This brief piece was prompted by a number of discussions I’ve had with people about autistic masking, being authentic and true to your autistic self.
You may like to check out my writing about autistic masking via the menu.
What makes me different?
I’m autistic, so experience the world differently to non-autistic people. My senses work differently – my personal range of sensory experiences is broader than most non-autistic peoples’. I experience some things more intensely (e.g. sound and smell) and others less intensely (e.g. body sensations and balance)
I have less need to form hierarchies than many of my peers – I still love to organise things and compartmentalise them, but we use different systems.
I think about things differently. I tend to consciously think through things that many others find intuitive – and intuitively know things that others have to think about!
So what is the problem?
I am in a minority. A seriously misunderstood minority. This means I often have to hide things like the extent of my sensory overload or my need for clarification.
My logical and literal mindedness puzzles people. My drive for clarity and need for honesty perplexes them.
And often it is NOT a problem. I have integrity, I cannot tolerate inequality. I stand up for what is right regardless of the personal consequences.
So, when is it a problem?
It becomes a problem when I remain dysregulated because I cannot do what I need to do to be in a state where I can learn and thrive. None of us can. But for me, the sensory aspects of the environment – and inside my body (noise, smells, lighting, my emotions) tend to effect me more because my sensory processing works differently.
Being dysregulated always makes thinking, communicating, and looking after myself and others needs, more difficult. That’s the same for all of us.
Humans are social animals. I don’t particularly enjoy socialising and I certainly find humans difficult to understand, but I recognise my social responsibilities. I may not want to hang out with other people for fun – but I choose to have unconditional positive regard for them….. and in fact, some of them are actually quite nice!
When I was younger I would be blunt, straight to the point and say exactly what I thought. I knew I was right. I certainly didn’t aim to be rude. In fact, I thought I was doing people a favour by leaving the bullshit out and getting straight to the point! I saw no need for small talk. I empathised by finding common ground that demonstrated my understanding of the other person’s situation and shared this with them. I used my incredible capacity for problem solving to offer advice, find solutions and share them with others. I wanted to be helpful. My heart was very definitely in the right place.
How was this perceived?
I sometimes came across as rude, self-centred and insensitive.
I am not.
Reflecting on this, it is important to consider that other people don’t necessarily operate in the same way as me. Those sensory and cognitive experiences I listed earlier may be different.
When I appreciate this, I realise how invalidating my responses to others may be. Lets take empathy as an example – a subject I have written about in my personal blogs and for Neuroclastic.
My natural, authentically autistic response to someone telling me something distressing about their own experience is to trawl through my memory for something comparable.
I don’t feel a lot when people share their experiences with me. Other autistic people may be somewhere else in this broad range of sensory experiences and physically feel other peoples pain to such an extent it hurts them too. If I responded with a “yeah well, whatever” to someone’s loss, and my autistic friend with the intense emotional sensations responded with a “omg, that is so awful – look I’m crying too” – neither of us would be much use to the person who was choosing to share their experience with us.
So I developed a technique that uses my very natural abilities of logic and reasoning. I would find something comparable from my own life and tell them about it so they realise that I truly understand.
Except they don’t!
Of course, these genuinely autistic responses can be seen as invalidating for others. And it’s not just issues around empathy where this happens.
If I was to tell someone that they looked dreadful in their new dress when they asked me for my honest opinion, they’d likely be hurt.
I hate lying and I find the games people play where I am meant to know the hidden meanings behind questions, frustrating and disappointing. I am lucky to live in a family where we can be open and honest and not dress things up in untruths.
How can I stay true to myself without hurting others?
As I have matured, I have found ways of remaining authentically me, whilst recognising that other people may be running on a different operating system to the one I’m running on. Expecting other people to appreciate my straight talking just because I’d like them to do that for me, is a non-starter.
I could simply say “I am autistic, I have every right to be autistic and this is how I do things” and expect them to accept this. But they won’t! People don’t. Maybe one day when people understand autism better they will accept our way of being a bit more. In the meantime, I do have people that I can be more blunt with, or skip the small talk. It’s great and is a very small step on a long journey to equality.
Or I could mask my differences and pretend that I am like them too. That I enjoy small talk, that I like to beat around the bush rather than get to the point. That I am happy to lie! But that sucks, and messes with my mental health. I sometimes need to mask my distress and dysregulation in order to feel safer and to blend in – and we all need to behave differently in different situations in order to act appropriately. But long term masking erodes your wellbeing and identity.
How do I find a balance?
The most important consideration goes back to my thoughts on how I treat others – and myself. Unconditional positive regard. Not being an asshole to others or to myself! Recognising our differences and accepting them. Using my desire to find common ground, but not in a way that invalidates other people’s experiences or takes from them and puts the focus on me instead. Not needing to change people, instead accepting them as they are.
I recognise that I am in a neurological minority. The majority of people tend to assume I am like them, because my differences are not usually visible upon first impressions. They should accept me for being me and for being autistic, but they usually don’t.
I want them to treat me in the way that I treat them.
When I am talking with someone that has a different way of being in the world to me, I try and understand how it is for them. Many autistic people do this – it is what makes us so great at masking and camouflaging our autism.
I still use my particular way of empathising to consider that the other person may get an unbearable sensation if I tell them honestly that their dress looks awful on them. Just like I sometimes get an unbearable sensation when I have to make small talk. I consider that they may find our surroundings drab and insignificant and easy to filter out – whereas I am annoyed by the background noise and distracted by their perfume. I hold on to the fact that we are operating on different systems. But I don’t necessarily say all this out loud.
I cannot get them to understand my way of being by forcing it upon them, just like they cannot get me to become less autistic by forcing me to enjoy soap operas and small talk! Nor can I bully them into changing their attitude by blaming or shaming them for simply being born different to me. Nor should they try and bully or “normalise” me or my autistic peers by making us keep still instead of stimming; or keep quiet instead of asking for the clarity we need.
We need to do this together…
I would love non-autistic people to put the same amount of effort into understanding autistic people that autistic people often put into understanding them.
If I am going to accept that I need to be diplomatic when telling you about your dress, so that we maintain our positive relationship and you don’t feel hurt; then I’d like you to reduce the amount of effort you unknowingly make me use when trying to understand your true intentions and desires when we are chatting.
We both need to recognise each others intentions – and we may need to get to know each other and see beyond the stereotypes in order to do that.
Autistic people often communicate really well with other autistic people – we clearly don’t have deficits.
When you know me, you will value my honesty. Don’t write people off because they say or do things that seem odd to your way of thinking. If I accidentally upset you, remember that my intentions may not have been the same as your intentions in the same circumstances – and I’ll try and do that for you too.
I will not compromise my values, but I’m happy to adapt my communication style to accommodate you – in fact I do this most of the time already! Please do the same for autistic people.