Extroversion takes energy the one woman show I perform cannot be dropped in front of another No one knows the immense effort it takes to make conversation and answer phone calls to smile and be presentable and friendly For once I'd just like recognition for all the inner work I'm doing to fit the mold society expects of me It's hard to accept I must spend my limited mental resources on tasks other people do on autopilot Never knowing if my performance is enough wondering if little slip ups have gone unnoticed and made me look arrogant, careless, and rude It can take hours or even days to return to a sense of internal equilibrium after an interaction an animal trembling and pacing from stress Violently shaking off the charged emotional energy is generally frowned upon by polite society so I choke it down and hold it in People say "be yourself" but I've always known that didn't include me when I speak a different language entirely Misinterpretation and misunderstanding my wires are tangled and connected in ways that do not translate I've always felt like an alien endangered by my innocent inability to blend in envious of how others make it look so easy
At my office, autism has been on our minds a lot since the release of Love on the Spectrum, Season 2. My friend and I can’t stop discussing it and how much we genuinely love the people on the show. However, it is somewhat hard for me to discuss from a neutral position. If you’ve read a lot of my posts, you may already know that I believe I am on the spectrum. I’ve mentioned this to my work friend, but he seemed to shrug it off as if I was mistaken. I’m one of the many people that are just starting to be diagnosed later in life who “don’t look autistic.” My friend sees the way I behave and how well I manage interactions and daily responsibilities and assumes I couldn’t possibly be autistic.
But that’s part of the problem. It’s why so many people like me go undiagnosed for so long. Autism Spectrum Disorders are just that. They’re on a spectrum. Many people with high functioning autism, formerly known as Asperger’s, are able to fly under the radar for most, if not all of their lives, especially when these individuals happen to be women. People assume we function just the same as everyone else, but no one can see or hear what goes on inside my head. Even though I am able to appear “normal,” no one knows what immense effort that takes. How much time and energy I have to invest in learning the correct social etiquette for different situations, how awkward and anxious I can be when caught off guard or placed in an unfamiliar social environment. The only reason I am able to mask my struggles so well is because I am also extremely intelligent. Even though I don’t have the natural intuition for social cues, I have worked tirelessly to teach myself throughout my life.
Autism is still a fairly new disorder, and I have faith that we will be able to understand it better as time goes on. We have already made a lot of progress. However, I find it frustrating, given my experience with autism, that it is used as an explanation for a lot of the struggles for people who are autistic and low-functioning. In my opinion, their autism isn’t necessarily what is making it so difficult for them to function in society. It plays a part, but I think there are a lot of cooccurring disorders that are also playing a role, as well as the difficulties faced by those with general intellectual disabilities and low intelligence. If you have an IQ below 70 you are going to have a lot of struggles, regardless of whether you’re autistic or not. I don’t think it’s accurate or fair to pin it all on autism, especially given that there are so many people that function so much better with the same disorder.
I think this misunderstanding and/or misdiagnosis does a lot of damage to the general public’s understanding of autism. My friend at work actually mentioned a potential “cure” for autism. I know he meant well, but I was still slightly offended. I don’t want my autism to be “cured.” I value my differences. Autism is an important part of who I am as a person. Would I be an atheist or a vegan if not for my autism allowing me to disregard social norms and societal expectations? I can’t say for sure, but I have to think it’s at least a possibility. It seems like a lot of the vegans I follow online sooner or later come out with an autism diagnosis. Of course correlation (especially anecdotal) doesn’t prove causation, but it’s an interesting theory I’ve been mulling over for awhile now.
I’ve heard a few autistic individuals refer to it as a superpower and I am inclined to agree with that description. They are certainly drawbacks and I often wish that I could “just be normal,” but if I had the choice, I doubt I would change myself to fit in better in the world. Society sees autism as a tragedy. How sad it must be to not understand these treasured social norms. But for those of us living with autism, we could care less about your social norms. You’re perplexed why we don’t understand, and we’re perplexed why you think they make sense.
