A few days ago, scientists discovered the smallest known species of chameleon, Brookesia micra. About twenty years ago, I discovered chameleons, and for whatever reason I developed a kind of tunnel vision around them; other kids spent their allowances on tops from Express, American Girl dolls, and Tiger Beat, but I spent mine on leaf litter and pinhead crickets. Sometimes, when I think about my childhood development (the stubborn toe-walking that continued until I was, what, fifteen?, the memorization of all of the names of Chamaeleonidae, the alone time that was always more attractive than the playdate time, the detailed blueprints for vivariums, the almost impressive inability to ever learn to ride a bike well), I realize that I was probably a lot like Max on Parenthood. If I were eight today, instead of one hundred and fifty one years old, and had access to WebMD, I would have diagnosed myself with Asperger’s syndrome, and anyone who walked into my pink bedroom while I was hunched over a book mumbling Furcifer pardalis, Trioceros jacksonii, Brookesia minima, Chameleo calyptratus probably would have agreed.
I don’t think I have Asperger’s now, which I guess means I never did. I feel connected to other people emotionally and feel able to decipher their feelings based on facial cues, I don’t mind loud bars (I like loud bars!) or swirling neon ferris wheels or other hyper-stimulating situations. I don’t remember which chameleons come from sub-Saharan climates and which are indigenous to Madagascar anymore, and though it would be cool to have a chameleon to rip flies out of the air with its tongue when they enter the house, I’m not living in a basement cultivating an army of reptiles and I no longer buy pinhead crickets in bulk every Friday from Petco. I sometimes wonder how my life would have been different if I had been more aware of the fact that my interests and quirks aligned so closely with the symptoms of a disorder we now view with such a keen and almost paranoid eye: when we think of the Autism spectrum, we generally tend to think about the most extreme cases, or the “otherness” that creates a kind of gap of empathetic communication between someone on the spectrum and ourselves. It can be hard to remember how bizarre most of our brains were at that stage of our development: the counting of cracks on the street, the whispery bedtime rituals we thought would keep our parents from dying in the middle of the night, the number of times we checked under the bed for monsters and the niche fascinations with this particular toy truck or that very specific edition of Barbie’s dream house.
As with any cluster of personality “symptoms,” you may find that you identify more with one classified disorder than another. The unmedicated moodies, whose slumps are not quite so low as to require intervention, can peek into the window of manic or chronic depression and see a life that resembles their own; the nervous types can relate to the horror of driving on the freeways at night or being stuck at a party and really wanting to go home, like right-this-minute-don’t-pass-go right now GO HOME, even if they wouldn’t describe themselves as suffering from panic disorder. One bad trip on bath salts (don’t do bath salts! Come on! Of all the drugs to do!) and you can totally understand schizoaffective disorder, as you sit on your rooftop terrace feeling the floor for the heat that serves as evidence of phantoms planted by the FBI.
We love to name things, because a name tells us where the thing belongs: sub-species Brookesia, micra to indicate insular dwarfism. Giving a set of traits a name also helps us figure out how to treat an animal: spiders bite, dogs can be tamed, elephants mourn. It seems odd, however, that we love so dearly to categorize and classify each other, when each of us individually is in such a constant state of flux. How many times throughout your life will you lurk over at WebMD because your kid can’t — won’t! — tie her shoes, or because you have recently started to acquire a big stack of magazines you are almost biologically reluctant to throw away, or because your hormones start to look like Satan’s parabolic graph? It feels safer to know who you are, right up until the point where you start to wonder if you were wrong all along. Maybe humans are unique in their ability to match their interiors to external situations, to change their colors when necessary — you cope with chaos as a child by believing that you’re capable of a kind of superstitious magic, never stepping on cracks, but later shed that because you’ve seen As Good as It Gets; you accumulate too much crap in your living room until you see too many episodes of Hoarders, you think you’re varsity at dieting until you start to fear butter as if it were a wild dog. We forget how fluid the experience of being human can be, and maybe we frighten ourselves away from exploring our dark parts because we don’t want to be defined by our “symptoms” — and, obviously, we never should be. When we recognize our own traits as being somehow dysfunctional, we attempt to correct them. That’s one of the earmarks of being classified as normal, right? Being able to make ourselves best resemble the prototype.
This chameleon has no idea that it’s the smallest chameleon known to man, because it had never seen a matchstick before. By the looks of it, it had been quietly napping in a box of fossilized Chips Ahoy cookie dust for six billion years before a scientist woke it up to photograph it. After the photo was taken, the chameleon went back to his studio apartment and looked himself up on the internet. “Holy cow,” he thought, “I’m really fucking tiny. I’m miniscule. How am I supposed to cope with this information? I had no idea.” Down the street, beneath three hundred layers of leaf litter, an even smaller specimen of Brookesia micra is just going about his business undiscovered, thinking that there are plenty of things smaller than he is. Animalia, chordata, vertebrata, mammalia, theria, eutheria. And on and on.