I’ve been thinking a lot about the invisibility of autistic adults.
We see a lot of focus on autistic children, and getting them to adulthood with the skills they will need. And about parents of autistic children, and what they should do, and how they can be supported.
These things are important.
But it seems less fun, and less cause-worthy to talk about the adults with autism who are just getting on with it.
Many of us learn how to pass for normal. Some of us have jobs and relationships and our own homes. Many of us learned and followed the rules expertly.
We put the same effort into passing for normal as we do any of our hobbies.
And what reward to we get? Do we get to be normal? Do we get some ultimate joy out of pretending to be a neurotypical and keeping our inner-selves suppressed and squashed?
There’s no easy answer to that. I may just snigger instead. I’m naive. I’m not stupid.
I shouldn’t have to hide who I am, but I don’t always want to argue my existence. I don’t always want to fight. I don’t always want to be a cause. Sometimes I just want to pass under the radar.
Passing is hiding in plain sight. It’s not having you treat me as though I’m unintelligent. It’s not being patronised. It’s staying safe.
But what am I losing?
I’m certainly losing energy. Because I’m passing, that means conforming to all the stupid rules that don’t come naturally to me. I have to act as though the sights and sounds around me are not hurting me. I have to have complete self-control. I have to talk when I don’t want to talk. Process information I don’t want or need. I have to interact and perform.
And deep down I know that although I pass for normal, I’m still not quite projecting who I am. Although I’m putting far more effort in than the people I’m talking to, I still somehow come across as cold.
It’s imperfect. I’m imperfect when I pass. It’s not me. It’s my idea of what a person should be, without any of the deeper understanding of why people like to be this way.
It takes from me.
A day of passing means a night of not interacting with the people I want to interact with. I only have so much energy.
Would you choose to spend that energy constantly failing at the exam of “being normal”, or being around people who accept you and enjoy you being you?
I have radically reduced how much time I spend passing since I got my diagnosis.
So far the results have been mixed.
I am far more relaxed in general. My background anxiety levels are minimal. I cope better when unexpected things happen. I basically have more energy to spare on everyday things that would, in the past, have eventually resulted in a period of complete shut down.
I’m out of the habit of making small talk. I haven’t decided if this is a good thing or a bad thing yet. It’s good for me. I feel more authentic when I talk about real things with people. They are sometimes bemused, but I’ve decided that’s not a bad thing either.
I’ve greatly reduced my alcohol intake. That’s not to say it was ever high, but if I was going to a social gathering, it was my go-to crutch.
A glass of wine reduces my ability to process things. Without the ability, I can’t do it as much, therefore the energy and effort involved in talking to people is much reduced.
But so was my filter. I have a tendency not to have conversations. I hold court. I impart wisdom whether you like it or not. Getting stuck with me if you’re not interested in the subject I’m talking about, can’t be fun. The next day I will start analysing what I said. I have an irritatingly good memory. I’ll analyse the expressions in the clear light of day, and pick up that you were trying to shut me up. I’ll know it wasn’t a proper conversation and I’ll feel embarrassed and anxious.
Deciding not to interact as much, deciding that when I do I will be more authentically me, and also I will take myself away to be alone if I need to, has meant that socialising is more enjoyable.
I’ve always loved one-to-ones with my close friends, but now I can cope with more with fewer crutches.
I can admit that I get lonely sometimes. Building friendships is a slow process, and there are steps in there that I struggle with. A few years ago we moved to a new area, and I have found it hard going through the necessary processes that you need to to make friends.
I would like to go back to being five. I’m going to run up to strangers and tag them, and they’re going to chase me, and thus we will be friends.
It’s a work in progress.
What is my point? My point is that being able to socially interact, learning the rules and conventions, is a great skill to have. It will help you get jobs. It will help you navigate your way through a world that wasn’t built with you in mind. It will help you build social networks. It’s useful.
But it’s a tool. It’s a means to an end. It may never be a natural part of who you are. Don’t forget that you’re not a worse version of a neurotypical, you’re an excellent version of an autistic person, who can also perform neurotypical skills.
The rest of the population gets to learn things that come naturally to them. You have to learn things that don’t. It doesn’t mean they’re not worth knowing. But it does mean that you need to make allowances for yourself.
It is exhausting consciously processing interactions. Find a way to make it work for you. I like to plan some social time off to recover. I make sure that I know I can go and hide for a bit if I need to. I listen to very loud music in the car on the way home. You may prefer silence, sometimes I do too, but there’s a soothing that comes with overloading my senses to the point of calm.
You learn the skill and then you decide when you apply it. Working beyond your limits for any length of time will inevitably lead to mental health problems. No one can run on empty forever.
When you’re teaching your autistic children to behave in a way that fits with society, don’t lose sight of the fact that you cannot teach them not to be autistic. If all you want is a parody of a neurotypical, then you can probably make one. But that parody will be exhausted, confused and unhappy. They will spend all their energy on the ruse, when instead they could be following their dreams.
Being a neurotypical isn’t what I want. I don’t want to change my brain. I love my mind. There are many things that I find effortless, that most people find exhausting. I wouldn’t swap because I wouldn’t be me.
As a wise old wizard once said, “You shall not pass!” I’m going to adjust that to, “You shall not pass… unless you want to.”