I love myself for exactly who I am, autism and all. And I hope that the day comes where I can afford to be formally diagnosed. I also hope the day comes when I won’t have to fear disclosing my autism to others. I am simultaneously fearful that they will think there is something wrong with me, or that they may think I’m not really autistic. I am very selective with who I confide in about this conclusion I’ve come to. I haven’t even told my boyfriend about it. Honestly whenever I do get tested I think he should be as well. His older brother is definitely autistic, although undiagnosed, and autism does have a genetic component. God only knows if I’ll ever discuss this with him though for fear of offending him. I am equally fearful that he will look at me differently when I disclose my own autism.
The increasing number of people being diagnosed with autism and the sheer amount of it I see in my own life, leads me to believe that it is a valuable part of human evolution. And it’s nothing new. It’s just starting to be more understood and recognized. Autistic people are important. Our contributions are important. Our perspectives are important. I’m sure plenty of the eccentric, brilliant people that have made important contributions in the past would have been diagnosed as autistic if they were alive today. There is no “cure.” And there doesn’t need to be. I don’t think of it as a disorder at all. It’s just how some people are, and there is nothing inherently wrong with that.
I’ve struggled with social anxiety for the majority of my life. The only time I can remember interacting with other people without hesitation or fear was when I was a very young child. It used to be so easy to go up to another child that I didn’t know at all and become friends with them in a matter of minutes. I miss those simpler times. The longer I’ve lived, the harder it has become for me to make new friends.
The last few years as a social worker have really inspired me to try harder when interacting with others. I see the way that my coworkers are so easily able to make meaningful connections to the clients we meet everyday. I’ve tried my best to mirror their social behaviors and improve my own ability to connect, but it always feels somewhat gross and fake. It’s impossible to make a real connection with another person when you are wearing a mask. Even when they don’t know you, there is a different energy that I think we are all able to pick up on whether we consciously realize it or not.
I used to make excuses to myself about why it wasn’t even worth my time to put in the effort to bond with new people. I had convinced myself that the vast majority of people just aren’t worth getting to know. Everyone is an idiot with nothing interesting to say. At least that’s what I used to believe. However, after meeting so many shockingly amazing people in the last few years, that conviction has all but eroded. Now I am happy to say that I truly believe their are still wonderful people out there for me to meet. The issue now is, how do I learn to put myself out there and keep my heart open to that possibility each time I meet someone new?
One thing I have been trying to work on is focusing on curiosity instead of fear. One of the most anxiety provoking parts of my job each day is sitting with the child while my coworkers discuss the next steps with the parent. I am always extremely nervous any time I am alone with someone I’m not close to, let alone a child that has just disclosed horrific abuse of some kind. Even though my time one of one with the children has always ended up going well, often resulting in a swell of admiration and tenderness toward them, I still can’t manage to placate my fears for each new case.
I’ve noticed that when I am faced with these types of situations, my initial instinct is to shut down. All I want to do is run out the clock or avoid the encounter entirely. I also struggle to avoid prattling on about myself instead of getting to know the person I’m talking to. I guess I find it easier to talk about myself because it’s always easier to talk about what you know. And what do we know better than ourselves and our own experiences? I think this is also a subconscious attempt to control the conversation and avoid being taken off guard. When asking questions, you can never predict where the conversation may lead. One of the hallmarks of social anxiety is attempting to plan out a conversation before it happens. Obviously this never works. It just makes you less able to immerse yourself in the natural flow of conversation.
I’m working on letting go of my need to control the situation and open myself up to discovering what/who is in front of me. I would consider myself a very curious person. I am always wondering about the way others think and see the world, what interests them and why, what their goals are, etc. However, my fear easily overpowers that natural curiosity under the pressure of meeting new people, especially in a work setting. It’s always been hard for me to toe the line between authenticity and professionalism. But I’m hoping if I can keep guiding my attention back to that curiosity inside of me, eventually it will become easier to overcome my fear so that I may learn more about the person I’m talking to.
I want to practice shifting my focus from myself, my fears, worries, what this person may be thinking about me, etc. I’d rather focus on the other person and finding out who they are. I’m sure that with enough experience I can teach myself that there is nothing to fear. Sure, maybe it will be an uncomfortable conversation, but it may also be a lovely, enjoyable interaction. Based on anecdotal evidence, I’d have to say the latter is even more likely. Either way, I am going to keep trying. This world is filled with so many fascinating people with minds as mysterious and unique as my own. I can’t wait to meet them. That is going to be my mantra from now on when we have a new family coming in: I can’t wait to meet them! I wonder who they will be.