Image description: The autism spectrum infinity awareness symbol, which is multicoloured.
I haven’t written this quite a few times. Over time, I’ve found any excuse not to do it. At one time, it was: my partner doesn’t know this about me – they deserve to be told first; then, it’s not worth the effort; no one will read it; I’ll be seen as attention seeking; I’ll be seen as pitiable; my closest friends – I owe it to them to tell them – perhaps they’ll hate me for my only confessing in public, rather than to them personally.
The same series of discouraging mantras has stifled my many almost-confessions to those very same people, whose reactions I fear writing this now. Above all, I’ve told myself that it never really comes up, that it would be such a strange thing just to slip into conversation that I’m autistic.
Past reactions have an overshadowing influence on my reticence now: I don’t claim to have been traumatised by ill-treatment or repression. In many ways, I think many of the negative experiences I have had are what we might now call micro-aggressions. Often, the things that have most pronouncedly impacted the way I treat what is part of my own identity are not hostile or derogatory. ut I can’t bear the shocked looks on people’s faces, then the brief self-examination (checking they haven’t embarrassed themselves by saying something carelessly ‘offensive’), followed by the pitying tone.
I can’t remember now which leaflet, nurse, or psychiatrist told me this, but around the time I was first diagnosed (at the age of 11) someone said that I might not ever be able to love like other people do. My family – who must not come out of this badly, having been my greatest support throughout the darkest periods of my life and, at times, literally lifesaving – rarely broached the subjects of romance in the context of my own life. I don’t know if that’s because they thought it wouldn’t happen for me: the surprise I elicited from them when I was the one to finally broach the topic – explaining that I had found someone – hints at an answer. This example is illustrative of the problems faced by both autistic people and by those around them: there’s no concrete set of traits that any one person will exhibit. In fact, in isolation, each individual trait would probably be passed off by a neurotypical person as just a ‘quirk’ – in many cases, observing that trait in someone, I might think the same: often, we might well be right. But these things come together, many qualities and identifiers coalescing, to reach the – admittedly blurry and poorly defined – standard by which a doctor might diagnose autism.
The same series of discouraging mantras has stifled my many almost-confessions.
If I had to give a single, unified definition of autism (at least of my autism) I would use the analogy of an experience that many of us have probably faced when we were younger. Imagine being at one of those awful school discos. You’re perhaps nine or ten. The self-consciousness that precedes puberty has set in and you’re intensely aware of your ability to embarrass yourself. Everyone seems to be dancing; everyone seems to know how to dance; it’s like they’ve all attended dancing lessons and you missed the memo. That’s what all social interaction might be like for a young autistic person. Working out how to start a conversation can be the biggest mental challenge of a day.
In essence, you don’t know the moves that everyone else seems instinctively able to understand. I like to think I’m quite apt at spotting this in others. It’s by no means an exact science but I’m right most of the time when I notice it. The autistic people I know don’t say the same about me. What I said about the traits is most pertinent here: one of my most significant characteristics is what I was taught to call ‘masking’. It’s why I was diagnosed far later than is average. As a child, I was both keenly sensitive to the motions, current, and conventions of social interaction and yet unable to intuit my own role in them. As such, I learned and mimicked for most of my life.
When you practice anything for long enough, most of it eventually becomes second nature. Places like shops and restaurants are, if everything goes well, very easy to navigate – they have a set of roles and conventions which I was observing from very young and can replicate. However, my own reaction to having to make complaints, make unexpected decisions, or anything out of the ordinary is severe. Even now, having had years of practice, when a gap appears in the playbook it can send me into an anxious tailspin. The only way I can analogise it would be that if, on any given day, everyone in a given environment suddenly started speaking an unrecognisable language. You don’t know how to make things go back to how they were before.
In many ways, I’m lucky: masking allows me to pass for neurotypical in most situations.
I know that, in this advanced age, none of this should matter. Our treatment of neurodivergent people, like any other minority group, is uncountably better than it ever has been. However, there is an experience I suspect I have in common with those of any minority: it’s not about the knowledge that things are improving or that most people will never treat me negatively, it’s knowing that the breadth of variance in people’s reactions is still so wide that you just can’t predict what might happen. It niggles in the back of the brain even when on the verge of telling people I trust implicitly. Perhaps, because of the nature of autism, I’m even more aware of these potentialities than the average.
In many ways, I’m lucky: masking allows me to pass for neurotypical in most situations. But that works both ways. Because in 99% of situations my autism goes undetected, the 1% of scenarios where I crack and need support are made all the more shocking for those around me and far more embarrassing for myself. It also means that support is far less forthcoming than it would be for someone with a more ‘visible’ condition. At times, I’ve doubted that I’m autistic enough; this is so much the case that even calling myself ‘autistic’ causes me a twinge of discomfort, both because I don’t feel like I merit the label and because it feels like a confession which might provoke an unpleasant reaction.
I don’t so much fear hostility. I’m sure there are places where I would still face it. But, in so many other ways – being white, male, able bodied – my privileges, undue or not, protect me from what might be far greater aggressions. No, what I’m afraid of, like anyone else really, is rejection. We all know the kinds of discrimination that we still practice, covertly, even subconsciously, on a day-to-day basis: being more or less suspicious of someone in the street because of their race; discounting or devaluing romantic opportunities because of a potential partner’s sexuality; hiring someone on the basis of their sex or gender identity. We know these enemies. But I’m still terrified to tell my friends and, especially, to publish this because I can’t guarantee that being – as a fellow neurodivergent once lovingly termed it – an ‘autist’ won’t cause friends to distance themselves from me or walk on eggshells. I often feared relegation out of romantic consideration if I confessed ‘too soon’, or any number of other things.
I’ve even seen fairly close friends distance themselves from similar but less filtered versions of me.
It’s these areas, especially for invisible minorities, that we need to work on the most. Structural change – in legislation, law enforcement, business – can only take us so far, so long as we still harbour, often not so subtly, personal biases. It’s easy to excuse avoiding romance with someone bisexual, or somehow always gravitating away from people of colour, or keeping an autistic friend at a distance because you’re not sure they are even able to feel like you do or be trusted, if you’re posting weekly Instagram stories about intersectionality and inclusion.
It’s not enough anymore. I know that lots of people who I trust will be very supportive of me writing this and won’t treat me differently afterwards. I also know that if I wasn’t that lucky, if I didn’t have a helpful group of friends, an endlessly patient partner, or was just worse at masking, I’d be losing out on potential connections just by existing, let alone publishing this. I’ve even seen fairly close friends distance themselves from similar but less filtered versions of me – people who are too loud, act strangely, don’t obey social convention – either because they don’t understand them or they make them mildly uncomfortable. It’s not enough to promote acceptance if you’re not willing to live it. To friends (and strangers) out there wondering ‘how’ to treat someone like me: get to know us, and you’ll probably figure it out.
Image credit: Eric via Wikimedia Commons