There’s a phrase that’s been echoing in my head a lot recently - you can only be what you are.
This may seem so obvious as to be not worth saying, but it’s a privilege that most autistics aren’t allowed, or don’t dare allow themselves. Our authentically autistic selves are considered Not Acceptable to most of the world. We are all too often not permitted to be what we really are.
Autism is defined as ‘abnormal’, and a synonym of abnormal is ‘unnatural’. And that’s how autistics are seen. NTs hold themselves as THE model of how to be, so in their eyes we’re a deviation from nature, a distortion of what a human being ‘should’ be, and hence we must be ‘corrected’, no matter the cost. It’s a kind of subconscious arrogance, manifesting as ableism. It involves a wholesale ignorance or refusal to acknowledge that the way we are is totally natural FOR US, both as individuals and collectively.
Our idiosyncrasies and caprices, our strict orderliness or total lack of it, our raging sensitivity, our contrary minds, our brutal honesty or social obliviousness, our ways of talking or moving or connecting, our free-wheeling stims and our sudden spurts of joy, our abrupt hungers and our intense griefs, our deep diving into things like maths or cars or lampposts or history or outer space or music or brain chemistry… All the things that make us gloriously, outrageously, flamboyantly, achingly and overwhelmingly autistic, have been cast negatively, and seen as things to be eradicated, even when some of those things are also evident in non-autistics, and even when they’re harming no-one.
The unspoken rule is, if an autistic does it, it’s wrong, simply BECAUSE they are autistic. The very state of BEING autistic is judged wrong. Is it any wonder that so often we can’t accept ourselves, when this is how our intrinsic state of being is framed? We’ve become conditioned, in one way or another, to feel inferior or just plain ‘wrong’ - regardless of whether or not we even know we are autistic. We’re taught to despise our true selves anyway, or at least to become determined to hide them, to avoid the inevitable repercussions.
This often leads to the phenomenon known to autistics as ‘masking’, which is nothing to do with Covid, but rather the various ways in which many of us try to conceal our autistic behaviours and thought patterns, to present ourselves as ‘normal’. We might be pressured to do this by others, or we might do it to ourselves, in order to fit in, keep a job, etc, or just to avoid hassles or abuse. The cruel irony is that over time it can develop into such a polished performance, that even if we do come out, people won’t believe we are autistic, and sometimes we don’t know how to stop doing it, or who we are or might be without the masking.
There are also autistics who can’t mask, or who can’t do it very well, or simply refuse to, and they can pay a huge price for that - which tends to make those of us who can try even harder, to avoid that fate. But even if we’re able to mask successfully, that also comes at a huge cost. Addiction, depression, anxiety, burnout, PTSD, self-harm, other mental illnesses, and the consequences of those, are rampant in the autistic community, and our average lifespan is only in our thirties.
Thus the central dilemma of all autistic lives is, how much can we be real? And if we can’t or don’t mask, or the mask slips, how much and in what ways will we be punished for it?
This dilemma presents itself in innumerable ways, small and large, on a daily basis. Punishments can be anything from a blank look or being ignored to physical attacks, abuse or even murder. We know that we run huge risks just by existing as autistic. Small wonder then, that some of us become surly, defensive, prickly and ‘unco-operative’, while others mask just to survive. Please note in no way is it my intention here to judge anyone’s choice on this - as a friend of mine said recently, “Masking is not wrong. What is wrong is that we have to do it.” And I’d say the same about being ‘un-cooperative’, or whatever other behaviour choices individual autistics make in order to get through each day with any shred of self-respect or sanity intact.
So how can we be authentically autistic, in such a world? How can we get people to accept us as we are? The short answer is that they won’t – unless we DEMAND that they do so. And in my experience, the best path to building the inner strength to be able to do that, as individuals and as a group, lies in finding our anger.
Anger is empowering. Anger is cleansing. Anger is also freeing. Anger allows us, after years of taking crap, to say “you know what? I don’t want to do this anymore”, or “this situation stinks”. It’s the little voice that starts saying “what right do non-autistics have to tell me how I should be anyway?” It tells us that we deserve better, that we have a RIGHT to be treated better. A whole heap better than what we’re currently getting.
And yes, I know that for many if not most autistics, expressing that anger can be very risky. So much so, that some of us daren’t allow ourselves to even feel it, maybe thinking that we don’t have a right to it. While other autistics feel so much rage and bitterness, that it explodes ‘inappropriately’, and they’ve paid the price for that. Some of us alternate between these two states, to our detriment both ways. There isn’t a perfect remedy for this, but I have found that the most productive solution is to channel the rage into freeing our authentic autistic selves. So much of our rage (and our suppression of it) is because we haven’t been allowed to, or haven’t dared to let ourselves, be real. We have to demand acceptance, for all our sakes.
I recognise that I’m in a privileged position - I’m old, don’t have a job, etc, and personal safety aside, don’t much care anymore what anyone thinks of me. Thus I have little to lose. And I know that many others have way, way more at risk if they take off the mask, or allow themselves to get angry. And I’m not dismissing the very real risks of doing so, especially with the way things are right now around the world. Believe me, I do not.
But at some point, in some way, we have to start being true to our real selves to at least some degree, or we’ll die inside. Or just die.
Because whichever way we go, there’s a price to pay. People often sense something ‘off’ about us anyway, no matter how well we mask, no matter how hard we work to divert their attention from our ‘faults’, to squeak through another day, and another, and another, and another…. How long before they realise we’re not THAT normal, and the punishments start? And even if we do manage to slide by, how long can we keep up the façade? How long before it all just becomes too much, and we break down? Burnout alone can be a huge price to pay.
Now, I’m not saying that we all need to become hotshot activists/advocates, shouting to the world. That’s not a route everyone can or wants to take. There needs to be a recognition that everyone’s path to unmasking will be different. The process of unravelling the mask can be as slow, complex and experimental as building it was in the first place. And connecting to your anger can be just as difficult and just as prone to trial and error.
It might be that you start with something small but quietly revolutionary, like allowing yourself to stim when you’re alone (for years, I didn’t even let myself do this), or to quietly, privately, dive into a special interest you’ve denied yourself. Or you could allow yourself to wear clothes or hairstyles others consider weird. You could create a blog, or YouTube videos, or paintings, or music, or whatever, which expresses something of your true self. Or perhaps you’ll leave a job that’s not right for you, or simply begin to be more honest with those around you, even if they do start looking at you funny, or, well, just about anything that allows you at least a little ‘wriggle room’ to BE you. To be authentically, wonderfully and uniquely autistic, to whatever degree you can manage - and you’ll probably find that degree widening over time.
Because you can only be what you are – despite the world’s, or your own, strenuous effort to make you otherwise, and no matter how much you might hate yourself, and wish to be something else. I did all of those for most of my life, until I finally realised the futility of it. Why fight your true nature? Why not accept it, and work with it instead? You don’t have to love or even like everything or anything about yourself, I’ve discovered, in order to accept yourself. (You might ask, how can I accept negative things like meltdowns? You can accept the part of you that is sensitive, and work with it, not against it. This applies to all of your autistic traits, for that matter.)
Repeat after me – YOU ARE FINE JUST AS YOU ARE. THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH BEING AUTISTIC. And anyone who tries to tell you so, is wrong, wrong, and wrong. Find your rage. And channel it into being your true self. Because you cannot ever be anything other than what you are. And it’s time to stop pretending to be anything else.