I’m in the process of uncovering the emotional underpinnings of the mechanisms I’ve internalized to disguise my autistic self. Specifically, I’m examining those I use to keep from inadvertently upsetting, insulting, or otherwise hurting the people around me.
Although my social troubles began early, it wasn’t until I was around 9 years old that I became aware that my default mode of speaking and acting was somewhere between off-putting and repulsive. I applied myself to trying to figure it out, even once tentatively asking Momma Ape if everyone could read minds except me (she said no), but to no avail. I tried to act like people on TV and in movies, but the results were no better.
I hopped from grade school to grade school under the dubious honor of being “gifted,” but each new peer experience was a repeat of the previous one. I could make friends, but not keep them. I had a new “best” friend every few months. I’d find myself next to a girl standing in line or sitting on a school bus, we’d strike up a conversation, she would like my sense of humor, and we’d start hanging out.
And then, a few weeks later, we’d stop. She would start avoiding me wherever possible. And I would have absolutely no idea why.
This cycle repeated itself through the rest of grade school, and by junior high, the bullying and ostracism had begun in earnest. My situation was worsened by a complete lack of hand-eye coordination (frequent in high-functioning autistics) rendering me useless at anything that involved a ball; according to my peers, I had absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever. I remember I disliked these realities, but couldn’t seem to do anything about them and mostly accepted that this was just how things were. And I told no-one about my situation, counselors, parents, or otherwise, for fear someone would attempt to intervene and make things worse.
In high school, I found a small collection of girls to hang out with. They smoked, drank, and went to parties. I did none of these things, but they seemed to tolerate me. I say “seemed” because I found out, midway through my junior year, that they vilified me behind my back and complained endlessly about how awful it was to be friends with me.
In college, looking forward to a fresh start, I bounced around a few different fringe groups. I usually fit in at first, but sooner or later, I’d find myself abandoned again. Occasionally, some kind soul from the group would pull me aside and say one of the following things: either I had hurt someone so deeply that he or she couldn’t comprehend that I was unaware of it, or I had turned off an entire group of people such that no-one wanted to hang out with me any more.
And each time, I would be completely taken aback. Until it was brought to my attention, I’d had no idea that what I’d said or done was hurtful. Once I was made aware, the pain and self-loathing were indescribable, because I couldn’t figure out why I hadn’t anticipated such a consequence, and was horrified by all the other times I must have hurt someone similarly that had gone unreported.
By my early twenties, I had decided that I couldn’t keep going the way I had been. I resolved to start acting like a different person in public (since I couldn’t be myself) and do my best to mimic what I had begun to realize was “acceptable” speech and behavior.
I threw myself into the work, but it was a long time before it felt (or looked, probably) natural. I mastered the basics in the first few years, and as time wore on, grew more and more adept, developing a phalanx of complex and multi-layered strategies to apply depending on the situation. Now, my mental library of appropriateness is substantial and can be executed in near real-time. Such mechanisms require a significant cognitive and energetic investment, and I can’t improvise well and still guess wrong occasionally, but the lengths of time between the social crises described above grew from months to years. I finally started being able to have relationships with my peers.
I have only recently come to appreciate the sheer volume and relentlessness of negative feedback I endured as a young person when being my true self. I was not aware that I was internalizing it at the time, but I do know that by my thirties, I had convinced myself that I was a bad person, possibly a sociopath, for not being able to see the social and emotional milieu the rest of the world operated in. My instincts, such as they were, were invariably wrong. Experience had shown that I had to rely on my intellect to cultivate and maintain relationships with other people.
There was no talk of autism at this point; I did not even know that high-functioning autism existed for another few years. When I did learn about it, and start to suspect I might be on the spectrum, however, it seemed irrelevant. Autistic or not, what was inside me was significantly different from what was inside everyone else, and if I wanted to have any social life at all, I had to behave in direct opposition to it.
My thought process was, and still is, that deep down, there is something missing inside me, and that I insult, upset, and hurt people without knowing it, and thus have to maintain constant vigilance over every aspect of my speech and behavior to ensure that doesn’t happen, even in things like text messages.
I have to think of myself as inherently wrong to make sure I say and do right things. This extends to everything from small talk and facial expressions to physical mannerisms, all of which have been smoothed, modulated, made more ambiguous, or done away with (in public, at least) altogether. Every single component of my personality, large and small and from the ground up, is based off an internal certainty that my natural self is at best unappealing and at worst antisocial.
And from my perspective, this manner of thinking, as emotionally costly as it might be, has enabled the life I now enjoy. I have many friends and a significant other. My classmates are fond of me. People in public no longer stare at me like I come from another planet as soon as I start to speak. I have cultivated relationships with everyone from professors to pharmacy staff to groundskeepers, all of whom seem (I can never be sure) to find me friendly and engaging. I am able to completely hide my autism, or in my mind, my wrongness, from those around me. Although it’s taken upwards of twenty years, I have all but perfected it.
But it will never be truly perfect. At the last animal hospital I worked, a fellow nurse I had been close to for over a year suddenly started avoiding me. I tried to pull her aside to talk about it, but she was deeply angry and refused to speak to me; I could not convince her to tell me what was going on. I left the hospital to pursue a different career path a couple of months later. I never found out what I had done to upset her. This happened in 2016; I was 43 years old.
This is my reality. Left unguarded, I hurt people. The elaborate schematic of a normal person I construct and manage when I step out my front door is built around making sure I don’t hurt people, along with the knowledge that it is only an approximation of a good person and remains fallible. And for that reason, I don’t dare turn it off around anyone save those I’m closest to.
And when I say I don’t dare, that is exactly what I mean. The consequences of failure are enormously painful, and even though failures are now few and far between, the mere threat of them more than justifies the status quo. I tell myself this is the person I would have been if I weren’t autistic, and while it is probably unfair that I have to invest so much to portray it, this is how things are and I don’t have the energy to waste wishing it were otherwise.
I am terrified that if I try to alter these well-worn thought processes in any way, things will go back to the way they were before I learned them. That I will be disliked, misunderstood, and ostracized. And I will do anything–everything–in my power to keep that from happening, no matter the cost.
I’ve realized I’m still not convinced there’s a good person inside of me. There’s a person who wants to be good, and who does a pretty good job of acting that way, but I know that at the deepest level, it’s not who I really am. And I walk around knowing that who I really am will never be acceptable to most people, with a deep sadness inside of me because of it.
This sadness is compounded when I try to explain it to someone and they respond that I should stop “wasting” so much energy on it, demonstrating a patent unawareness not only of the depth and scope of what I am doing, but what I would look and sound like if I weren’t doing it. I’m scared, with good reason, of what would happen if I showed my true self to any but the three people I am close enough to for them to not mind my abrasiveness, my lack of emotionality, and my seeming disinterest in their day-to-day affairs.
For many friends, I lie and tell them I don’t have to hide who am around them to make them feel better–even though I do. Because they think they want me to be myself, but their lack of knowledge about autism leaves them ill-prepared for how radically different my autistic self is from the person they know.
My insides, good or bad, are not like everyone else’s. I’ve built an incredibly complex structure of mechanisms to hide it. I feel I’m not who I was supposed to be, and that it is my responsibility to make up for the lack. It is a lot of mental work and I often wish it wasn’t and wonder how much more I could have accomplished if I didn’t have to do it.
But I don’t know any other way to do it, I don’t dare not do it and I don’t see a way out. And that’s just how things are.