It seems that in life you’ll either stand out or slip into the shadows, unnoticed. Except, the chances are you probably won’t. It’s not that simple and most of the time it means you’ll be one, while actual wanting to be the other. Being autistic means I naturally stand out so I spent years slipping into the shadows.
Many autistic people spend their lives doing something known as “passing as neurotypical”. Whether it’s a conscious effort or not, it’s far from inherent and can use up energy at a ridiculously rapid rate. Simply, it’s repressing our autistic-ness. It’s not reacting to sensory stimuli in the way that feels natural. It’s not physically behaving in a way that feels natural. It’s not being yourself. It’s putting on a neurotypical facade and pretending you actually understand the world.
I spent 15 years of my life doing this and can remember it all so vividly. It was only last year when I stopped, but I can remember repressing things from years early. It was like living a body that didn’t belong to me, I wouldn’t allow myself to be me. I can remember the times I smiled and nodded because I couldn’t process speech quick enough and it was too awkward to ask the person to repeat themselves. I can remember the times on school trips where people would comment “Why do you never eat?” because the food wasn’t meals made by my mum, consisting of the small range of food I liked. I can remember the times the facade slipped a little, and people would ask “Why are you so weird?”. Those are just some of the things I experienced during the 15 years I barely allowed myself to recognise every non-physical trait I possessed, because I was scared.
These comments and situations may seem unoffensive and harmless but it’s important to remember that they were about the very core of who I am. They are what fuelled my belief that hiding myself was okay, and even the best option for me. Unfortunately, it was probably the worst. It meant that I struggled with autistic burnout for such a long time, most of last year. It might not seem like a long time, but each days drags when you struggle to get out of bed and forget basic self care. The Autism Women’s Network recently released an image with the signs and causes of such a burnout. I’d recommend reading it to understand what autistic burnout is, and if you do, you’ll see “Passing as neurotypical/ surpressing autistic traits” under the causes section.
It’s interests me how far I was willing to go to fit in, to pretend I was like anyone else, but how much I didn’t care about other aspects person I created. I was never interested in fashionable clothes or popular music that other people listened to and I’m fairly certain it was because adopting an “I don’t care” attitude on these somewhat surface-level things was easier. I couldn’t bring myself to dedicate time to wearing the clothes everyone else liked, or the horror movies everyone seemed to watch when we were thirteen; pretending to be someone you’re not is kind of preoccupying.
And it’s not that I ever wanted to lie to people, it was more of a coping mechanism in a sometimes cruel world, that won’t always accept people for who they are. I think it’s somewhat natural to adjust yourself fit in when you’re different. It’s easy to omit the mental health issue you have when telling people about yourself, to cover up what society might consider physical imperfections, to say you like something you don’t. Fitting in is such a hidden choice, but people do it every day. Last year, however, I made a choice. A choice to be me, and express that in my day to day life.
I’m autistic and I honestly don’t care what people think anymore. I flap my hands in public when I’m happy. I’m honest that I don’t understand emotions. I talk about my special interest in depth, if I want to. Allowing myself to be unashamedly and proudly autistic means I stand out but it doesn’t matter. Anyone who glares at me or comments things in a snobby, ‘I’m-better-than-you’ tone is someone I don’t want around. It might mean at times in life I’m somewhat isolated but I’d rather be lonely for being me than popular for lying. And I’m lucky enough to always have my family, who love me for who I am and I love them for who they are.