Time and time again I read and hear how autistic people camouflage their autism so that they are more able to fit in. This makes a huge – and rather arrogant assumption – that we want to fit in – that we don’t want to be autistic.
I can only speak for myself but would like it on record that this is certainly not the case for me! The photo above is of a Speckled Wood butterfly, camouflaged against the woodland floor. This butterfly does not wish to “become” the woodland floor, nor does it want to stop being its authentic butterfly self. It has one reason for camouflaging and one reason only – to avoid predation.
Autistic people mask or camouflage their autism for many reasons; and frequently report the devastating impact of this on their mental health and wellbeing. Autistic masking is more than the reputation management and social niceties most people use every day. It is not simply about fitting in – often it is about avoiding bullying, discrimination, reduced opportunities or downright harm – predation even!
The framing of autistic camouflaging as a means to fit in, invalidates the lived experience of many autistic people. It fails to take responsibility for the discrimination and abuse directed towards autistic people. Until society accepts responsibility for the way autistic people are treated and changes this to become more positive, autistic people will need to protect themselves by masking their autism.
We may wish to take part – but this is not the same as “fitting in”. We may even be invited to join in – but frequently this is tokenistic. Inviting me to a place that I cannot enter because of my needs, but refusing to change it so I can enter or take part, is not inclusion.
I’d like to reframe the idea and commonly accepted use of language about autistic people camouflaging in order to “fit in” – and suggest we use the words to “take part” instead. It is a subtle change of language but the former suggests that those “others” want to become the same as the majority. Whereas “taking part” allows people to retain their identity whilst still belonging to the whole group.
Disabled people should not have to pretend we are not disabled. I would never expect my colleague who uses a wheelchair to put his chair to one side all day at work, because after all he can walk a few steps when he needs to. I would never tell him that I saw him walking a short distance the other day and he looked like he was doing it really well so why can’t he go without his wheelchair all the time? I certainly wouldn’t suggest that we all have to put up with things we don’t like and if we let him use a wheelchair, everyone will want one!
I will no longer be referring to autistic camouflaging or masking as a strategy used to better “fit in”. I shall tell it like it is. There are no excuses. Until society accommodates autistic people and stops the discrimination, mistreatment and abuse so that I can “be” autistic without needing to hide, I shall remind people that they play an important part in my need for masking; and they need to stop!
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.
All humans have needs, starting with the absolute essentials we need to stay alive such as food, water and the air we breathe; along with all sorts of other needs depending on our individual personalities, physiology, social and emotional requirements.
Whereas the essentials are things all humans require, we may each need different things in order to be able to thrive and reach our potential. Do we ever reach our potential as humans? Who knows? But what I do know is that on the journey towards self-actualization we must consider our uniqueness as individuals.
And for me that includes my autism.
What makes this different for me as an autistic person?
Like many autistic people growing up, I was painfully aware that I was fundamentally different to my peers. I did my best to fit in with them in order to minimise the teasing; the exasperation I created in others; and the bullying. This involved a common strategy used by many people, including autistic people called ‘camouflaging’ or ‘masking’.
As a girl and young woman, autistic masking involved me acting in a way that meant I appeared more similar to my peers than I was – this included pretending I was interested in things that girls should be interested in like bands, boys and make-up. It involved me not asking too many questions that would expose my naivety and my particular thinking style – going along with conversations that involved euphemisms and slang in the hope that all would become apparent. It rarely did!
And hiding any mannerisms, movements or ideas that exposed my autistic differences.
Interacting like this meant I frequently missed out on getting my questions answered – or even asked, most of the time! It meant that I never quite understood how friendships and relationships truly worked, I just sort of understood what it was people did within them – and I tried to copy as best I could. I avoided many social situations because they did not appeal to me, and I was not particularly popular because I did not appeal to my peers either.
