People who actually know me rarely seem surprised that I am autistic, but when I bring it up with those who don’t, I often get a different reaction. “I never would have guessed!” “Are you sure?” “It’s normal to feel shy sometimes!”
They likely notice that I hardly ever make eye contact, and that I move awkwardly through the world, but they don’t immediately perceive me as disabled, perhaps just a little on the withdrawn side. Generally, I respond with something brief like “Not all of the symptoms are obvious,” but I want to provide a better explanation of how I am able to appear “normal” in small doses.
Basically, it all comes down to practice. When I was fifteen, I saw a video of myself and, comparing my speech and mannerisms to the other people in the video, I realized that I was way off target. I was speaking more loudly, more nasally and with less inflection than the other people, and laughing loudly and nervously without reason. (I’d been told that I spoke too loudly before, especially by my then-boyfriend, who, when I got excited about philosophy and started practically shouting in a restaurant, grabbed my arm and growled “Don’t ever do that again.”) I was unfamiliar with autism at the time, but I did know I’d always been socially inept, and I resolved to change the way I acted.
It was very difficult at first, and made being around others even more stressful than usual. Over the years, though, I like to think I’ve gotten pretty good at it, with the exception of the eye contact thing and (I’ve been told) “seeming distant.” In some ways it relieves stress, because it makes something challenging closer to automatic. It’s also still stressful overall, however, compared to just not trying. I put on a good mask, but it’s heavy to wear, and if I have to do it for more than a couple of hours I’m likely to melt down and flee (one reason why I can’t work a regular job.) I have to have a significant amount of time each day when I can just be myself, and whether I consider someone a true friend is based on whether I can do that when they’re around. Not too many of those have ever come my way, but I’m awfully happy about the ones who have.
I think of my strategy as Reconnaissance, Rehearse, Recall, Replay. Reconaissance involves peoplewatching at every opportunity and taking note of specific behaviors, especially if it’s recognizable as effective (for example, the person receives a smile or gets what they want.) Rehearsing involves practice emulating what you’ve seen and heard. When no one is around, you can record yourself and play it back, and/or stand in front of a mirror and practice, and you can go over your plan of action in your head as many times as you want. In Recall, which was the most difficult step for me, I had to train my memory to accurately store and quickly retrieve the information I’d gained. It wouldn’t do to have the exact right thing planned out to say and then have to fumble for the words in the moment. Again, practice, practice. Finally, Replay is going over what happened in your mind later on. I was far from perfect at first and made a lot of big mistakes. It’s important to evaluate what you’ve done and, without beating yourself up over it (easier said than done,) figure out what you can do better next time based on clues to people’s reactions.
In one representative instance, not long after I started the four R’s, I was out with my brother at a shoe store, and when the clerk asked how he was doing, he responded, “I’m wonderful, how about yourself?” This instigated a large grin and a “Good, thank you!” Ding ding ding. I altered the phrasing to sound less smarmy, practiced it out loud and in my head to get the intonation right, made it a habit, and ever since then my default response to “How are you?” (unless it’s a close friend and they really want to know) is “I’m good, how are you?” And I was delighted to discover that I got smiles and thank-yous, as well. So now I have a solid plan for how to deal with one throwaway social interaction, usually at grocery store checkouts. And the panic over having to invent a decent response on the spot is gone.
I’m not saying I think autistic people should try to change or hide who they are. I have found it useful to work on scripting my casual interactions to appear more neurotypical. I am very open to answering questions about autism and my mental health conditions with anyone who is interested; I’m not trying to pretend I’m not different. But in cases where the genuineness of an exchange isn’t really important and there’s little educational potential, I find it’s just simpler and less awkward to not raise the issue. (And after all, the situation itself is already fairly scripted, it’s just that most people don’t have to think about it as hard as we do.)
I celebrate neurodiversity and totally respect the choice of some autists not to disguise their distinctive affect (and efforts like the Loud Hands project.) For those who do wish to change how they interact, though, I think it’s helpful to learn from the experiences of others; I know I wish I’d had a guide. So I hope that this post will be useful for education of both spectrum and non-spectrum readers. Let me know in the comments what you think about the issue, and any tips you may have!