience. Has that been studied?

In fact, I’ve raised this very possibility before, that perhaps social and performance distress causes us to seem unfeeling to neurotypical observers.

When she asks if this has been studied, I can’t speak to whether it’s been studied directly, but in my earlier thoughts on this, I suggested that proximity to the actual and lived emotional experience of another person triggers for many autistic people the fight or flight reaction, and that in fact the study “Empathy toward Strangers Triggers Oxytocin Release and Subsequent Generosity” might point to why.

Empathy and distress were highly related in our sample and they appear to work against each other at a physiologic level. Psychologists have also distinguished between empathy and distress as motivators to help others. Batson’s empathy–altruism hypothesis posits that these affective states lead to divergent moti- vations to help others. Those who experience distress are motivated to reduce their own aversive state, while those who experience empathy are focused on relieving the aversive state of another.

I did then and I still do now question the study’s positioning of “empathy” and “distress” as opposites, since the study itself makes it seem pretty evident that all the people in question were experiencing empathy, it’s just that for some the reaction is to help the other (“[relieve] the aversive state of another”, in the study’s words) and for some the reaction is to help oneself (“reduce their own aversive state”).

While this study doesn’t specifically address autistic brains, it does suggest there are ways to study how different brains react to empathetic stimuli, and therefore ways to look at autistic people in this context.

Weirdly, this takes us right back to something I only just wrote about the neurotypical narrative that autistic people tend to “overreact” (by which they really mean outwardly respond out of proprotion to the perceived severity of the stimulus), because what we generally see are neurotypical people claiming we undereact (by which, again, they really mean outwardly respond out of proportion to the stimulus) when it comes to the emotional states of others.

If we melt, or shut, down, we are overreacting, but if we can’t reach out to help when someone else is in distress (or, for that matter, delight), we are underreacting.

In reality, in all of these cases, we are reacting precisely as our brains would dictate, in exact proportion to how we feel the force of the stimulus in question. Sometimes our outward responses follow that inner reaction and sometimes they don’t, but neurotypicals don’t get to dictate the terms of behavior.

Leaving us to ask, again, always and again: just which side here is exhibiting the lack of empathy?

I was intrigued yesterday by someone elsewhere asking if younger autistics were more comfortable talking to older adults than to people their own age, as well as one person’s suggestion that discomfort interacting with people one’s own age when younger might be due to the “direct comparison” that can occur and prompt masking.

When I was young I spent a lot of time, summers primarily, hanging out at a theater company both my parents at different stages had been involved with, and as a theater that did a lot of work with schools and young people it was an environment that was perhaps generally less judgmental about having kids around than other sorts of places. In a sense, it was an environment more naturally accepting of atypicality.

So I wonder, now, if that environment, much like my later internet bulletin board circles and pop culture fandom circles, might not have been not quite so harsh a juxtaposition between myself and the neurotypical world as one would experience elsewhere, thereby shielding me from diagnosis.

Which is something of an irksome mixed bag.

On the one hand, environments that don’t balk at undiagnosed atypicality are good. On the other hand, that perhaps helped keep my autism unrecognized and thereby kept me from being able to access help in navigating other environments, and my future. That future being my present, and the long decades that led to it.

Someone on Twitter asked fellow autistics whether or not they feel they overreact. It got me thinking about that word, and who or what decides what kind of reactions allegedly are “too much”.

Without going too far down the rabbit hole, it seems to me that true reactions are not the sort of thing that can be “over” or “under” because they are what their name claims to be: reactive. There’s an action and there’s a reaction. There’s no debate, and no decision.

In physics, it’s usually described as being “equal and opposite” but of course the wrinkle when we move from physics to psyche is that the impact of what might be deemed the same stimulus is going to be different from one person to another, especially when we’re talking about brains that aren’t neurotypical. Any given stimulus could be a mild annoyance to a typical brain, yet the emotional equivalent of a sharp stick to the eye to an atypical brain.

Reactions, in other words, are the things we cannot control. Responses, however, are the things that we can.

I cannot control how my brain reacts to stimuli. I can, sometimes, control my responses to my environment. More, sometimes it’s true that reactions to certain stimuli happen at a comparatively slow enough pace that even there I can control how I respond. My inner reaction might be more severe than I let on with my outer response. Where that line is, I have no idea. I’m sure it varies.

The gist is I don’t believe that “overreaction” is a thing. Reactions are built into the structure of the system, in both physics and the psyche; the system reacts to stimuli in the only way it can. Responses are the decisions we get to make both to our general environment, and, sometimes, even to how we present our reactions to the world around us. Masking, for instance, is a response, hiding our innate reactions.

“Over” and “under” when it comes to reactions really is about social expectations as informed by how the typical brain behaves. You could argue how autistic people “should” respond to things (you shouldn’t, but you could), or investigate the degree to which that sort of control is even possible in different environments and with regard to different stimuli, but you simply can’t argue that we overreact.

My reactions to stimuli are proportional to the force with which they act upon my brain. If anything, autistic people are taught, both explicitly and implicitly, to underreact (which, here, really means underrespond), for the sake of polite, neurotypical expectations.

Let’s talk about that instead. Let’s talk about the overreaction of neurotypicals to how autistic people present themselves. Let’s talk about the dangers of actually-autistic people buying into that narrative.

I’d meant only to talk about one way in which I think we end up with late-diagnosed actually autistic adults, but while browsing the autism tag (which they seem finally to have purged of all the t-shirt and pirated ebook spam) ended up learning something new.

The only theory I’m aware of that seems to make a decent stab at explaining the many seemingly disparate features of autistic psychology — from inertia to communication problems to hyperfocus and spiky profiles — is monotropism. However, this theory (formulated by autistics who aren’t professional psychologists) has received relatively little attention from psychologists, and awaits direct empirical verification.

Naturally, I took a moment’s detour to Wikipedia for what it had to say about monotropism.

Monotropism is a cognitive strategy posited to be the central underlying feature of autism. A monotropic mind is one that focuses its attention on a small number of interests at any time, tending to miss things outside of this attention tunnel. The theory of monotropism was developed by Dr Dinah Murray, Wenn Lawson and Mike Lesser starting in the 1990s, and published about in the journal Autism in 2005.