All in all, I missed out on lots of knowledge and information that my peers were able to gain through intuition and knowing how to ask the “right” questions, rather than the random, unfiltered questions that went off on a tangent like mine frequently did. My social development wasn’t behind that of my peers because I lacked capacity for understanding, it was behind because I lacked opportunities for gaining understanding. I was too busy masking.
For example, I was bright enough to know that asking my classmates what the technical difference was between the two intimate-relationship based expressions: ‘getting off with’ and ‘having it off with’ would end in them ridiculing me. So, I did not seek clarity. I tried to logically make sense of the language to find the answer out for myself, but failed. That boy stuff all seemed quite odd anyway, as did most of human behaviour, and my naivety and vulnerability exposed me to many risks and left me ill equipped to cope with relationships, and understanding and advocating my needs, rights and desires.
Another negative impact of masking my autism meant I was unable to regulate my senses. I did not recognise or appreciate the impact that noisy, brightly lit, and smelly environments had on me, so I didn’t avoid them or limit them. I forced myself to carry on whilst on the verge of total overwhelm – or I shut myself off so that I could function without feeling anything at all.
Opportunities for gaining knowledge, and for developing decent coping strategies, self-advocating and asserting myself were denied due to my survival strategy of masking my undiagnosed autism.
I’ve done OK, I’m beginning to thrive and I’m recognising my potential and the value of my uniqueness. I’ve got to this point through gaining acceptance of how I am, and by playing to my autistic strengths.
What has this journey looked like for me?
My journey is ongoing, I certainly haven’t arrived at a destination where I have found my purpose – but on the good days I am beginning to thrive instead of just about making it through yet another day of struggles. Life has become less of a struggle – but there was no “Eureka!” moment of throwing away that mask, embracing my autism and finding the world had suddenly become welcoming of my neurodivergence. The world remains biased towards people who on the whole are not like me, society still needs to change and become more inclusive. I am grateful because I have more insight and opportunities than I have ever had that I can use to make my life better.
Unmasking and being authentic
I have always wanted to be accepted for being me, I have longed for people who will appreciate my questions; my unique perspectives; and my differences. But that doesn’t mean I can act impulsively or disregard other people’s feelings – even when those feelings are very different to my own and seem illogical to me.
Humans are social animals. I find social occasions challenging due to my sensory and cognitive processing, but I recognise that I have social responsibility towards my fellow humans. Like many autistic people I am passionate about equality and fairness and I become distressed at the injustices I see in the world and continually seek ways of balancing inequality and making the world a better place.
So taking off my mask and behaving authentically autistic by stopping people mid-flow to ask for clarification; or correcting someone who has made a mistake; or publicly laying on the floor rocking and crying because the noise, lights and smell of the room have become too unbearable; or distracting everyone else by moving about; or telling someone exactly what I think of them – these are all things that are genuinely “me”. They are my default settings in some ways – but should I take that mask off and show them? Or should I keep it all in and hide how the world is making me feel, keep the mask on and let my identity and self-esteem slowly erode away?
For me, the answer is “neither”.
We are social animals; our actions usually impact upon others. Our actions create responses in others and shape their attitude towards us and how we are subsequently treated – whether this is right or wrong means nothing. There are consequences for everything we do.
There will be times that I am blunt, I will say what I think, I will correct people or stop to them mid-flow in conversation. I will need to move about in order to regulate myself. I will experience sensory overwhelm in such a way that I am debilitated by it sometimes. As I said before, these are my default settings – I did not choose to have senses that work in this unfiltered way. I do not choose to take things literally. I am driven by seeking balance and find injustice so very “wrong” I cannot turn a blind eye to it. In fact, many of these so-called aitistic deficits that I was born with, are also my autistic strengths.
Can I unmask then without experiencing negative consequences?
I believe that everyone masks some of the time. It is what makes us human – and social. No one can be unfiltered, or impulsive, all the time and function well socially.
