Autistic people still face many barriers in society and have so much to contribute if only given the chance to do so. Indeed, in these difficult times, different ways of thinking, fresh ideas and seeing the world in an alternative way may be more important than ever.
I truly believe that a big step forward in helping autistic people to thrive in the world is to increase knowledge and awareness of what autism is and what it is not, and how it can affect people’s lives in both positive and negative ways. So the purpose of this series of articles is education: to share 26 aspects of living as an autistic person. Some may be familiar to you and others may not, but we all have much to learn from each other.
It is also important to remember that all autistic people are different, and while there are some common traits and issues which many autistic people have in common, there is no set list of things that make somebody autistic and are present in all autistic people. So these articles are very much a personal perspective of how autism has and does impact my life and those of other autistic people I know – please do not assume that because I say here that I find something particularly easy or hard that your autistic friend or colleague will be the same!
A is for Awkward
For as long as I can remember, I have felt awkward for much of the time. I feel like I just do not fit properly in the world – I am a fish out of water, with the added complication of not knowing what or where my “water” is. Whether it is the idea of meeting and making small talk with strangers or solving problems by just talking about them endlessly instead of finding and implementing a solution, there is so much about how the world works that I just don’t get, and what I enjoy seems so different from the things many other people long to do.
When you are in a situation that makes little sense to you and leaves you unsure of how to behave or react, or fearful that being your true self will cause problems (as it has for me for most of my life), it is difficult to feel anything other than awkward or embarrassed. As much of life seems strange to me, I feel awkward a lot of the time! This can be further compounded when there is pressure on you from others, be they friends, family or work managers or colleagues, to “be more normal”.
I now have a home life where I can truly be myself, but much of my time at work (at least when I go to work rather than being in lockdown!) feels awkward. This is not down to anyone going out of their way to be unpleasant to me – indeed, most of my work colleagues are lovely – but because my workplace and its associated culture, like many others, are designed for neurotypical people rather than autistic staff. The idea that some of us can be equally productive and effective while working and thinking in a vastly different way simply does not occur to many senior managers anywhere.
To give some specific examples of how my awkwardness arises, I do not get body language and tone, and I frequently miss implied messages. I do not understand why people cannot just say what they mean (though I do frequently use sarcasm myself!). Social situations will always be difficult, and I just do not see the appeal of parties and other gatherings at all. And there are few words that strike more terror into me than “opportunity to network” on the programme for an event (though “dress: smart- casual” comes in as a close second).
When you feel awkward, a common response is to try to fit in by pretending to be somebody else who is comfortable in that situation. This is known as “masking”, and lots of autistic people do this for much of the time. We try to play the part of a neurotypical person in an ongoing improvised performance based on how we have seen others behave in similar situations, just to try and fit in and be accepted. It is exhausting and it is bad for your mental health, so is a contributory factor to why many autistic people also have mental health issues.
We need to make it easier for everybody to be themselves in all situations. We are all different and that is a wonderful thing. The need for acceptance goes way beyond autistic people, of course. Some progress is being made to end discrimination on grounds of things like disability, race, gender, and sexuality, though there is still a great deal to be done. But diversity of thought and ways of thinking also needs attention to ensure that those of us who are different mentally are also properly accommodated.
One day, feeling awkward will be a rare experience for us all. But to get there we need to recognise that people are a lot more varied than may be convenient and may be determined only from appearance. It is, and likely always will be, impossible to tell what and how someone is thinking merely by looking at them. One size fits all approaches may be easier to deliver but rarely if ever actually work in any situation. It is time to accept everyone as they truly are, inside and out. We can, and must, all play our part.