All of which led me to that 2005 paper, the reading of which felt a great deal like it felt when I began to read other people talking about their autistic experiences in the year or two after my diagnosis. By which I mean there was lots of vigorous nodding.

To a person in an attention tunnel every unanticipated change is abrupt and is truly, if briefly, catastrophic: a complete disconnection from a previous safe state, a plunge into a meaningless blizzard of sensations, a frightening experience which may occur many times in a single day. Following such an episode it may take a long time for any other interest to emerge. The first basin of attraction to draw the interest is likely to be a familiar action which may replace any inclination to repeat the failed attempt.

Remarkably, just hours later while setting up a Quora account I discovered an article about a recent fMRI study that seems to show monotropism in autistic adults in action.

Thanks to the fMRI scans, the researchers were able to confirm that in the brains of people with autism, connections persist for more extended periods than they do in the brains of neurotypical individuals. In other words, in autism, the brain finds it harder to switch between processes.

There’s more, of course, in the findings themselves.

No significant correlations were found between measures of cognitive function and sustained connectivity in individuals with autism. However, a significant positive correlation was found between sustained connectivity and social impairment scores. Similarly, Rashid et al found a link between dynamic functional connectivity and autistic traits assessed using the SRS. These findings also dovetail with electrophysiological results showing delayed auditory evoked responses in autism suggesting temporal prolongation of steady-state responses to stimuli. Temporal smoothing of neural responses with prolonged brain states may also be consistent with another hypothesized physiological mechanism in autism, that of decreased ability for shifting of attention.

I’m thoroughly a layman, so it’s unclear to me how on the one hand the researchers state that no real links were found “between measures of cognitive function and sustained connectivity” and yet also suggest that their results might be consistent with “another hypothesized physiological mechanism in autism, that of decreased ability for shifting of attention” in autistics, since I would think that one aspect of cognitive functioning in fact is the ability to shift from the attentional tunnels discussed under monotropism, but mostly I am just sort of astonished that one the same day I learned about monotropism I also ran across an fMRI study that seems to support it, at least in part.

Really, it’s just that I’m now rapidly becoming a fan of monotropism as a potential way to explain and explore what the fuck the autistic brain is doing, and how, and why, and so you get two posts from me in two days after three months of radio silence.

Recently, I had to go for a new psychodiagnostic evaluation by an Oregon Department of Human Services contractor as part of the state’s disability determination services for Social Security benefits purposes. I’d mostly been avoiding thinking too much about being autistic because there are too many other things that need to be done right now.

Afterward, though, I ran across a paper by Laura Hull et al about developing a questionnaire about autistic camouflaging, and one part in particular stood out for me.

The Masking factor demonstrated the smallest difference between autistic and non-autistic samples in this analysis, suggesting that there may be more overlap between these two groups than for the other factors. Masking may be less specific to autism than the other components of camouflaging, and may reflect more general self-presentation or impression-management strategies applied to autistic characteristics. However, further research is needed to directly compare masking strategies and other self-presentation strategies in autistic and non-autistic samples to determine similarities and differences. In the autistic sample, masking was not significantly correlated with autistic-like traits, suggesting that it may be a response to the identification of being autistic rather than to the presence of specific autistic characteristics; in contrast, a significant positive relationship between the two was observed for the non-autistic sample, suggesting that the two groups may have been using masking strategies in response to different motivations.

This right here effectively seems related to my previous argument about the background radiation of social conformity that affects everyone being part of why I was not diagnosed as autistic until I was 46. In it, I suggested that contrary to the assertions of a different paper on autism, camouflaging is not inherently or intrinsically conscious.

Simply put, those “more general self-presentation or impression-management strategies” the paper suggests everyone has exist because society both expects and reinforces conformity.

In my case, since I’ve discovered that I am deferential to a first-instance demand even if it puts me at risk for a second-instance harm (e.g. rushing to accept my vocational rehabilitation job coach’s suggestion of a job placement despite not yet having even finished our job development work, a suggestion made in his closet-sized office that I just wanted to get out of), on both a larger and yet in a sense more subtle scale that’s in essence what I did for forty years.

I deferred to society’s conformist background radiation without even thinking about it.

Anyway, the paper in question reminded me of my earlier argument about conformity, because in it I took quarrel with a different paper’s assertion that camouflaging necessarily was a conscious activity. I simply don’t believe that’s true. Instead, I think that camouflaging, including neurotypical “self-presentation or impression-management strategies”, often can be just unconscious deference to the background radiation of social conformity.

With NT society itself engaged in a kind of camouflaging, and in cases like mine with a deference to near-term harm despite the potential longer-term consequences (whether I know this is what I’m doing or not), I think this clearly is one factor in how we get late-diagnosed autistic adults.

The crisis facing me now, that impacts both my future financial survival and my mental health, is that deferring to the demands of conformity for decades meant I tried so hard and yet so unsuccessfully to work without accomodation — because I didn’t know I needed it —means I’m likely screwed out of Social Security disability benefits (SSDI, not SSI).

(Technically, the entire SSDI issue still is in limbo. SSI is under evaluation. But to get SSDI, once I’ve officially applied and officially been denied, it would take an administrative law judge agreeing that my work history is almost entirely “Unsuccessful Work Attempts”, something I don’t even know if an administrative law judge has the leeway to do.)

Both the general discussion around adult autism and the ways in which eligibility for disability benefits is considered needs to incorporate the ways in which deferring to society’s conformist gravity (not to switch physical metaphors here) impact someone who was autistic all their lives without knowing it.

Finally having labels and reasons to attach to a lifetime of struggle was supposed to bring both clarity and progress. While the clarity can be found within the autistic adult, the progress needs understanding and action from without, by the very society whose insistence on conformity yielded a late diagnosis in the first place.

I’m not suicidal (I have my days where if the world ended I might not do more than shrug, but I’ve no interest in hastening the event), but buried in the Discussion section of a new study on suicide among autistic adults is a look at camouflaging that concerns me.

