How People With Autism Fake It

 words from behind the mask

It’s been a while since I posted but recently the mere anticipation of writing has brought about instant mental paralysis, until this morning when I spilt an entire cup of coffee – the second in a fortnight. To put it succinctly, I lost my shit.

After howling, sobbing, railing at the world, my husband (in absentia), and myself, while cleaning up the shards of pottery and pungent mess, I spilled my anguish and frustration out into my notebook and one thought led to another…

‘Where are all the adult autistics?’ they ask. I’ll tell you where. Hiding in plain sight.

I feel like a fraud whenever I discuss my Asperger’s, because here I am, this put-together, functioning, articulate woman who expects people to believe her when she says she’s autistic. “You don’t look autistic.” They tell me brightly, half compliment, half reassurance. But really… how could they possibly know?

They don’t see my brain seize up and shut down when I drive a route I haven’t taken before, even if I’ve been driven there a hundred times by someone else.

They’re unaware I work so hard to suppress the physical symptoms of a hair-trigger fight-or-flight response – the thudding heart, tunnel vision, and inability to process external stimuli that must be subdued before I get to the checkout girl, the receptionist, the client I’m meeting – that I give myself headaches and stomach pains.

They don’t see (or feel) the anger and frustration when yet another stupid, clumsy move results in a spill, a breakage, a bruise.

They have no clue the reason they haven’t run into me for a couple of days is because I’ve been holed up, burnt out, empty of the strength needed to be out in the world.

They don’t hear the voice in my head shouting, “noooooo” as I agree to playdates, meet-ups, coffee…

How could they know anxiety is my constant companion?

Don’t misunderstand me, it’s not that I dislike people (well, not all of them anyway), or don’t enjoy company, a good chat, a chance to ‘connect’ with another person. If we bump into one another and spontaneously get together for coffee, chances are I’ll come away feeling ‘lifted’, happier afterwards than I was before.

But The Prospect… the tabled encounter with time beforehand to imagine all its possible versions, the lulls in conversation, the mis-hears and missed meanings, and multiple opportunities for misstep in the minefield of social proprieties… that’s what does me in. The stage fright. I feel sick just thinking about it.

My best defence is to take the other extreme, to not let myself think about it, navigate it in real time and see how it goes. But this takes a concentrated effort, and leaves me drained afterwards.

Seriously, don’t try and tell me everyone feels this way when faced with human interaction.

A piece in Slate the other week asked why some kids with autism seem to grow out of it. The article appeared to contradict its tagline when it quoted clinical psychologist Catherine Lord, an autism expert at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City saying, “There’s just no evidence of that at all,” and surmising either most of those children had been misdiagnosed and never had autism to begin with, or that they continued to have autism with less obvious symptoms.

Duh! Of course their symptoms grow less obvious. We all learn to censor ourselves as we age. How many adults do you see farting audibly with unabashed impunity in public spaces? You don’t need a PhD to know children take their cues for cultural values, normality, even accent, primarily from their peers, constantly shoe-horning emergent personalities into a socially palatable mold. Funny looks and snide comments provide clues for working out what’s cool and what will leave you eating lunch alone.

My Aspergers isn’t severe enough to override the natural inclination to assimilate. I have a good idea what’s expected of me (through watching and imitating others) and that knowledge, by its very existence, leaves me no choice but to comply – otherwise I’m being rude and inconsiderate, but the idea of speaking my mind is alluring. Remember the film “Liar, Liar”, where Jim Carrey plays a dishonest lawyer forced to speak nothing but the truth when his son wishes he would stop lying for 24 hours? I LOVED that idea – the freedom of it! No complicated little dances round the elephant in the room. I wish I had that excuse.

Finding the balance between being genuine and causing offence is something I’m way off mastering, I seem able only to work in extremes. I can do ‘Blunt’, or don the mask and become ‘Someone Else’. Grey areas are tricky. But even as things stand, effecting the behaviour appropriate to any one of a million social situations cognitively instead of instinctively is hard work. Keeping up the performance is exhausting, and over time, soul-destroying. I worry I’ve lost the animating spark of the ‘true me’ and become a pliant automaton instead.

Many people think those of us with moderate Asperger’s are ‘faking it’ and just need to ‘man up’. “Everyone’s somewhere on the spectrum” they joke, implying everyone’s a little bit autistic. Comparing their ‘autism’ with our very real neurodiversity and dismissing the differences between us only increases the pressure to ‘act normal’. What they don’t realise is that they’re half right – we ARE faking, but it’s not autism we’re faking, it’s neuro-typicality.

Guess the joke’s on them.

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