I don’t read a lot about autism. Not anymore.
When I first learned that I had Asperger’s syndrome and was “on the spectrum,” as people like to say, I read anything I could get my hands on. I even joined an online “support” group for people with autism.
While I recognized some of the traits and issues described in articles, journals, and the support group’s community forum, I could never fully see myself in any of it.
I couldn’t check all the boxes that would wrap up my personality into a neat package with a warning label that read, “Fragile, handle with care.” As far as I could tell from what I was reading, I wasn’t at all like all the other autistic people in the world.
I didn’t fit in anywhere. Or so I thought.
My neurodivergence is part of who I am — not a handicap
People often want to call autism a disorder, a handicap, or maybe even a disease.
I read something once by an anti-vaxxer, saying that vaccines could cause autism (not true) which, in turn, could prevent your child from becoming all that they could be.
An interesting turn of phrase, all that they could be. As if being autistic prevents you from being whole — or yourself.
Neurodivergence, or autism, isn’t something that’s separate from who I am. It’s just one of the things that makes me who I am.
I’m whole and complete — including my neurodivergence — not despite it. I actually think that without it, I wouldn’t be completely me.
Usually, people don’t think I’m on the spectrum at all, mainly because it doesn’t always look the way they think it should.
Plus, I’m really good at altering my behavior to mimic conventional social norms — even when it feels odd to me or is contrary to what I actually want to do or say. Many autistic people are.
Pretty much every single thing I do when in public is so nobody thinks I’m weird. I’ll probably always alter my behavior, because it’s easier over time. Because if I didn’t, I likely wouldn’t have the career or life that I have now.
I’d never particularly thought that some of the things I do when among other people could be considered camouflaging. But, while reading that study on camouflaging, I realized it mentioned several of the little things I do in public to appear more like everyone else.
How I camouflage my autism to fit in
We neurodivergent people often have a difficult time making eye contact. A great way to camouflage this — and something I do quite often — is to look between the eyes of the other person. Usually, they don’t notice this slight shift in gaze. Everything appears “normal” to them.
When I’m uncomfortable in a social situation because of too much noise and other stimulations, my desire is to escape or retreat quickly (and, as viewed by others, quite rudely) to a safe, quiet corner.
But to avoid doing this, I grip my hands tightly together in front of me — really tightly. I crush the fingers of one hand with the other, to the point that it’s painful. Then I can concentrate on the pain and suppress the urge to run away, to be seen as rude.
Many neurodivergent people also have little ticks, some small action they do over and over. When I’m nervous, I twirl my hair, always with my right hand between my second and third fingers. I always have. Mostly I wear my hair in a long ponytail, so I twirl the entire hunk.
If the twirling starts to get out of hand (people are staring), I wrap my hair up in a bun with my hand and hold it there, gripping hard enough so that it’s a just a little painful.
To get better at responding the way people expect, I practice having conversations at home. I rehearse laughing and nodding and saying things like, “Oh my god, really?!” and “Oh no, she didn’t!”
I always feel a little odd whenever I have to reel out a long string of coping mechanisms, one after the other. I get this weird feeling of being outside myself and watching myself do them. I want to whisper in my own ear, tell myself what to say in response to someone, but I can never quite get close enough.
The costs of pretending in public
Researchers from that 2016 study found that all this constant camouflaging often comes with costs, like exhaustion, increased stress, meltdowns due to social overload, anxiety, depression, and “even a negative impact on the development of one’s identity.”
I find the last part interesting. I think all the other “costs” read similar to those warnings listed on new and miraculous medications you see advertised on television (minus the reduced sex drive).
I don’t necessarily think all my camouflaging has had a negative impact on my identity development, but I do know that much of my teenage journaling was peppered with the phrase, “All I ever wanted was to be real.”
I never thought about why I used the phrase so often. But looking back, I think it was just my way of coming to terms with that fact that I wasn’t like any of my friends. For a long while, I thought they were more real, more authentic, than I was.
Scientists now know that some autistic people actually feel more emotions than regular people. We are, in many ways, more in tune with the nuances and ups and downs of the psyches of those around us.
I think that’s true. One of my skills has always been the ability to see things from multiple perspectives. I can step out of myself and see where another person is coming from. And I can sense what they’re feeling.
So, yes, I’m all right with altering my behavior to keep them from being uncomfortable. If they’re comfortable, I sense that too, and then we’re both more comfortable.
I do have to be careful, though, as all that feeling can sometimes be overwhelming.
But I know how to manage it. The camouflaging can be exhausting at times but, as an introvert, just being around other people for long periods of time without a break can be tiring.
I don’t separate my camouflaging from my socializing. They’re a package thing that, for me, a neurodivergent introvert, requires copious periods of alone time to recharge afterward.
That doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with me.
The word I hate the most when associated with autism is “damaged.”
I don’t think autistic people are damaged. I just think they see the world differently than people who aren’t autistic. Being atypical doesn’t mean we’re flawed.
On that note, one of the cool things about being neurodivergent is that I can almost always spot another neurodivergent person — even someone who’s camouflaging just as well and as furiously as myself.
I’m not ever sure what it is that tips me or them off: perhaps their phrasing of something, a shuffle, a semi-obvious hand-clutching. But when it happens, there’s always this beautiful moment when I realize that they recognize me, and I see them. And we look into each other’s eyes (yes, really) and think, “Ah yes. I see you.”
Vanessa is a writer and cyclist based in New York City. In her spare time, she works as a tailor and pattern maker for film and television.