Camouflaging significantly predicted suicidality in the ASC group, after controlling for age, sex, presence of at least one developmental condition, depression, anxiety, employment, and satisfaction with living arrangements. Camouflaging and age of ASC diagnosis, and suicidality and age of ASC diagnosis were not significantly correlated. This suggests that camouflaging is directly associated with suicidality rather than in combination with delay in ASC diagnosis. Camouflaging also explained significant additional variance in suicidality above depression or anxiety, suggesting that the association with suicidality is, at least in part, independent of mental health. This is the first evidence of camouflaging being a unique independent risk factor for suicidality in ASC.

In order to engage in camouflaging, one must have insight into one’s own difficulties, how these may be negatively perceived by others, and have a strong motivation to adapt one’s social behaviour to be accepted. Understanding associations between these factors with camouflaging, and the consequent impact on mental health would be valuable. For example, autistic people who have greater insight into their own difficulties are more likely to be depressed than those with less insight, and autistic people are able to accurately predict how family members perceive them, despite being different to their own view. It would be interesting to explore whether perspective taking ability and insight into one’s own difficulties increase likelihood of engaging in camouflaging behaviour with consequent negative impact on mental health and suicidality.

Emphasis added because I quarrel with that particular statement and the particular view of camouflaging that it espouses.

When you are not diagnosed until, say, midlife, you in fact likely spent decades without much in the way of “insight in one’s own difficulties”, yet you likely spent much, of not most (or, for some, all) of those decades camouflaging just due to society’s background radiation of conformity.

One thing I’ve been pondering lately is the idea that society has a sort of background radiation of conformity. So, even if you don’t know you’re autistic, you conform unconsciously because you’ve been “irradiated”, unless you have the sheer self-awareness and strength of will to resist. That’s how you go four decades camouflaging, masking, passing without knowing — and then hit midlife and wonder why the hell all of these routine things about the world suddenly hurt so much.

It’s problematic, then, if not potentially dangerous, for researchers or practitioners to think of camouflaging purely or solely as a conscious and deliberate act. We need research and practice to consider the implications and impact both of intentional masking on the part of autistic people with a diagnosis and unintentional conformity on the part of autistic people who didn’t yet know they in fact are autistic.

The latter, by its nature, mostly comes into play only once you receive a diagnosis. It’s then a matter of retroactively and retrospectively looking back at your pre-diagnosis life to try to see where you might have lucked out in being a part of environments where your differences happenstantially were accepted and where instead you might have been subject to that background radiation of conformity.

“It would be interesting,” say the study’s authors, “to explore whether perspective taking ability and insight into one’s own difficulties increase likelihood of engaging in camouflaging behaviour with consequent negative impact on mental health and suicidality.”

How many people does this leave out of the equation?

Everyone, autistic or not, is subject to that conformist background radiation to one extent or another, but it’s going to have a greater deleterious effect upon autistic people. Camouflaging comes with risks, and both short-term and long-term harms, regardless of whether you knew at the time that it was happening. Surely if camouflaging brings “negative impact on mental health”, it’s worth also specifically looking into what effects unknowingly camouflaging had on late-diagnosed autistics?

If researchers and practitioners define camouflaging as something that only results from “perspective taking ability and insight into one’s own difficulties”, they are leaving behind all of us who spent decades not knowing we were autistic.

It’s already tough enough, being diagnosed in midlife. Researchers and practitioners shouldn’t make it worse by leaving us out.

There are two ways to get Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits, more or less.

  1. Accumulate enough of your own “work credits” before becoming too disabled to work, in essence having paid into the system enough to receive benefits.
  2. Become disabled before the age of 22 and have benefits calculated based upon the “work credits” accumulated by a parent, a scenario in which you are considered a “disabled adult child”.

On the other hand, if you happen to be a late-diagnosed autistic person who during the previous three decades did your best to be an employed and employable adult, not knowing that there were actual, diagnosable reasons for your difficulty in achieving this goal, you most likely are shit out of luck.

Social Security will deny you on both counts.

Literally, you will have not worked enough to receive benefits based upon your own work history, but also will have worked too much to be considered having been disabled prior to the age of 22.

If you, your family, and the world around you all agreed, for all those decades, that you were “normal” but for some reason were just some sort of failure or fuck-up that couldn’t seem to get, or hold onto, a job, you kept trying and failing, over and over and over, because the “normal” thing to do was to get, and keep, a job. In the process — because you didn’t know, for all those decades, that you could have lived a life in which you, your family, and the world around you instead knew there was a diagnosis out there which explained so many things, one the having of which might have meant being able to insist upon ways to both accomodate and mitigate those things — in reality you were subjecting yourself to stresses and pressures and environments that likely added to your long-term problems and mental health issues.

So while you were technically disabled from birth, you didn’t know that, and you kept trying to do the same things everyone else did effortlessly, and trying to do them in the same ways in which everyone else did. You effectively and essentially hurt yourself, over and over, for decades.

Decades later, you have a diagnosis. There are, and were, reasons for so many of the difficulties experienced along that border between you and the outside world. But as far as Social Security is concerned, none of that matters. The fact that you hurt yourself for decades trying and failing to be what you weren’t, that doesn’t matter. The fact that you in some ways made your disability worse because you didn’t know it was there, and so acted like it didn’t exist, that doesn’t matter.

All that matters is that you did not work enough to receive benefits based upon your own work history, and also worked too much to be considered disabled before the age of 22.

If I can step back and be a bit meta: I know this post is disjointed. I know it’s terribly-written. I know it’s not clean. Today turned into shit (and not even because of what this post is about), and I don’t really care.

I know, also, that there’s nothing to be done about any of this.

My process of applying for SSI (which is paid out of general approproations, rather than tied to work history as with SSDI) continues, but the prospect of SSDI, and it’s potentially higher level of benefits, is dead.

However, once the official, written denial of my SSDI claim to be considered as a “disabled adult child” arrives, I am going to appeal that decision. Not for reconsideration, but simply in order to get Social Security to sign off on the above description of my circumstances as being substantively correct.

I just want them to admit to it. I want their official admission that this ridiculous, harmful irony indeed is the inevitable result of their purely mathematical policy.

Well, no. That’s not all I want.

I also want them to approve my SSI claim.

