The original title of this post was “Mental age” and Autism, which really does fit to what I am about to discuss, but since it can be read numerous ways, I changed it so that the title itself was (hopefully) more clear. I also wanted to stress that this is how this applies to ME, and while I would guess that there are people who relate, it is by no means ubiquitous.
I’ve always had friends who are a little bit older than me. One of my closest friends is a year older (almost exactly) and we’ve been basically inseparable since first grade (for me, 2nd grade for her), despite being in different classrooms, schools, and ultimately, coasts of the continent, we’re still extremely close, thanks to the wonders of the internet. It’s a pattern I’ve seen most of my life. I do not get along with my “peers” in my age group/grade level. Older? Definitely. Younger? Sometimes. And the difference doesn’t even have to be that big for it to work. And as I have gotten older and moved on to college and then graduate school, it doesn’t seem to matter nearly so much anymore. But it mattered for a long time, and it still comes up now and then. Quite often, my friends (who are older than me) tell me they forget that I’m 5-10 years younger than them. And back when I was in high school, I was a moderator (still am) on a forum related to my scientific interest, and though I made it very clear that I was in high school, people were often surprised to find out I didn’t have a PhD.
I have several hypotheses to explain this phenomenon, but the one that seems best to me is the following:
I represent a dichotomy between “intellectual age” and “mental/social age”. I am extremely intelligent, in a book-smart kind of way. I have an almost encyclopedia-like knowledge of science and math and several other topics. I live to collect and synthesize facts. I LOVE discussing intellectual topics. And often, I come off as extremely mature and responsible. However, I am also still a very “young” person socially. For example, I still have all of my stuffed animals (and love them all dearly and will never get rid of them). When I’m excited, I bounce up and down and clap my hands and flap. Additionally, I am not a sexual person, which society seems to read as “immature”, and I often miss the “adult” jokes that are passed around. I dress very simply (and conservatively, for comfort and practicality), and I am, in generally, socially young. Not immature, mind, as most people complement me on my maturity at first glance.
There’s 3 “ages” I consider here:
- Biological (includes actual age and/or year in school)
Biological is the one first considered, and the one on which assumptions are based primarily when we are young. When biological is the same, one expects intellectual and social to be on the same level as well. When it becomes clear that I’m intellectually more mature, it can be perceived as intimidating, and leads to resentment, while when my social “immaturity” crops up, and it becomes clear that I don’t interact with others the same way they do, it opens the door to bullying and disgust.
However when criteria 1 (biological age) is different, the assumptions loosen, and there’s more wiggle room. When I am interacting with someone who is older than me, they assume that both 2 and 3 will be younger than them as well, and are often pleasantly surprised when I’m intellectually older than my biological age would indicate. And when my social “age” comes out, and it’s younger than my intellectual age, the dichotomy can be comforting, and lessen “intimidation”, since it’s clear that the person is still older than me. It’s “ok” for my social age to be lower than theirs, because I’m biologically younger. The same sort of shift holds true when I’m with people younger than me as well. To them, I’m biologically older, and it’s OK for me to be intellectually older. Plus, I am closer to them socially, so we get along on that level. I am far more comfortable interacting with people who are older than me – our interactions are primarily intellectual, and I can deal with those, and thrive. When the interactions are based on more social-things, it’s not as good, but it’s still better than with my age-group.
So the whole thing boils down to what people assume about others based on their relative ages. When I’m the young one in the room, it’s assumed that I’ll be younger on all 3 levels. But when it becomes clear that I’m intellectually older than my age, it’s a pleasant surprise (especially when coupled with socially younger than my biological age) and gives us intelligent, interesting conversational topics. When I’m the old one in the room, it’s assumed I’ll be older on all 3 levels, and when I am younger socially, it gives us something to relate to, but it’s ok to be intellectually older.
The dichotomy confuses people, especially people who are the “same age/grade” as me. They assume I should be the same as them, intellectually and socially, and instead, they get something totally different, on both counts. Most people my age, especially when I was younger, were intimidated by me. They couldn’t keep up intellectually. I was hyperlexic and would use extremely esoteric “big words” in my sentences. Of course, it wasn’t my goal to intimidate them, but because those were the words that I felt best suited the meaning I was trying to get across. I came across as super smart (too smart), and my peers expected me to be ahead of them socially as well, but of course, I wasn’t. I was, in fact, significantly socially younger. I couldn’t keep up with their conversations, and didn’t share the same interests. I especially didn’t think it was interesting – why be engaged if something is boring? Too much work in the first place. So I was “too young” for them, and that’s where the bullying and preying started. People are uncomfortable with an age dichotomy like that, especially when the person in question is supposed to be on the same developmental level as you. I’ve always thought that the whole “your age group is your peers” thing was pretty much absolute crap… my peers weren’t my age group.
But then there were those people who were older than me, even if only by a year or two. Their working assumption is that I am younger than them, before they ever interact with me. Then when we do interact, they respect me for my intellect, and apparent maturity. And when the “social immaturity” comes out, they simply assume it is because I am younger, and it is OK. Even if my actions could be read similar to those of someone half my age, it still wasn’t as big of an issue, because I had a rapport with them on a different level, and figured that I was younger, there would be some deficits. If anything, I bet that the dichotomy made people who were older than me more comfortable with me: it was a reminder to them that although I was intellectually advanced for my age, more on their level, I wasn’t older than them in all aspects – they still had a leg up on me, and could enjoy being around me for the conversation, while being more forgiving of the quirks.
The same sort of logic applied to people younger than me. I related with them better socially, and they looked up to my brain and said “she’s older than me, of course she’s smarter”. It didn’t bother them as much either. I didn’t have nearly as many connections with people younger than me, mostly because they didn’t challenge me intellectually, but I wasn’t bullied by them either. Just my age-group.
This has been a recurring pattern over and over in my life. My friends were all a grade older than me growing up. When I got to college, I immediately ended up becoming closer to the older transfer students in my classes than I did to my peers in my dorm and freshman classes. I had a study group for math/physics classes that consisted of 5 people: 4 guys aged 24-28 and me, a 19-year-old girl. There was nothing predatory about it in any sense (3 out of the 4 guys were in serious relationships, and the other was gay), we just all sat in the front left side of the lecture hall, paid attention in classes, and worked really well together. They liked working with me because I was smart and could explain things to them, and they did light-heartedly tease me for being young, but it was in a nice sense – I was younger than them, and they accepted and embraced it. And the focus was on far more important things, like understanding electricity and magnetism and how to solve second order differential equations.
I also ended up bonding with the graduate students in the lab I volunteered in. And they looked out for me, in many senses, almost as if they were my big sisters. We would have amazing conversations about all sorts of things, and it wasn’t an issue that I was younger. By the time my 2nd year came around, I spent most of my time in the lab, because I loved what I was doing there (still do), and also because the people were nicer. And now that I’m a graduate student (and the youngest one in my cohort), the same pattern is emerging. It’s mostly OK for me to be younger socially, because people who are older than me don’t care. And as we get older, the differences don’t matter nearly as much anyway. As everyone matures, especially in my field, they care about what you talk and think about, not how many stuffed animals are sitting on and next to your bed.
I’m a little nervous about getting older. I’m good at being younger than everyone else. I fit in that role. But I’ve always been pretty good at being a leader and a role model when I need to. As I get older, I’ve become better at being the older person. It just takes me a little longer than most other people. And I won’t always be the youngest person in the room. Because, as one of the oldest riddles I know says, “[age] always goes up, but never comes back down.” But I will never stop being myself because of that.