‘You don’t look Autistic’ four words I have heard a lot recently and four words that I am tired of hearing. This is my experience as someone with high-functioning Autism. Essentially when people say this to me what they are trying to say is something along the lines of ‘you look normal’. I’m not. The way my brain works is fundamentally not normal, however because I went most of my life being undiagnosed and also I am able to understand the expected social norms of the society we live in, masking my autism became the norm.
It’s such a strange paradox to be able to have a full and conscious understanding of the societal norms you are expected to fit into as a human and also knowing you don’t fit those norms. For example, if you were to sit next to me on a train and started chatting I would politely smile at you and make small talk while in my mind I would be so overwhelmed and feel like screaming.
I really struggle to cope with loud noises and lots of people, whenever I was invited to parties as a teenager I would always avoid it. At first people think you’re shy, then the more you avoid social situations they start to think you’re anti-social. Then when you avoid them even more, they just think you’re weird. Some people thinking they are being kind and understanding would say things like ‘I don’t enjoy going to parties either’. What no-one understood was that I couldn’t go to parties or social events because I couldn’t cope with the sensory overload and would likely end up having a meltdown. Being autistic is walking around being so acutely aware of EVERYTHING around you, sounds, smells, lights that the slightest change to your environment can create a sensory overload that leaves you unable to cope.
Another common response I received was ‘but you’re clever’. Again, can we please get over this misconception that autistic people are stupid. It’s just offensive. I really don’t think this needs any more explanation.
I’ve had to learn to mask my ‘bluntness’ I guess you would call it. If you want an honest opinion, you will get one, people can find this off-putting. I have had to teach myself how to word things so that others won’t consider me as mean, the reality is that I am not intentionally mean or inconsiderate, I just say things as I see them, literally. So I have to put on an act and force myself to constantly think before I speak and try to figure out if what I am about to say will offend someone. It is exhausting, plus by the time my brain has figured that out, the conversation has moved on anyway.
While I have been quite successful in terms of understanding and accepting my Autism diagnosis, I am quickly learning that society isn’t that understanding or accepting. In a world where we are constantly told to be ourselves, it seems that people like me don’t have that luxury as it seems our blank faces and emotionless responses inevitably offends other people. So, society wants me to be myself but within the parameters it has set out as being socially acceptable?
If I tell someone that I am autistic, it usually means that I am struggling to cope with the situation/environment I am in, not because I am looking for some warped idea of a compliment. I really wish one day I will be able to reveal my autism to people and I won’t be met with skeptical looks or condescending responses like ‘you don’t look Autistic’. I mean, what does autism look like?
I hope that society becomes more open and inclusive to people like me, in the right environment I know I can thrive and develop my social skills and overcome some of my anxieties. I just currently feel like there is a lot of token gestures of acceptance but not much understanding.
I just wanted to write this to get it out of my head, if it connects with any of you reading it then that is great.