If I had been born, say, with some sort of muscle disease but didn’t know it until I was 46, and prior to that eventual diagnosis I was employed now and then, which was making it worse because I was working without knowing I should be seeking various accommodations for a disability, and did this until it laid me out, would Social Security still have decided that I’d not worked enough for SSDI, but also worked too much to be considered disabled before age 22 and so also not eligible under a parent?

The answer to that might very well have been the same, but it seems to me mildly barbarous for the official Social Security policy position to be, “If you didn’t know you were disabled so you spent your adulthood trying to be ‘normal’ but ‘failing’, you screwed yourself out of financial support both ways.”

Worse, I keep feeling like I got screwed by being a totally useless amount of autistic.

Either I should have been more autistic so it would have been obvious and my life would have been able to address it, or I should have been less autistic, so it might have not unknowingly, beg your pardon, fucked me.

That’s me, feeling mediocre all over, even when it comes to being actually autistic.

When you are actually autistic but late-diagnosed, you think a lot about whether or not you’ve been stimming for all those decades, or were suppressing your stimming because it didn’t match (as I’ve discussed before) society’s background radiation of conformity.

It’s clear to me now, from thinking about things over the last year, and also just trying to step back from myself, the myself that I was for four decades as an undiagnosed and unaware autistic person, and see if any stims surfaced on their own. What’s becomes clear to me is that a lot of my stims are in my hands. I don’t flap. I fidget. I rub the skin on my middle finger with my thumb, sometimes to the point of callouses. I’ll rub the tps of my thumb and forefinger together, in circles. I’ll interlace the fingers of both my hands and slide them in and out of each other.

Overnight, I realized how much of my stimming for the two decades of 1998 to 2008 probably went into smoking.

Not just the smoking itself. All its associated fidgets.

The tapping and packing of a freshly pulled out cigarette. The switching up how you’re holding one when its lit. The flicking of the lighter. In essence for two decades I had a sort of masked stimming, for lack of a better term. Stimming that was in the form of a thing many people, autistic and allistic alike, did as a matter of addictive course, and so unnoticed as my being autistic.

What’s interesting to me in retrosepct is that when I quit (cold turkey, exactly three days after my dad died, without a second thought or a look back), unlike many ex-smokers I didn’t need something to satisfy any lingering oral fixation. No toothpicks. No pen-chewing. No gum.

I did, however, keep my Zippo on me for years. I lit other people’s cigarettes, and continued distractedly flicking the lid open and closed. Looking at it now, it was to maintain the hand stimming I needed beyond my days as a smoker.

Mostly I find this reassuring.

When you are late-diagnosed (for me it was at 46) you experience a kind of autistic imposter syndrome. “How can I possibly be autistic, you think to yourself (a lot), “when I didn’t exhibit any of these things autistic people often exhibit, for all those decades?”

It turns out I did, but they were hidden in plain sight.

It was a bad sign. Immediately upon leaving my apartment to go host visiting hours at The Belmont Goats, the brightness and heat of the afternoon sun of the ongoing heatwave was like suddenly being slapped across the face. I’d already announced we would be open. There was no turning back.

By the time I’d finished setting up for the two-hour shift, I felt like I was running on fumes. That sensation usually precedes a breakdown.

I took a beat, took a breath, and walked in the brightness and the heat the two blocks to the nearest market to get ice. They were out. I took a beat, took a breath, and walked in the brightness and the heat even further to the next-nearest market, and then walked in the brightness and the heat back to the goats. I opened ten minutes late. I was not in good shape.

Soaking a bandana in cold water and wrapping it around my head, I sat down in the shade on the deck at the front of the barn, with our shop fan aimed squarely at me. I was still pretty shaky.

I managed the two-hour shift. I managed to get through the closing procedure feeling mostly okay.

And then on the walk home in the brightness and the heat, I had a breakdown. It was brief (I won’t say “minor”), and I was able to keep going rather than stop in the brightness and the heat. Once home, things started the slow process of calming, the tension its slow movement of ratcheting down.

One thing I’ve been pondering lately is the idea that society has a sort of background radiation of conformity. So, even if you don’t know you’re autistic, you conform unconsciously because you’ve been “irradiated”, unless you have the sheer self-awareness and strength of will to resist. That’s how you go four decades camouflaging, masking, passing without knowing — and then hit midlife and wonder why the hell all of these routine things about the world suddenly hurt so much.

There is no question at this point. For the decades before my diagnosis, I had been ignoring or rationalizing or not even recognizing what the brightness and heat do to me, have probably always done to me. Although it’s probably true that the “psychic plaque” of a lifetime of unknowingly masking that increases the risk of a midlife autistic burnout comes into play here, as well. To wit: burnout made me more sensitive to some stressors that I might have managed or mitigated more easily in the past.

Autistic burnout, let alone its concomittant increased sensitivities, is tough to explain to some people. Especially for the late-diagnosed, it can sound to other people like you’re simply taking advantage of your midlife diagnoses to do less, to shirk responsiblities.

In my case, the problem literally ends up being the opposite. I took my diagnosis to Vocational Rehabilitation precisely to use it to attempt a return to gainful employment. Then the increase in stressors due to those changes in my circumstances — going from no paid work to twenty hours a week of paid work plus an hour commute both ways — landed atop the “psychic plaque” of those four decades not even knowing I was masking, and I broke.

Now I can’t tell from one week to the next what thing is going to turn out to be a stressor that puts me on the edge.

This heatwave has been murder on me. It’s finally breaking, a bit, but who knows for how long. Some days my brain is filled with foam and I can’t even move a thought around. Some days I want to get things done, but there’s nothing in the tank. I can’t sleep well. Dreams feel like threats.

I write this up because I’m going to need anyone who deals with me in any official capacity from here on out to understand these things, be they psychotherapist, vocational rehabilitation caseworker, primary care physician, job coach, or social service provider.

Autistic burnout is real. I’m being knocked around by it. Yes, you really can go decades, your entire life up until now, not knowing there was a real reason for problems you experienced. Not seeing the signs, or ignoring the signs, because the background radiation of conformity tends to win.

Conformity is like inertia. The typical way of being continues to be, in a straight line, until acted upon by an outside force.