So, I choose not to mask my autism – I own it! And that means being proactive and taking responsibility for myself as well as others. Here are some examples of ways I am authentically autistic:
If I know something is going to be difficult, I prepare. I don’t mask my autism to myself either! Going to town is tough so I plan short trips, I take headphones and my bottle of water. I keep scented nasal inhalers in my bag. I don’t keep pushing myself but take time out to regulate my senses and take stock of the situation. I am proactive so that the chance of me becoming overwhelmed is reduced.
I make arrangements prior to needing adjustments wherever possible. I let someone know that if they are holding a meeting, I will need the agenda up front. I ensure people know that I prefer a text first if they wish to speak to me on the phone. Or if someone just calls, I don’t answer but ring back later when I feel comfortable rather than answering and becoming stressed. If I am entering a conversation where I am likely to need to ask questions, I’ll ask upfront how to do this best. “I’m much better at taking things in when they are written down, do you mind if I make notes please?” or “I tend to lose track if I need clarity, is it ok to interrupt to ask questions if I need to please?”.
I am assertive. If I am asked to do something that will be difficult for me I will state my needs up front without needing to justify them endlessly, make excuses, or apologise for how I am: “Emma, would you like to come to a party on Friday?” “No thanks, I really don’t enjoy parties myself, but I hope you all have a lovely time, thanks for asking me”
If I need to regulate myself, I will politely leave and go and do whatever I need to do, rather than trying to get through the situation silently whilst hiding my needs or disrupting everyone else. I will keep things to hand that help me – I may have things to fiddle with, to stroke, to crunch on, to drink. I’ll choose the chair that suits my needs best and I’ll sit near an exit and I’ll ask if there is noise or lighting that can be adjusted if need be.
I am quite a private person, so I tend to state my needs with little explanation and add to that if necessary. I do not need to justify why I need things to be like they are. Sharing my diagnosis is occasionally helpful but frequently people don’t have a great deal of knowledge about autism and may even misunderstand it. If I am not in the mood to be their teacher, I don’t have to be! It is ok to say “I am not able to wait in this queue because of my disability, please can I go straight in?” I have frequently found that if I am assertive, people will respond more positively than if I bombard them with information about why I need something.
What really, really helps?
Like many autistic people, I have a life full of effort. Effort to fit in, or effort to hide how I really am. Effort to not offend people. Effort to understand how everything works.
Even my unmasking is full of effort. My unmasking means I own my autism and I am proud of who I am and what I have achieved. But, my autistic default settings, as I like to refer to them remain unchanged. I do not choose to be blunt in order to offend people – I am puzzled that some other people do not value honesty as much as I do. I do not ask questions to annoy people, but to understand them better. My need for peace and quiet is not done on purpose to be awkward. My logical way of thinking that is so useful in some situations may seem out of place when it comes to interpreting hidden meanings or reading between the lines – but I accept that many people prefer operating in this complicated, tricksy – dishonest I might even say – way.
I can’t really hide these fundamental facets of my personality. I don’t feel a need to apologise for them either. My autistic deficits (if you view autism in a medical way) are also my autistic strengths: my integrity, my eye for detail, my innovative ways of thinking, my passion and depth of knowledge.
All humans have strengths. All humans are imperfect. That is something that unites us – autistic or not.
So, when I do act authentically me – yet offend you, please remember this: I am probably doing my best. I am probably not being deliberately annoying or trying to point out your errors. I may have defaulted to the wrongful assumption that you see the world as I do. Please try and see the world as I do for a moment too.
I will take responsibility for myself and accept my social responsibilities. This means that I recognise that not everyone else experiences the world like I do, and my actions may be interpreted differently to how they were intended. It helps me when non-autistic people reciprocate and take my perspective and discover how I am perceiving the world. When this happens, they may realise that my lack of eye contact is about conserving my strength for concentrating on their spoken word, rather than becoming overwhelmed by the deluge of sensory information that comes from eye contact. Then it becomes less important to them as they understand that I am not being rude. Then our interaction becomes more positive.
