"But.. You Don't Look Autistic.."
“Thank you.” I used to say when people said that to me. Thank you.
What am I thanking them for? I suppose I’m potentially thanking them for their reassurance that my cover is not easily blown; my mask is intact; the plan is working.
So, what does Autism look like? What image do people have in their minds that they are comparing me against. Is it the young boy hiding in his room in an upright fetal position, rocking backwards and forwards because a dog has just barked in the street? Maybe. Is it the mathematician who can perform complex calculations in his head, quicker than a calculator, and recites pi to one hundred places? Possibly. Is it the girl in the office who has zero social skills and who everyone thinks is just a bit odd? Perhaps.
BUT these are (unhelpful) stereotypes, and stereotypes that a lot of people have when we’re talking about Autism.
Which is why so many of us fly our broken-by-society aircrafts so desperately under the radar.
To put it plainly, these stereotypes are not Autism; these are some of the symptoms of Autism, it’s important that this distinction is made. Autism, just like an illness, can produce a range of symptoms. Some people have plainly obvious and significant life-altering symptoms; for others, the symptoms are less apparent. In both situations, the person still has Autism.
So why might symptoms be less apparent? I am the type of Autistic who is told a lot that I don’t seem to be, so I’ll answer this question from my personal viewpoint. There was a time during Covid, when I was in a queue at the Post Office, I had a tickle in my throat and desperately needed to cough. Do you think I allowed myself to cough in that public area, in close proximity to others and with Covid still on the loose about the place? Absolutely not! I suppressed that cough with all of my willpower – which created a lot of anxiety in me, I was very uncomfortable, the tickle was getting worse and the more I needed to cough, the more I suppressed it.
It's the same with the symptoms I experience with Autism. When you use the word ‘who’ instead of the grammatically correct ‘whom’, I desperately want to correct you. When I’m out and about and I see a sign that says ‘Free Sample’s’ I want to take a sharpie and scribble out that erroneous apostrophe with maximum aggression. When I’m on a study day, and I’m being taught something which is outdated and has been disproven, I want to raise my had and rip apart the whole session. When I’m in a situation at work where I’m forced to have a social interaction and I’m not in the right headspace, I want to run and hide in a cupboard. Generally, in life, I want to walk around flapping my hands to expend the extra energy that’s been worked up inside my body.
For the most part, I don’t do these things (weeeell - sometimes I do). Past experience has taught me that if I go around doing these things I find myself in more trouble than I need to be dealing with, and so I suppress an awful lot.
*Throwback* In school, I was one of those kids who you would not want your child mixing with. I was always, and I mean several times a day, in trouble with teachers. I was frequently on detention – although I very rarely turned up because I had no interest in sitting in the hall for two hours copying out the school rules. I’d spend at the very least two days a week in isolation, pulled out of lessons to sit in a cubicle to “think about what you’ve done” – I must mention here that I frequently committed the sort of offences that would result in automatic isolation, a day out of the chaos of a classroom full of people to sit in my own company, yes please! Eventually, isolation turned into frequent exclusion, and when the school had had enough of excluding me, that exclusion became a permanent expulsion. I would argue that pre-diagnosis, I was SO symptomatic of Autism that to this day I do not understand why the official diagnosis took so long.
Once I had my diagnosis however, I began to finally understand myself and how I related to other people. I started to learn the ‘correct’ way to carry myself, so not to offend others and to get on nicely with those around me. I began to understand my symptoms and appreciate that most other people do not possess the same sort of processing style as myself, and that is ok! In essence, like I did with the cough in the Post Office, I suppress my symptoms because, in the words of Mrs Cooper from TBBT “people don’t like it!”.
So the next time you look at an Autistic person and think to yourself: “they don’t look Autistic.” Stop and take a moment to update the stereotype in your head. Whether you see it or not, that person absolutely, unequivocally, and without any doubt, does look Autistic; you are simply comparing what you see against the wrong schema.
NB. I just want to add, that I personally do not believe that Autism is a medical condition any more than I think being allistic is a medical condition; IMO it’s just a different processing style. Sadly for my beliefs though, I have to present my argument in a way that is easily relatable to the reader, and not too complicated to follow.