In this case, the outside force is diagnosis, and if it gets the opporunity to exert itself, everything can come barreling down at you at once, even if “at once” is a slow-motion weight descending on you for months on end.

I am very tired. I am learning a lot, but I am very tired, and I don’t yet know what to do with what I’m learning, or what any of it means for the help I need, or what it says about what kind of help I need, or for the challenge of convincing people of the help I need.

I’m not lazy. I’m not taking advantage of my diagnosis. I’m not lying when I say that for four decades I had no idea.

This is who I am now, whatever I was, or thought I was, before.

I’m left with the same question I seem to be running into all the time these days.

Now what?

In addition to this writing experiment (from which I’d been somewhat absent until the last couple of weeks), awhile back I tried a related one on Tumblr, where there’s an entirely different autistic community. It didn’t last long, and I wiped the few things I had posted or reblogged.

The entire experience was weirdly alienating.

There’s lots of talk on Tumblr about how great everyone’s autistic experiences are, and how one’s autism comes with all sorts of neat and interesting abilities. Mostly it just made me feel like there’s a menu of superpowers autistic people are supposed to get that no one bothered to tell me about, or give me access to. There’s even a post about it on Medium, that I’d forgotten about until while reading it I discovered various things in it that I’d previously highlighted.

There’s also a subculture of autistic people that like to flaunt their identity as self-professed polymaths, who mostly, to me, just come across as shameless braggarts. (That’s setting aside the minority of people I keep running into who use their being autistic as an excuse for just being assholes.)

Do I have “hyperfocus”? Sure. But at the expense of being able to task-switch or remember to eat or go take a god damned shit. Do I have “fact absorption”? No, I really don’t. Even in areas where I do learn something, the next time I need that knowledge I have to give myself a refresher. It’s why there are things I’ve done that I can’t do for other people, or, worse yet, for a job. “Dialogue/lyric memorization”? Nope. Not at all. “Stubborn rationality”? Probably, in some ways and circumstances, but that’s, if we’re being honest with ourselves here, just as much a weakness as a superpower. “Stimming”? I have my share of sims, mostly mild, a fact which might be innate or might be because the four decades I spent not knowing I was autistic yielded a suppression of the stimming instinct. But I also don’t see how this is a superpower. It’s just a thing we do to mitigate the impact of our surroundings. That’s a helpful skill, but superpower? No.

Finding being out in the sun and heat to be debilitating to the point where I have to concentrate either on getting home or stopping — in the middle of that very sun and heat — to cry from the strain of it, that’s no superpower. That’s a hindrance, and it’s terrible. Getting up and wondering just how many spoons I’m going to end up with for the day and whether or not I’m going to run out of them at an inopportune moment, that’s no superpower. It’s terrifying.

I’m not complaining about these things, per se. These aspects of my being autistic are what they are. Figuring out how much I can push the world around me to adapt to me rather than me always having to adapt to it is just part of the deal. That’s fine.

But superpowers?

I suppose I just find it off-putting, this compulsion to react to the allistic world’s rejection of the neurodiverse as also being “normal” by spinning it around to proclaim all autistic behaviors to be some sort of gift. Being autistic is mostly value neutral. And, in the end, the “superpowers” rhetoric actually makes me feel worse about being autistic, because it makes me feel like an outsider even in autism.

So much of what I now know, or suspect, were artifacts of being unknowingly autistic were things that at the time just made me feel like a failure and a fuck-up.

Now I’ve got other autistic people describing being autistic in these hyperbolic ways that just make me feel like I’m even a failure at being autistic.

And that’s just super.

One continuing obstacle for me is the question of trying to look back over four decades to see if I can find signs of being autistic, or signs of how no one ever noticed that I was. It didn’t help when exactly the wrong person bluntly questioned my contention that I never knew there were diagnosable reasons behind difficulties I’ve had.

I’ve talked a little bit about related things here, such as how unknowingly engaging in lifelong masking could have led to autistic burnout (my “masking leaves psychic residue akin to arterial plaque that increass the risk of a kind of autistic stroke” theory). I’ve also talked about how, pre-diagnosis, use of a toolkit meant for introverts could have helped me mitigate some of the social stresses of unknowingly being autistic.

During a particularly stressful day last week, as I was rocking back and forth against a railing waiting for public transit, I had further thoughts about how being autistic without knowing it could have played out in my interactions with the world around me. These thoughts aren’t especially built out or built up, but I do think they add small points of understanding when it comes to trying to decode my past.

There’s a lot of discussion about autistic people’s penchant for focused and obsessive interests. There are two periods of time in my life during which this was especially true for me, in ways that secretly and happenstantially might have been providing outlets for those aspects of being autistic.

I first got online in 1993, via a dialup gopher server run by a local public library in upstate New York. Through it (30-minutes at a time, because that’s when it would disconnect on you), because of an article in the debut issue of Wired magazine, I ended up on an internet-connected bulletin board system out of New York City called Mindvox.

Descriptors of MindVox in that Wikipedia article generally are true. “In many ways MindVox was a harder, edgier, New York incarnation of the WELL.” “Members who met through the conferences often became acquainted in person, either on their own, or through what were termed ‘VoxMeats’.” “MindVox was deeply connected to the emerging non-academic hacker culture and ideas about the potentials of cyberspace.”

All of these things made for an online space perfect not just for hyperfocused and obsessive interests but a space both online and off that tended to accumulate a large variety of awkward or quirky behavior by the standards of the larger, normative world. There were losers and professionals, extroverts and introverts, alliances and enemies, and generally speaking most everyone was building for themselves a social persona that genuinely reflected who they were (or thought they were, or were trying to be), come what may. You meshed with others, or clashed with others, essentially on your own terms.

This is not always true for autistic people navigating the allistic world, and I do wonder now if this outlet for individuality (the mid-90s internet was rife with a libertarian attitude) in some ways meant that for the mid- to late-90s much of my social communication both online and off required little to no masking. I wouldn’t have been aware of it in those terms at the time, and indeed my entire point is that this is only occuring to me now, but during this period as far as the outside world was concerned I was being who I was and that was that.