I believe that autistic people compromise, and even deny their needs endlessly. Masking our autism means our needs don’t get heard or met. We constantly try to fit in with a world that may feel alien. My description of how my unmasking works demonstrates how important my sense of social responsibility is. Just because I don’t like hanging out with people for fun, doesn’t mean I don’t care about them. Perhaps if more people were willing to meet me halfway when it comes to communicating authentically, we would have more fun!
Our body image is not just affected by the messages we receive from other people, but by our health, life experiences, upbringing, and personal values – and many more things besides.
Body Image has been a topic of concern for many years. We are bombarded with unrealistic images of unobtainable bodies whenever we switch on the television, view advertisements, or access social media.
The image that we form consists of several factors:
How we perceive our body. How thin, tall, fit, or attractive we are. This may be accurate or inaccurate.
How we feel about our body. Do we like how it is and how it works?
What we think about it. Perhaps we think we should be fitter or healthier, or maybe we’re just right?
The way we treat our bodies. How we care for ourselves, whether we exercise, harm ourselves intentionally or unintentionally, our relationship with eating.
Autistic people may experience all the same type of things in life that affect their typically developing peers, and they will be subject to the same media portrayals of ‘perfection’’. In fact, autistic people may be more likely to experience adverse life experiences such as relationships breaking down; employment and school issues; and poorer health outcomes – simply because their particular neurology puts them at a disadvantage. The way each of us perceives, thinks about, feels towards, and treats our body is complex and made up of a multitude of different factors.
I believe there are some additional factors to consider for autistic people. We may be more likely to experience ‘face blindness’ and have difficulties recognising individuals. We often have strengths in focusing intently on specific topics of interest, we may experience perseveration and a reliance on routines and rituals that help us organise our worlds. This could be responsible for some autistic individuals becoming excessively focused on diet, calorie counts, or exercise regimes. It may make breaking habits that are harmful towards our bodies more difficult too. An autistic person’s sensory processing may impact on their body image as well.
From a sensory perspective, I’ll explore my own experiences and reflect on how they have affected my life.
This has a significant effect on my relationship with my body. My muted sense of where the various parts of my body are in relation to each other means I am frequently misjudging doorways and bruising my arms in the process; I trip over my own feet; and I lift and throw with totally the wrong amount of force required. I find negotiating stairs and escalators very tricky, and if I can’t see my feet, I may as well not bother.
These type of proprioceptive experiences are well documented in accounts from autistic people. They undoubtedly impact on my self-esteem. I am not graceful, or elegant; ever. I don’t dance in public, I’m rubbish at sport, and even walking across a room requires the same kind of internal self talk one would say out loud to a blinfolded person navigating the same route! What I think and feel about my body is never particularly positive. My perception of where my body starts and ends is muted too. I recently cleared out my wardrobe and found a coat that I had bought. It was way too big. In fact, it had always been too big and my husband recounted how I have always bought clothes of the wrong size.
The image I have in my head of my size is not accurate. Not just in the fairly typical way many of us look back at old photos of when we were younger and slimmer, and wish we were as “fat” as we thought we were back then. But in a very genuine way where I have no idea whether I will fit through gaps between cars in car parks, or be able to choose which clothes size to try on in a shop. It is not just a self-esteem issue where I exagerate my weight, but a fundamental difference in how my senses work. I have no idea what size I am – and all those other factors like peer pressure, the media, my health and relationships play into an already wobbly body image.
Knowing how I feel inside, and which emotions I am experiencing, or what my body is telling me I need to do – eat, rest, go to the toilet, and so on – these sensations are frequently muted too. I don’t know if I like you, I’m not sure if I even like me half the time either!
