Dance to the Beat of Your Own Autism

Ty Unglebower
7 min readDec 29, 2020

She’d seemed like a nice enough girl. Kind of cute. I knew next to nothing about her, other than she was younger than me and related to someone else at our school. Due to scheduling oddities, I was in her sophomore Spanish class during my senior year.

It took weeks to conclude she was interested in me. On my end of the Autism Spectrum, subtle nuance is often missed, you see. My ability to detect pure bullshit is high. In general I know when something is a crock. I picked up on none of that in this case.

Nothing direct came from her — only from the few people we knew mutually. They didn’t even make mention of her every time we chatted. I didn’t chat much to people outside of my grade, but if they said something to me, I wasn’t about to just ignore them. And when they did slip the girl into the chat, it was never with questions about what I thought of her. (That would have been a dead giveaway, even for me.)

Then the waves or greetings would come in the hallways or across the gym — same folks, while in her company. To me, it was just a sort of amorphous blob of humanity; if one said hi, they all were saying hi. So infrequently did anybody have anything to say to me by way of greeting outside my own circle, I replied out of surprise as much as anything else.

“How are you guys?”

Her name, and her avowed shyness came up more and more with her friends in her absence. When a school dance was announced, many of her comrades greetings for the week tended toward, “are you going to the dance?”

Believe it or not, even this failed to signal anything to me. I got this question often. I had somewhat of a reputation in my tiny high school for dancing with abandon when the right music and mood combined at such functions. Nobody could reconcile such temporary wildness with the generally uninteresting quiet of the rest of my school life. Good, bad or indifferent, plenty of people I didn’t otherwise engage with would look forward to a possible show if I attended the uncommon successful dance offered by one of the school clubs as a fundraiser.

It was only when her classmates mentioned more than once that week she was going to the dance too that I finally started to ponder the implications.

This girl likes me, I thought, and hopes to dance on Friday, or at least talk. These are just her ambassadors. I’ve seen this happen.

I had no issues with her, but we’d never had a conversation. She was just a fellow student. Again, cute enough, but I had no specific attraction to her. Even today I rarely “pursue” romantic prospects, and I was even less likely to do so back then.

Yet as I started to put all of this together, I couldn’t help but remember blowing a far more obvious chance the previous year with a former student, who clearly was in fact into me in ways obvious to everyone at the time but me. I didn’t want to appear thick and distant again, with another regret to hang over my head in this particularly high school department.

Plus, I wanted to give some impression of doing things that “normal” (now read as “not Autistic”) people at such times.

So, I made up my mind; I would ask this girl to dance. Not TO the dance, I wasn’t ready for any of that, but for a single dance on the night itself.

It wasn’t attraction to her that led me to this decision, but rather an attraction to doing something at least resembling what people in high school are “supposed” to do.

I’d danced with girls here and there, all at their own request, or in one ridiculous case, having had my name drawn from a hat in an asinine raffle the year before. Yet up until this night, I had never asked a girl to dance with me. The time never felt right, and it never felt as vital as some of my classmates had always indicated it was.

The dance was not well attended, as was the case with most of our high school dances. But it wasn’t the most sparse either. I mostly hung out with my all-male circle, busted a few moves, as they say, and looked over to where the girl in question was standing, or dancing with her friends.

Hour one of three passed. Hour two. The final half hour before the scheduled end of the evening arrived. If I was going through with this, now was the time. Maybe once it was all over, the rest of “normal high school things” would become easier, the ice of my isolated mind melting away and revealing even to myself the Me that was more like all of them.

The snack table was on the exact opposite side of the gym from where she and her two or three people stood chatting. I grabbed some punch, placed it back with my group of friends, and walked over to her. I don’t remember what slow song was playing. The odds are in favor of All 4 One’s cover of “I Swear.”

She wore casual slacks, not jeans. A “golf shirt” with a collar and long, thick vertical stripes of varying colors. Her curly hair was no different than it was earlier in the day during class. It was just…her.

I tapped her shoulder, with the back of my left hand fingers — that seemed less aggressive in the moment for some reason. She turned and looked at me. In retrospect, she had no expression of any kind. I addressed her.

“Do you wanna dance?”

The longest two second silence of my life to that point passed as I awaited her answer.

The single-word rejection conspired with her furrowed brow and scowl on her face to wrap itself around my throat, drain all the blood from my face and stiffen muscles I didn’t even know I had.

The second-longest two second silence of my life passed between her answer and my limp, “Okay, just asking.”

The shrug I gave as I turned away would have been no more difficult had I carried sacks of wheat on each shoulder. I shoved my shaking hands into my pockets and went over to where my friends had been talking, faint laughter coming from behind me. I don’t think any of my people realized what I’d just come from.

I told a joke or two, pretended to laugh at theirs. Worried people could somehow see how numb my jaw became as time went on, I dismissed myself early from the dance.

That, they noticed.

You see, we always stayed to the bitter end, when everything in the building and everyone bothering with a final dance took on an ethereal glow under the overhead florescent lighting coming back to gradual life as club members starting sweeping up.

Not this time. I wanted out. Needed out. And I left.

One the drive home that night, I juggled a variety pack of humiliations in my mind. There was the humiliation of rejection by a girl — one of the worst types of humiliation at that stage in life even for me.

Then there was the humiliation over having fallen for all of it — the talks, the subtle questions, the mentioning of the girl. It surely had been a long con for which I almost applaud the perpetrators all these years later. (But not quite.) To have been so stupid.

Of course, I now know I wasn’t stupid to fall for it, but too “situationally Autistic” to read enough cues.

I have literally never asked another woman to dance again after that. I’ve done plenty of other things with women, one might say “all” of the things with women in this area of life. But never again did I approach one for a dance. Too much baggage attached to the act.

Yet despite all of that, these things happen, I suppose. Rejection, getting pranked. They leave bruises, but it was not these aspects that devolved this bruise into a festering wound I still sometimes wince from. No, it was the unhealthy, destructive desire to do something I was unprepared and unmotivated to do just for the sake of doing what “normal” people do that in the end caused the most damage to my psyche for so many years afterward.

Had I just let things play out, unafraid of not living up to the high school moment so many others took for granted, the entire exchange would never have taken place. Had I not forced something that wasn’t happening in the way most comfortable for myself, I’d not have had to known such a 17 year old’s version of gutting over something so, in context, minor. It would have still hurt, but it would not be what it turned out to be — something to ruminate over and castigate myself for for far too long.

So after all of that lingering emotional torment of years ago, I have a lesson I have carried with me thanks to both the passage of time and my eventual diagnosis of ASD; it’s almost never worth it to my soul to force myself into a neurotypical sequence when I am in fact not neurotypical.

And the girl? She happily signed my senior year book the week before graduation, as did everyone else in the group I passed it around to.

It never really was about her, anyway. Now I know.

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Ty Unglebower

Freelance writer, sometime actor and introvert living and working in Frederick County, Maryland