I can hear your hackles rising from here.
It’s not a nice thought, is it? How do you change someone who functions in a different way enough that they can seem the same as everyone else,and should we?
Does this cure the person? Does this make them better? Does this treat Autism as some kind of illness instead of a lifelong condition?
I’m asking all these questions because it’s essentially what happened to me.
When I couldn’t cope with the texture of mushrooms because they made me retch, I was told we would all stay at the dinner table until my plate was clear.
So I practiced swallowing grapes whole when I was alone. If I could swallow a whole, large grape, then I could swallow a mouthful of food without chewing, without having to deal with the texture beyond the swallowing of it.
I don’t recommend this as a course of action! It’s not sensible. I was lucky not to choke. It is not a good idea, I was an idiot child trying to find my way.
I learnt very early on, that if you draw attention to things that bother you, then other children (and sometimes adults) do them more.
So when the table was laid, I would make sure to move the knives and forks and spoons of the cutlery that had had patterned metal handles. Touching them hurt me. It felt horrible. But if I asked to swap them later I would be told not to make such a fuss, doing things quietly worked better.
But I couldn’t stop people cutting their food on their plates. I couldn’t stop the sound that set off reflex hallucinations in my tastebuds and made my food taste of what I can only describe as “that flavour you get when you lick your finger, put an AA battery’s end against it, and then lick the opposite end of the battery”.
I’d press my head against my shoulder and try to muffle the noise of the worst of it, but I couldn’t block it out. If I asked people to stop sometimes they would laugh and do it more, sometimes they would try to stop. But I couldn’t predict which it would be.
I didn’t understand why they would do it when it hurts.
But I learned.
I learned people laugh at you and call you names if you’re a teen girl who likes bright colourful leggings over bodysuits and culottes (it was the 90s, insert fashion faux pas of your era here).
And although I argued it at the time, I learned that what I wear is important to other people, even if it’s not to me.
When I was alone I would have the time and space to meltdown. Sometimes at school I would hide away in the loos. Sometimes I’d hide in a book. Sometimes I’d hide in being loud and confident and opinionated.
Sometimes I’d fail to hide, and shutdown, and then I’d have to find an appropriately teen-angsty reason for it, because I knew that other people weren’t doing what I did.
I learned how to be normal.
I learned how to keep my stims private. I’d practice not moving. I’d concentrate on not doing them.
Sometimes if it got too much, I’d excuse myself so that I could find a place to be alone for a minute and stim. Like a secret smoker getting her nicotine fix behind closed doors. Because grown ups don’t do that sort of thing.
And what good has it done me? I’ve suffered from depression and exhaustion. After one particularly nasty bout of workplace bullying that was handled laughably, I had a bit of a breakdown. A counsellor said I was burnt out, and I was. I was exhausted. Utterly shattered by presenting this constant façade of normality to the world.
I still hadn’t realised I was autistic. I’d worked as a Learning Support Assistant, helping autistic teens, as one of my many jobs, and it still didn’t click. Even when they said things like, “You really get it!” I didn’t realise.
I have been battling myself for years. I have been fighting every day to present someone to the world that you will like.
And you still don’t like her! I don’t blame you. I don’t think I like her much either.
The people who like me in this world, are the people who have seen the real me. This voice. This one I’m using now.
So why did I learn to hide it, and how the hell do I let it out?
Yes. You can teach an autistic person (not all, not everyone, and never completely) to behave like everyone else, but why would you want to?
Somewhere along the way I lost me.
I knew I was here but I couldn’t find who that was. Was I Work-Rhi? Drunk-Rhi? Mum-Rhi?
It’s not that those people aren’t a part of me, but they’re a construction. They’re a wall between you and me.
What was done to me, was done in utter ignorance of what I am and what I needed. What was done was done because I was being judged by the wrong standards.
There are ways that we all have to learn to fit in. Stims that hurt you or others, need to be swapped for stims that don’t. We all make adjustments. We all grow up.
Three year olds need to learn how to express their emotions with words where possible. We all have to change and fit and adapt, but we don’t all have to fit to one mould. It’s important that we don’t.
So here’s my analogy. Day by day I cased myself in clay. I didn’t notice I was doing it. I was still walking and talking, but each day I clagged a new bit on. Small bits, big bits, all the things I learned.
At first it wasn’t too heavy, but after a while it started weighing me down, exhausting me.
But still I added more. The more I learned, the more I added.
Then one day I read an article about a woman with autism, and that article described me. It described me in great detail.
And I suddenly noticed the clay. It now covered all of me. Every part.
Since then I’ve been trying to crack it open.
Getting a diagnosis was a big step forwards and it’s let me get a hand free.
I’m still working out how much I can chip away at once and still feel safe. I’m a work in progress. A reverse-Rodin.
How do you make an autistic person normal?