Until recently, when I looked in the mirror, or at a photograph, I had no strong sense that the image was of myself. I remember as a child thinking deeply about what makes people separate from each other. I must have been around seven years old (because I remember the exact spot in the exact street where this ‘revelation’ hit me) and it struck me that I was everyone else and everyone else was me. I cannot put it into words accurately, but it was an incredibly powerful experience. When I reflect on it, I still can’t quite capture what it was that I had discovered, but I know it is something to do with interoception and identity. I had incredibly clear ideas about who I was – I always did, but they were logical, thought-based, and completely detached from any feeling of who I was. I could have been anyone – where did Emma start and end?
This year I taught myself how to recognise myself. I had already begun a process of reflecting on photographs and noticing in a very mindful way that they were of me. I also built up to the point where I could see myself on camera for the inevitable conference calls the Covid-19 pandemic has forced us to partake in. It was a painstakingly slow process, but I can now watch myself in a short film. Prior to this, I was filled with dread, horror and nausea whenever I saw myself. I could not connect in any way with the image in front of me and I found it terryfying that a stranger was saying my thoughts out loud, or was wearing my clothes.
I have embarked on a process of learning about my interoception. I need to take it slowly. Recognising my emotions and bodily functions as my own, feels as terrifying as when I recognised my outer body as my own too. On both occasions I experienced a massive sense of overwhelm in the days and weeks after my sensory renaissance. A mixture of novel delight, fear, and wonder. Mixed with an almost painful sense of self-awareness. It felt important to gently nurture this and not push myself too hard.
My other senses play an important part in creating my body image too. All of us experience the world through our senses. When acting ‘normal for me’, my brain processes this sensory information in muted or intense ways, compared to typically developing people. When I have additional sensory, social, or cognitive demands to process, my sensory processing can become even more extreme. This means that my world feels inconsistent, unpredictable, and disordered.
The way my brain processes the visual information about how I look varies from day to day. Some days I can smell myself strongly – particularly if I have been unwell or terribly upset. I give off a distinctive chemical body odour. I can frequently hear my heartbeat and the blood rushing through my body. My sense of touch is hypersensitive, and I flinch at a light touch. This makes me upset because it appears like I am rejecting the very people I wish to seek comfort from. All of these factors influence how I perceive my body and how others perceive me. This impacts on how I am treated and how I respond to others too.
No reflection on body image would be complete without discussing food and eating. My gustatory processing works in such a way that I have very particular needs when it comes to flavours, textures, and combinations of foods. I have written about autism and food elsewhere, but in brief, I tend to prefer certain colours of food. I lack the imagination to think up original meals and tend to opt for familiar foods. My sense of taste fluctuates, and I can find particular flavours are so extremely unpleasant my body reacts as if I have been given poison!
My need for routine and familiarity (in order to calm my chaotic world) can result in restricted diets. My anxiety and sensory processing can encourage me to avoid mealtimes. As a teenager, my poor executive skills led to me being disorganised and eating quite a limited diet. This resulted in weight loss and poor health. My energy levels frequently soared then crashed in response to my unhealthy eating patterns. This probably had an effect on my emotions and self-esteem too.
Each of us will experience a complicated mix of factors all interplaying to help influence our body image. Our internal and external body awareness will give us a ‘sense’ of our bodies, and our thoughts, beliefs, and feelings about this will play a part too.
As autistic people we may experience additional influences on our bodies – in the form of our atypical sensory processing, and our need for routine, ritual, and repetition. We may intuitively know how to regulate our senses and emotions too. This may be in uniquely autistic ways. Many autistic people find repetitive movements, sounds, visual images, and other sensory input is fantastic for helping with focus, relaxation, stress relief, and joy. These activities can bring a sense of peace and predictability to our bodies and make them feel ‘safe’ and ‘connected’ to our whole self. This is certainly my experience anyway. Unfortunately, these activities may be seen as inappropriate, or a subject for teasing, scorn, or punishment.
