Note: I am not a professional when it comes to ASD and related behaviours; anything I discuss in this post is purely my own experience and not reflective on ASD as a whole – it can present itself in many different ways and while many people on the spectrum will relate to this, many also won’t.
There is definitely an image of autistic people who are unsocial or even antisocial – they talk in unconventional ways, they act stiff and awkward, and they generally would prefer to be alone in their rooms than out with friends. While for some autistic people this is accurate, there is an entire array of autistic people with varying desires for socialisation and varying levels of social skill or varying levels of perceived social skill. What I am referring to when I say ‘perceived’ is masking or social mimicry; an autistic behaviour that is commonly observed in girls (however is of course not exclusive to them or inherent in them) where we pretend to be good at socialising.
Why do we do this? While no one is completely certain yet, a lot of people believe it comes down to pressures when we are young to be ‘normal’. I know that for me, being bullied and lectured on manners constantly taught me that I had to be a certain way to gain respect from a community and be treated well. So I studied people who seemed to do it correctly – who had friends and seemed happy, who teachers and adults talked highly of. I watched their eyes, their facial expressions, their body language and their mannerisms. I also took this information from book characters, television, movies – anywhere I could see people or human-like relationship dynamics. I rehearsed what I saw, having full hypothetical conversations with people who were not there while practicing tone, body language and expression. I also played out social situations that I perceived as realistic (but I got these from television mostly – go figure that I’m now a rather theatrical and dramatic person) with my toys. This is how my ASD completely avoided detection until very recently.
I remember the months I spent consciously learning to make eye contact in primary school. I remember questioning the conventions of what were ‘good manners’ but practicing anyway out of fear of being considered rude or a bad kid. I didn’t want to be bad, or weird, or rude, I just wanted to learn how to be a normal person so that I could have the life I saw normal people living. Most autistic people have experiences like this, but some just decide that it’s too much work to be invalidated and alienated no matter what they do, so they withdraw into their special interests (but again, this is not the experience of ALL introverted people on the spectrum). But I am stubborn and I like people, so I kept trying. I kept trying and wondering why people didn’t want to talk to me, what was wrong with me. People told me to be myself but as far as I was concerned, I already was. I was me, and I was being. I didn’t know who else to be, and this strange concept of ‘being myself’ never seemed totally logical.
So, even though I definitely give most people a ‘weird’ vibe (some people love it, some hate it, some don’t care), I don’t ‘look autistic’. I know how to make eye contact and speak emotively and monitor my tone and body language. I’ve learned what a lot of social cues mean and am typically pretty good at finding my place in a conversation (but if it’s a group conversation of four or more people, I’m awful at knowing when to speak). But this is all a conscious and logical effort for me. And it’s an effort that is important because in spite of how most people perceive autism; I am quite extroverted.
Before I knew I was autistic I always described myself as a walking contradiction; a socially awkward extrovert, a people-lover with social anxiety. This is still pretty accurate. I get lonely easily and crave human connection, however I don’t know how to get it effectively. I know that I like people and want them around, but I don’t know how to talk to them, how to know if I’m annoying them, or how to build a proper relationship with them. I don’t understand the parameters or dynamics of an interpersonal bond, which leads me to either accidentally pushing/scaring people away or accidentally welcoming in very dangerous people. The contrast of my naturally social nature and my social deficits means I’m a lifelong attention seeker. “I am emotionally isolated, I don’t know how to make you like me, please look at me, please talk to me, please listen to me, please give me what I need, attention attention attention.”
As a teenager I learned how to go about this in a healthier way than as a child. I heavily embraced on-stage performance of any kind – dancing, theater, musical performance, even public speaking. This way, everyone was looking at me, everyone was noticing me, I was getting social stimulation without having to navigate socialisation. It also allowed me to communicate confidently – I knew what to say or do, when to say or do it and how to say or do it. And most importantly – I was good at it. Theater and public speaking especially – because practicing lines and making unnatural dialogue/monologues seem natural and controlling my body language, my tone and my eye contact was something I’d been practicing daily since I was a toddler. And this was a space where I was not only recognised for it but applauded for it. Performing on a stage provides me with a freedom and mental clarity and emotional release like nothing else. When I’m not on stage, though, I tend to make a joke out of my attention seeking behaviour by acting notably and humorously strange or just blatantly saying “I need attention. Give me attention.”
(Trigger warning for self harm and suicide in the next paragraph, if this bothers you then skip it and instead read this TL;DR: As a kid I didn’t know how to deal with my feelings and thought that if I threatened things then people would look after me, I was too young to understand that this was damaging and unhealthy behaviour)
As a child, though, I hadn’t figured out what worked and what didn’t. All I knew was that I needed social stimulation and I was unable to get it in a normal manner. I remember being scared and confused all the time, only wanting someone my age to hug me and tell me it was going to be okay. I wanted a friend who could see me and see my pain and make me feel less invisible and less like an alien walking among humans. But this is all a bit complex for a seven year old. I had hoped that if I just showed people my pain – pain that I have experienced constantly from childhood into adulthood – they would know what I needed and help me. So I started hurting myself or threatening to harm myself in a more severe manner. I would appear melodramatic and explosive and needy and clingy. I actually planned suicide several times before I was even a preteen – I didn’t actually want to die and I also didn’t want to hurt anyone, I just wanted someone to take me seriously and understand that something was very wrong and I had needs that were severely being neglected. I just wanted them to see how I felt and I wanted to know that someone saw me and someone cared about what I was experiencing. You can’t expect children to know how to deal with such behaviours and such threats – you can’t even expect most adults to know how because it’s complex and scary. I still feel guilty for putting such awful experiences on other people, but I also know that I legitimately didn’t know any better and that the experiences I was having were extremely abnormal and agonising.
It’s still hard for me to know how to socialise with people, and no matter how close I get with someone I’m still almost constantly masking and mimicking. And as it’s a conscious effort it is draining and can sometimes be downright painful. But when I don’t mask because I’m exhausted or burnt out, people get worried. I get quiet and deflective and distressed easily, I aggressively stim and don’t look at people. Even if someone understands why this is happening (people usually don’t even when I explain because it’s difficult to understand) I find it to be rather embarrassing, meaning that it can actually be emotionally easier for me to put in conscious effort to appear ‘normal’ than to just let my masks fall. But no matter what I do or who you are or how much I need it emotionally, being in the presence of others will always cause some level of strain on me. This isn’t bad and it doesn’t mean I should be alone all the time – it just means that after a big fun event I will probably need to sleep for about 18 hours to recover. Or that I need to take breaks from people who I see too often.
My social struggle will likely be lifelong and I am just relieved that now I can finally understand it; and therefore work through or around or with it.