In no way did this outlet preclude all of the other struggles that we now know at least in part were due to other aspects of unknowingly being autistic (and therefore, because unknowing, all of it was going unexamine and unaddressed). All of the things that I’m now trying to mitigate or nevigate when it comes to employment, for example, were the case back then, too. Having an authentic outlet for one aspect of being autistic didn’t magically solve the difficulties I was experiencing elsewhere. But I do wonder today if things would hae been even worse for me in the 90s without that outlet.

Getting online in the early 90s also meant experiencing the early days of the web, which meant that easy access to other interests increased. While pre-web I was active on Usenet groups such as, the arrival of the web rapidly meant that pop culture discussion not only was everywhere but was easier to find and to navigate. Even some producers of pop culture latched on relatively early, which was how I ended up on Fox’s official website and discussion forums for Firefly, and then on the now-defunct Whedonesque, in 2002. I would spend the next decade firmly entrenched in Whedon fandom. Firefly fandom, especially, was home.

Here, again, we have an environment where hyperfocus and obsessive interest run rampant. Here, again, we have a social scene that both online and off (through conventions) tended toward acceptance of the allegedly quirky and awkward. During my time in this fandom, I went from being active in these discussion forums to creating (or co-creating) probably a dozen different websites that helped fans find where a movie was still in release, curated fan-recorded audio commentaries, followed Firefly DVDs into space, mocked ill-conceived fan campaigns to “buy” the rights to a TV show, tracked information about an unproduced movie script, ran fan-directed social media campaigns for a TV show that had almost no support from the network, and more. Hyperfocus? I had it. Obsessive interests? I had it. I also had yet another outlet for being who I was, and being accepted for who I was.

Like my time as part of MindVox, I do look at my time in fandom as another period in which perhaps I was not subject to the stresses of masking, at least in the realms of social communication and my issues with performance distress. At the same time, the later years of my fandom period were exactly the years in which I started to utilize a toolkit meant for introverts to help manage certain stresses. Yes, I could attend large, sprawling, crowded events such as San Diego Comic-Con, but only if I had my own hotel room, shared with no one else, so that there always would be a place to which I could escape. I’d often sit as far toward the back of panel rooms as I could, unless I was sitting with friends, who were a kind of buffer.

During the middle of my fandom period, there was something else happening, too. I spent three years covering local Portland politics, an experiment in what came to be called, at the time, “stand-alone journalism”. It was just me, my self-hosted website, and a lot of lurking around the edges of meetings and protests and public discussions. Arguably this was the highpoint for hyperfocus and obsessive interest. My experience in committing acts of journalism was that people tended to leave you be. I didn’t have to interact. I just had to watch, listen, take notes, and then go home to write things up. While there was a greast deal of freedom to be who I was, there was also a lot of exposure to the most annoying, aggressive, and venal attitudes of which people are capable. After three years, I was burned out on subjecting myself to that. The obsessive interest vanished into thin air.

In the end, then, I do wonder if in some ways my pre-diagnosis life being unknowingly autistic could have been worse. I could have stumbled into not a single outlet for any parts of my particular autistic feature set. I could have never found any online or offline spaces where what the normative world considered quirky or awkward were accepted in fact as normal.

Having those outlets did not address any of the other parts of my particular autistic feature set. All of the things that gave me trouble in finding, securing, and keeping employment continued unabated and, perhaps worse, unseen, helping to generate a resume that to this day does not instill a great deal of confidence in prospective employers.

Having those outlets, however, did provide me with something of a stable piece of ground to stand on when it came to letting me be myself. Those two decades from MindVox to Whedon fandom arguably would have been better had I known I was autistic, at least in terms of having had the opportunity to chase down those other trouble spots. Without those oases, however, who knows where being unknowingly autistic would have left me.

That doesn’t do much of anything for me today, but I suppose it’s useful to try to figure out what it might have done for me then?

There’s not really any form of communication that I enjoy, per se. I suppose that I’m most comfortable with the sort of mass, meandering aimlessness of my Twitter feed, but that doesn’t exactly translate into utilitarian conversations such as those in the workplace, or, really, those involved in finding work to begin with.

I don’t really do small talk (despite my fondness for Twitter), although I can in certain contexts. What’s problematic for me is communication that has a purpose and a goal and is happening in real-time, be it face-to-face or over the phone.

Some of this is the fact that I am effectively incapable of multi-tasking. It dawned on me only recently that the reason I sometimes will interrupt someone I am talking with is because when a thought strikes me I am mentally incapable of simultaneously holding onto that thought for later and continuing to pay attention to what the other person is saying to me. So the thought leaps out of me while they are in mid-sentence, and I need to apologize, urge them to continue, and hope that the mere fact of me having said something out loud will be enough to bring my thought back into the conversation at a more suitable moment, like when it’s actually my turn to speak.

Telephone conversations in some ways make this worse, because at least face-to-face the other person likely has some conception of the fact that a thought has just struck you and you are waiting to be able to get to it. They also have some sense of when you are quiet because you thinking about things rather than from some sort of disinterest.

In both situations, too many things are required to be happening at the same time for an effective conversation to happen. It’s not dissimilar to why I cannot drive a car and stopped trying to learn pretty early on. I can’t steer the wheel, know which peddle I’m supposed to be using, know where the edges of the car are, and watch for pedestrians, cyclists, and other cars all at the same time. I’d have killed someone for sure.

Written communication is best for me. Emails are great, because they don’t have an immediate expectation of synchrony. In many ways, you’re expected to take time to respond. Direct messages and texts are okay, to an extent. The still bring with them some of the pressures of real-time conversation but also have a wider comfort zone for both parties when it comes to delays in responding.

Part of the problem, for me, with face-to-face and telephone conversations is there’s typically a pressure to respond, to come to a conclusion, to reach some sort of decision.

I have made some poor decisions because of this, often because my brain knows that the fastest way out of the stress of that conversation is to respond deferentially, which has led me to assent to things that a more careful consideration would have led me to understand were going to be more harmful to me in the long term than the short-term stress of the conversation itself.