Imagine living in a body that feels clumsily out of your control; that shifts its shape from day to day in front of your eyes; that reacts physiologically to the ebb and flow of a restricted diet and rigid exercise plan; and recoils uncontrollably from flavours or touch.
Go back to my opening questions. Is that body a place that feels safe to you? Is it an ok place to be? When what you ‘know’ doesn’t match what you ‘feel’, because you feel nothing but know everything – are you sure it is even you in there?
Is it surprising that so many autistic people are diagnosed with eating disorders, or self-harm, or are vulnerable to abuse? How do you even consent to another person entering the space of your body when you don’t know where that starts and stops?
I’ve heard this said quite a lot – particularly since my diagnosis. Firstly I’d like to say “Thank You” to the people who have said it. I mean that sincerely. This has been said to me when people have been empathising, or trying to relate to my situation – it has even been said to soften the perceived blow of having a ‘disabled’ child. I am heartened that people want to put themselves in my shoes and I hope they bear with me and read this blog; reflect on other ways they can show their solidarity, and continue in their commitment to understanding autism.
Receiving a diagnosis of autism is a complex process. The diagnostic criteria is based upon clinicians identifying certain traits, experiences and behaviours, and all sorts of biases may come into play. This may be why certain groups of people are under-diagnosed or misdiagnosed.
In my opinion, the assessment criteria for diagnosing autism is based on stereotypes and deficits and could benefit from being updated. People who don’t fit those stereotypes, or are skilled in adapting to their atypical experiences of the world can easily be overlooked. However, there are some skilled clinicians out there that understand “why” autistic people do what they do and they are able to delve deeper and unpick all the various complexities of the person’s experience and identify whether autism is in fact the correct diagnosis.
Whilst every autistic person is unique and completely different to the next autistic person, we all have one thing in common. We have always been autistic. Autism is lifelong. No one becomes autistic as an adult, and there will be evidence of autism right from the very start.
So are we all a little bit autistic?
No – we’re not. But we do share some experiences and behaviours. There is plenty of stuff about autism that is relatable to people who aren’t autistic. That’s why I enjoy using analogies to share my experiences.
If I described my atypical sensory processing, sensory overwhelm, and my need for adjustments in a scientific or medical way, it’s likely that you might see me as very different from you. That’s ok – I probably am. But if you can relate to a scenario such as this one then you may begin to ‘feel’ what it’s like for me as well as understanding why I’m different.
Picture this: You’re driving around in your car looking for a parking space and it’s raining, the radio is blaring out, the heater is on and you’re way too hot in the car. You’re thinking about that appointment you need to attend and what you’re going to say, and you’re not sure if you’re wearing the right clothes, and you can’t see an empty parking space. The windscreen wipers are swishing back and forth on maximum speed, and even though you are leaning forward and screwing your eyes up, you just can’t see where you can park. It’s all beginning to feel a bit much. So you turn the volume down on your car stereo and turn the wiper speed down – suddenly it becomes easier to find that parking space. You’ve done nothing to improve your vision, or the parking space detecting ability of your eyes, but the drop in volume means the overall processing your brain has to do of all that various sensory information is reduced and it becomes easier to focus. That’s similar to the level of overwhelm I often feel and why I need to have peaceful, calming environments to live in.
If you find that scenario relatable it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re autistic – but it demonstrates that all our senses work together and reducing input in one sense when we’re becoming overwhelmed may prove beneficial. It also demonstrates that when we are under pressure, sensory information may feel more acute or distressing. It gives a feel of what my ‘normal’ feels like and when people understand that, it is more likely they’ll be compassionate and accommodating rather than seeing me as ‘different’ or ‘other’. If they bump into me in town and see me starting to “look like a meerkat” as my husband and son (affectionately?!!) refer to it when I have to go into a big shop with all the lights, temperature change, music, smells and escalators, maybe they’ll not think “look at that lady acting weird, standing tall and alert like a meerkat on guard duty” but “I wonder if she is finding this overwhelming like I do sometimes and what can I do to help?”
