If you’re autistic, you know exactly the look I’m talking about. It’s the one you get from a neurotypical person when you step outside the prescribed boundaries for casual interaction. You’ll be going along hiding your autism well enough and then suddenly something you say is a miss and you lose them. There are more ways for this to happen than I’m sure I know, but common missteps include introducing what you think is a related topic but isn’t, or failing realize that someone is making a joke, or thinking someone is kidding when they aren’t.
It only takes one small error and there is that look. It is a mixture of what appears to be (of course, I never know for sure) a mix of befuddlement and distaste, and maybe even tinged with a little fear. The game is over; they see my mask for what it is. They have realized that what they thought was a nice normal dog is in fact a barely socialized hyena liable to bite them at any moment. They are often at a loss for words. The way they look at me is painful. For both of us.
It’s painful for them because I have cut them adrift from socially inscribed rules of shared context and understanding. The loss of common ground renders them as uncertain in that moment as we autistics are all the time. It’s painful for me because I am usually exerting myself as much as possible to keep it from happening, and when it happens anyway, I feel like a failure.
For the record, most people, autistics included, do not like to make others uncomfortable. Those of us on the spectrum already feel so isolated, so imprisoned by our autism, that we will do almost anything to make a connection with those around us, even if it means hiding our true selves and pretending we’re someone we’re not. Most of us have spent most of our lives trying to figure out, through a laborious process of elimination, how not to upset or alienate our non-autistic peers.
When even these well-practiced and highly refined strategies are nonetheless found wanting, it is incredibly demoralizing. Just once, I wish I could run an errand and not have to present a fake facial expression and fake tone of voice, professing a fake interest in things I could not care less about if I tried. But the me that doesn’t do that has long since been beaten into submission and locked away where it can’t do any more damage, to other people or to myself.
And I keep running up against how I feel about it and how to get past it. In the one sense, it seems cruelly unfair that I have to play let’s pretend every time I answer the phone or leave the apartment or get out of my car. On the other, I am deeply sad that my real inner self will rarely been seen and even more rarely validated, and I desperately wish things were different, and that I either wasn’t autistic, or didn’t have to hide it any more.
And I know–I know–that not having to hide my autism is a goal that is unlikely to be realized in my lifetime, and that those and others like me have to plow this road in hopes that the next generation of autistics can be more authentic than we will ever be able to be.
But I’m so tired. I’m tired of having to play this stupid game and I’m tired of having to deal with the consequences of an adult life wherein the only way I can work and socialize and make friends, with vanishingly few exceptions, is by presenting a made-up, inauthentic personality that must be consciously maintained, because if I slip up even in a tiny way, I get that look. The look that reminds me, in no uncertain terms, that I am not like other people, and that I never will be.
Despite the fact that the subtleties of unspoken communication are not visible to autistics, that look is unmistakable. It is vastly different from the normal set of facial expressions I’ve learned to imitate. It is equal parts self-doubt and distaste. For a long time, I didn’t realize what the look meant. It didn’t start to dawn on me until I was well into the coping mechanism-development stage of my life, probably around my early thirties. Now, though, I recognize it immediately, and have belatedly come to realize that I have seen it, time and again, for years and years, and that it will be something that never stops happening, no matter how good I get at this neurotypical disguise I have so painstakingly cultivated.
I can’t stop now. But there’s still a little voice in my head that wishes I didn’t have to, and that I am not only incapable of doing anything to change the way things are, I am delusional in thinking that such change is even possible. And I wish I could just crawl under my weighted blanket and not have to do any of it, ever.
It’s hard, sometimes, for those of us on the spectrum to decide whether or not we ought to or want to do something. We’re not especially familiar with how either of those things feel. So for me, I think about how I might feel ten or twenty years from now if I hadn’t done it. If I’m OK with it, then that answers my question.
If I’m not OK with it…well, that does, too. And that’s where I am. I wish it were different, but the only way to make it so is to pick up the ball and carry it a few more yards downfield. So that’s what I do.