During my first round of taking me and my diagnosis to Vocational Rehabilitation , I acceded to things said by my job coach and by the boss at my job placement that only made things difficult for me later, and it took me weeks to realize that it was because my brain took the shortest route out of the stress of social communication. It didn’t help that part of me had decided that I needed to appear as responsive and responsible as possible to the Vocational Rehabilitation process, and that sometimes overrode my better judgment.

To be clear, it isn’t the content of the real-time conversation that’s the problem, although obviously difficult conversations only make it harder. It’s the act of social communication itself. Remember this bit from my Psychodiagnostic Evaluation of October 2016?

Clinical evaluation and tests indicate that aspects of his functioning are impaired by his autism spectrum disorder, and related anxiety, cognitive and behavioral rigidity, deficits in social reciprocity, poor understanding and management of his own emotional and behavioral responses and his inability to tolerate distress, ambiguity and to engage in goal-directed behavior when he does not clearly see and agree with the method and purpose of the tasks and general direction of the activities.

These things don’t lend themselves well to social communication happening in real time, with an inherent, built-in sense that there’s an expected endpoint that must be reached. I can walk and chew gum at the same time, but I can’t think and converse at the same time, and the stress of doing so can spiral pretty quickly, or lead me to agree to things that aren’t in my best interest overall.

Written communication almost always is the best option. If there’s an issue that for whatever reason must be discussed with me face-to-face or over the phone, there shouldn’t be any pressure or expectation that I have clear or concise thoughts about it, let alone a decision. People need to give me time to consider that conversation after it’s over. If there’s some sort of action or decision required on my part, it’s going to have to wait.

There aren’t a lot of things I post here that overly are messages to future prospective employers, but this is one of them. It also applies to any agencies enlisted to support me.

Please think carefully about what you really require when it comes to communication and what you’re simply accustomed to doing. If you can avoid it, don’t call me. Don’t ask for a meeting. Email me. Text me. Give me the time and space I need to understand not just what you’re saying but its implications for my own wellbeing.

I’ll get back to you, I swear.

Inside Joss Whedon’s Unfilmed ‘Goners’

Note: I originally wrote this a few years ago solely for myself, just to exorcise my thoughts. Last year, someone publicly posted a write-up of the script, and with the cat somewhat out of the bag, I posted these thoughts on a site I’ve since taken offline. I am putting them back up, as HBO PR has announced The Nevers, which sounds weirdly like a combination of Goners and a comic book for Dark Horse called Twist that didn’t happen.

I’ve long argued that “cynicism is frustrated optimism, resulting only from first believing that people are capable of better and then too often being proved wrong”, and that “this is why the small, every day courtesies matter”.

What if we with deliberation and care did right by each other in all the tiny ways: holding the door for the person behind us, giving up our seat for someone who needs it more, using headphones on our devices when in cafes and bars, remembering our “pleases” and “thank yous”. What if paying attention to all of these small moments left us no longer too exhausted and too world-weary even to think about the larger and more inexplicable challenges of the larger life and lives around us, let alone to act on them?

My first time through an undated draft of Joss Whedon’s unproduced screenplay Goners, there was a moment which nearly made me leap off my couch. Explaining a colleague’s theory as to the nature of the film’s supernatural antagonists, one character says to another that the threat before them is not just the “fear” and the “hate” but “all the thoughtless bullshit of the city”.

All those small moments of unthinking selfishness and self-centeredness. What evils do they amount to?

Late in 2010, I was approached by someone I know from pop culture convention circles. They were about to come into possession of the screenplay for the film Whedon wrote almost immediately upon completion of his directorial debut Serenity. They asked if I’d heard of it.

At that point, I’d already been blogging about Goners for several years. I was part of a ridiculously-premature fan community which revolved around it. Nothing about the script was known save the tidbits Whedon would sometimes drop into interviews, convention panels, or Q&As.

We knew it was about a woman named Mia, who sees “a part of the modern world most people don’t get to see”, but “the world has forgotten about her”.

We knew there was a character named Violet.

We knew there were some dobermans.

So familiar was I with its existence, and for so long, that I expressed skepticism that the screenplay actually had surfaced, especially when told that it had a lot of Dollhouse-like stuff in it.

There are several other unproduced Whedon screenplays. Afterlife tells the story of a man whose mind is transferred into the brain of a convict, personalities whose conflict forms the general narrative thrust of the film. The mind-transfer technology in Afterlife having something of an ancestral feel to the technology in Dollhouse, I half-suspected that what was purported to be the screenplay for Goners instead might be that for Afterlife (which existed online), renamed by someone having a bit of fun of the expense of Whedon’s fans.

So it was with no small amount of surprise and excitement that in March 2011, I found in my mail a copy of what indeed turned out to be an authentic screenplay for Goners.

That first year in possession of Goners, I re-read it every couple of months. I told not a soul that I had it. When the original draft of the screenplay for The Cabin in the Woods showed up online, I even lied to people who asked me if I also had a copy of Goners.

There were weird coincidences. Certain aspects of the story happened to match certain design elements of the site I’d maintained to track development of the film. After my first read of the script, I deleted some of those design elements. I didn’t want anyone familiar with the actual script to get any indication, even if happenstantial, that I’d read it.

Around this time, the month after I received the script, talk of Goners popped up here and then as Whedon was getting mainstream attention for The Avengers. By then, my unofficial production blog for the film had been dormant for three years. Living with the script having re-sparked my interest, I started posting about these new remarks about Goners. It became clear over the next year that while Whedon still had some degree of interest in it, apparently not very many other people did. He revealed, in fact, that when he’d turned in the first draft, the powers-that-be at Universal “shitcanned” it, and he felt that over the years he’d been “yanked around” by studio executives. [Ed. note: I might have misremembered the timeline here; the folks at Universal who were in charge after Mary Parent left were the ones who “shitcanned” the project, and I think that had to have been after most of the rewrites.]

Goners was to have been Whedon’s next movie after Serenity, although, for awhile, his involvement with attempting to bring Wonder Woman to the big screen was in something of a competition for time and attention. Both projects, of course, ultimately went nowhere. Again in 2012 he expressed some continued interest in filming Goners, but the process of its development, back-burnering, and eventual death made him wary. He’d also let it be known more than once, in this context and others, that he doesn’t often “go back” to old material. Some stories, perhaps, need telling when they demanded to be written, not years later when life both personal and creative has moved on.