So yes, we have things in common. But as I’ve elaborated on in an earlier blog – just because my husband has backache and is tired at the moment, it doesn’t mean he is pregnant. Or even a little bit pregnant. It just means he can relate – and that’s a good thing.
I find this diagram helpful for explaining the autism or autistic spectrum. The spectrum is not linear like the top image, it is more like the coloured wheel image below. I perceive non-autistic people as being a bit obsessed with hierarchies and linear things. I’m sure that individually people aren’t, but our society seems to enjoy ranking stuff – whether that’s a school’s league table or a football league or on a talent show – it happens all over the place. I’m a great lover of categorising things myself, but my default setting is not usually based upon the typically perceived norms of what makes one thing better than something else. It all feels a bit judgmental and you miss so much beauty in the world when you rank stuff and only focus on the “best”.
The trouble with having a spectrum with ‘mild’ at one end and ‘severe’ at the other is it’s total rubbish. Simple. You can no more be mildly autistic than you can be mildly gay. You can’t be severely human. Or a little bit on the French spectrum. It just doesn’t work like that. The characteristics and experiences autistic people share come under various categories and each person is affected differently by them. A person who has no verbal language skills with highly developed motor function will experience the world and be treated very differently to a person who is highly articulate with poor coordination. Each has their own challenges and strengths. Both are autistic and it feels difficult to say which of them is more severely affected by their autism. One can climb a mountain – one can make a phone call. How do you rank that? You begin to realise that the severity is nothing to with the person at all – but is to do with the situation or environment they are in. The social model of disability becomes far more relevant than the medical model we are more used to. The person hasn’t changed but suddenly when other people’s attitudes or their environment becomes more accommodating, they become less disabled.
Personally, I’m not too bothered when people try and relate to me by saying they are a bit autistic too. I have other battles to fight and if I tell them not to say it, I’ll reinforce that I’m pedantic. I want to build bridges between people, but I’d rather they didn’t say it though. I find it a bit annoying because it is inaccurate – and believe me, when your ‘normal’ world feels as chaotic as mine does, you need at least a few things to be ‘right’, ‘clear’, ‘accurate’ and ‘consistent’.
Many autistic people, myself included, have had a lifetime of knowing we are different to our typically developing peers. Some of us have believed – and been told – that we are ill, damaged, or wrong for being how we are. For some autistic people their diagnosis has validated their identity. For me, it has given me the freedom to be myself and the confidence to reject the incorrect labels others have given me or I’ve believed about myself. Some autistic people are loudly proud of being autistic. Hearing others saying they are a bit autistic too may feel invalidating or belittling of the very real achievements autistic people make every day in just getting by in a neurotypically biased world.
Many of my blogs end with a reflection on what we have in common. This is important to me because most of all, I am human. I have every right to exist – regardless of my neurology. My diagnosis has not just validated my identity as an autistic person but as a woman and a human being too. There is something very wrong when people wonder whether they are in fact a true human being – just because they are autistic.
I want to relate to other people and understand how their world works for each of them – I have spent my lifetime doing this and sometimes I try to copy, or pretend to understand so that I fit in better (this can be called ‘masking’ in autism, and I’ve blogged about it). I’d like people to have the same enthusiasm and commitment towards understanding the autistic world as I have towards understanding the neurotypical world. We need to recognise our shared humanity. Seeing people as “other” – whether that is in generalisations like ‘autistic people are like this’ or ‘all neurotypicals are like that’ is a dangerous road to go down. The rise of right wing politics across our planet scares me and we should take heed of what we know about how things like prejudice, stereotypes and discrimination work. Dividing people into “us” and “them” rarely leads to inclusion, equality and peace. In our own lives we can explore how to work together and see the shared experiences and use them to relate to each other better, whilst accepting we are all different and we all need different things. And that’s why human beings are so awesome!