(That old Wonder Woman script surfaced online a couple years ago now, and was dragged pretty hard on Twitter, deservedly. Despite being written around the same time, Goners does not sink to its level.)

Little, really, has been said about Goners for the past several years. It continues to have its own small cadre of dedicated believers. I have no idea how many of them also ever stumbled into the chance to read the script. Even now, as I admit that I’d read it, I’ve no interest in getting into the details of the story it tells. I still hope it someday will see the light of day, even if it’s never produced. In comic book form, maybe? Or perhaps it’s time for Universal to just publish the script.

Or, I should say, scripts.

It’s been known all along that the script went through several rewrites. At one point, during the 2007 writers’ strike when the film still was in development, a fan asked Whedon how it was coming along. His response was what the fan later described as a “low, quietly-distressed moan”.

Late in 2014, three years after being alerted to the existence of a script for Goners, I received another copy. Unlike the first, undated script, this one had a date: September 2005. This, then, apparently was the original draft. The one that had been “shitcanned” by Universal. [See previous ed. note.]

(For lack of a better way to describe the difference, this was the earlier “Clay Men” draft, which recently got written-up online. The later draft, the one I’d read first, wasn’t. It remains a mystery to me is whether or not there also exists yet another version, a third. In reference to this September 2005 draft, someone remarked that they’d seen a different version but it wasn’t all that different. This does not at all characterize the relationship between the two drafts I’ve read.)

Whatever I’d at that point had for nearly three years was something later, the result of that oft-mentioned rewrite process. It for some reason never had occurred to me that what I’d read, and re-read, over and over, wasn’t the original draft. After having lived for so long first with tracking the film’s development and then with an actual script in hand, suddenly there was new, to me, Goners material.

There is an original draft of Serenity, referred to as the “kitchen sink” draft because in the wake of Firefly’s ignominous television demise Whedon tried to put everything he could possibly think of into what might be his one and only shot to bring it back to life. Certain infamous character deaths never happen. There’s at least one fantastic set piece that likely for reasons both financial and emotional is scrapped in the film itself. Generally speaking the “kitchen sink” draft of Serenity has some terrific stuff in it. It also would have made for a very long movie. It isn’t bloated, per se, but it was nowhere near as streamlined, efficient, or effective as the draft Whedon shot. Arguably, the movie that got made is better than the first script he wrote for it.

I thought a lot about the “kitchen sink” draft of Serenity when reading the original draft of Goners, heart racing the moment I detected the first deviation from whichever later draft I’d first read.

The original draft of Goners is long, and much more involved. Much larger parts of an overall background mythology for the characters and their world appear, never to be seen, mentioned, or even alluded to in the later draft. Various characters each get more little moments of their own. The protagonist is subjected to a completely unnecessary and extraneous assault. There’s also much more expositional discussion. It’s generally a lot more intricate. There’s simply too much going on, and whatever might be the point of telling the story at all effectively becomes lost in the shuffle.

It does not work anywhere near as well as the later draft. I don’t think this is just because I read the later draft first.

One of the most revealing things Whedon ever has said about Goners, it turns out, is that he considers it an antidote to “the horror movie with the expendable human beings in it” because he “[doesn’t] believe any human beings are”.

There’s a moment in the later draft of Goners where this is made starkly, remarkably clear, and for the first half dozen or so times reading it I simply missed it. He holds to that idea so strongly that it’s at the center of a larger mythology surrounding Mia, Violet, and the others that’s entirely different from the one used in the earlier draft. Once you see that moment for what it is, it’s impossible to shake the idea that it might even be something of a tough sell to an audience. There’s an expectation, yet it deliberately is left unmet, because for the story to be what Whedon says it is, it must be unmet.

On the surface, the actions of this moment occur in the original draft, but in every real and meaningful way the moment itself does not. Not really.

There’s a lot more going on in the original draft, but the story at the core I don’t think really comes out until Whedon has to subject himself to that frustrating process of rewrites. Whatever notes he received seem to have prompted (forced?) him to strip the story down to an essential core.

Not long ago, despite everything he’s said about how he doesn’t like to go back and revisit things from other parts of his creative life, Whedon revealed that Goners still has a place in his heart.

“Every now and then, it crops up in my head,” he said. “A lot of my stories that I’ve told, I’m like, I’m past that stage of storytelling, or I got it out of my system, and it’s hard to work up the energy to go back. Every now and then with Goners, I’m like, there’s something about this that hasn’t been expressed yet.”

That something precisely is what those rewrites, despite the low, quietly-distressed moan they later prompted from him, apparently led him to find after he peeled away the more complex layers in the scenario of his original draft. Once he stumbled upon that something that hasn’t been expressed yet, Goners found itself.

Presuming that the first draft I read in fact was the final draft before the project spiraled into the lowest rings of development hell, it still has issues. There’s a problematic character name that I’m quite sure was taken from a Grateful Dead song but carries racist European baggage. Two minor characters, among the only ones specifically to have their races specified, really ought to have those races swapped. Some characters who were more developed in the earlier draft perhaps have had a little too much of that stripped away in the later one.

These would be necessary tweaks, not wholesale rewrites. The first draft I read, however late in the rewrites process it came, essentially feels like it’s ready to go.

Will we ever see it?

I don’t think I really believe it will ever be a movie. But there are other venues, other mediums.

I’ll never quite entirely give up hope, even if I won’t be holding my breath. I still sometimes fantasize about how I’d shoot it: nothing like The Avengers, not even like Serenity; more grounded like the Whedon-written and -produced but Brin Hill-directed In Your Eyes.

(Since the original version of this post, I’ve even mapped out how an expanded version of the later draft could be structured as a short season of television. Lately I’ve started finding ways to make Mia not “painfully shy”, as described by Whedon, but instead actually autistic.)

I still want to see its mythologizing of the thoughtless bullshit of the city. I still want to see its argument for the unexpendability of human beings.

I like to think that Mia is still out there, somewhere, waiting. The world might have forgotten about her, but I haven’t.