What Does It Mean to 'Look Autistic?' Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Here’s another powerful story for our ongoing series. This reader asked to remain anonymous “because most people who know me in my adult life don’t know about my diagnosis”:

I’ve been following The Atlantic’s coverage of women on the autism spectrum. There’s a particular problem, as you all rightly point out, for autistic women/girls because there is not enough research in the area. Because of this, it is very hard for people like me to find information about ourselves, and it is both jolting and relieving for me to find descriptions that mirror my own experiences with autism (or Asperger’s, as I was originally diagnosed).

That was particularly the case when I read Wildhood’s recent article about “looking autistic” and the trouble with passing. She covered a lot of the feelings that I’ve had when somebody denies my autism (I don’t really tell people about it anymore, because those interactions are too hard and, actually, shaming).

I’d like to talk a little bit about why it’s problematic to try to make an autistic person “normal.”

I’m somewhat unusual for an autistic woman in that I received my diagnosis fairly early (late elementary school), but I’m very typical in that my outward symptoms lessened over time, thanks in large part to therapy and work done by my parents. These efforts to make me seem “normal” have been so successful that in the rare instance that I disclose my diagnosis to somebody, they often deny that I could possibly have autism*, or tell me that mine is clearly so mild I don't actually have a disability.

This probably looks like success: I can pass for normal. For a while in my late teens, I convinced myself that I was normal. Despite this, the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve realized that this isn’t the case, and the more I’ve realized that the outward veneer of “normalcy” hides an interior that is still impaired, in some ways quite significantly.

To speak just a little bit about this: I’ve realized that I still process most social interaction through the logical part of my brain. I’m extremely intelligent and so I’m usually quite capable of logic-ing through basic social interactions, and much of my interactions are based on me consciously developing strategies for interaction. I make up much of the rest through training that I had in therapy. I know to paste on a smile and say “fine thanks, how are you?” when somebody asks how I’m doing, because I practiced that in a therapist’s office.

But I also have trouble around the edges, which I assume the people around me are more or less aware of, and that I seem far less normal the more people know me. I have particular trouble making sense of when to say “thank you,” for example, outside of very particular situations I’ve practiced for. I tend to over-disclose personal information too early in new friendships, something that I try to keep a tight lid on. I still have a great deal of trouble with “mind-blindness” [a cognitive disorder where an individual is unable to attribute mental states to the self and others]. I often have trouble evaluating what other people are thinking/feeling, especially in reaction to me, and this causes me a huge amount of anxiety.

All of this requires mental energy expenditures far above what most neurotypical people must make to carry on basic conversations. I’m constantly filled with anxiety when interacting with new people, and I’ve struggled to form deep friendships as an adult.

The other issue, which I’m still struggling to come to terms with, is that I have some of the more major issues that come with autism, and when they come out, other people have no idea what’s going on. I have trouble with executive function. I have autistic meltdowns when I’m overtaxed (something that has happened very rarely outside of my own home, but the threat of a public meltdown is incredibly worrisome for me). I have issues going into new situations, I am resistant to change, I constantly suppress stimming (self-soothing repetitive motions), I often can’t read humor, I have trouble regulating my tone of voice, etc.

Because I’ve been molded into normalcy on the outside, the idea that I have special needs and that I can’t always control the results if those needs aren’t met isn’t something that people understand. My parents, and my father especially, never quite came to grips with Asperger’s Syndrome as a global neurological disorder, rather than as a series of behavioral quirks that needed to be corrected. My father took the attitude that I needed to be forced “to behave” and to be forced out of my “comfort zone,” rather than using my diagnosis as “an excuse.”

I now realize that in many cases this was like asking somebody on crutches to walk up several flights of stairs, rather than use the “excuse” of their disability to ride the elevator. They might wind up at the top of the building, but they also may be injured getting there.

When I was a child and teenager, I was told to state my needs, only to have them be ignored by the adults around me, until I was overwhelmed in crisis situations that could have been avoided if I had been listened to. I wasn’t protected from bullying in school because I was “overreacting.” I was told that my special interests were wrong and “evil” (that word was literally used—nothing that I was interested in approached evil), and sometimes I was forced to stop engaging in them. I was forced to participate in sports, even though I found them impossibly frustrating and difficult.

The meltdowns that ensued from this were punished, and then I was forced back into situations that led to more meltdowns.

When I was younger, I felt that my parents were making the right decision. I believed that I shouldn’t be allowed to “behave badly” just because I had a psychological problem, and I felt that I was constantly failing to “be good.” Unfortunately, although I was diagnosed independently by two experts in the treatment of autism, we lived too far away for me to receive ongoing treatment from either of them.

I was treated by a regular psychologist who mostly dealt with emotional disturbances and trauma and who had little experience with autism. Thus she didn’t have the insight to explain to my parents that my autistic behaviors were my normal and that I needed to learn coping mechanisms to deal with times when I struggled, rather than just have my behaviors “fixed.”

I’ve realized now that although I’ve been trained to be “normal,” I haven’t been trained to be a healthy autistic person. I wish that rather than trying to make me pass as normal, my parents had learned to support me as I was and am.

*A side-note: It’s surprisingly painful to be told that you don’t have a problem that causes you trouble every single day. I’ve experienced that firsthand and heard about it from a couple of friends who also have issues from childhood that have lasted into adulthood but who now present as normal from the outside. If you want to mentally put them into the category of people with gluten “sensitivity,” that’s fine, but please don’t tell somebody who has trusted you with their diagnosis that they’re wrong about their own mental health to their face. It’s just needlessly hurtful. And bear in mind that all you’re seeing is the way that they present to the world. You can’t see their internal struggle, and you can’t see the (possibly years of) therapy or medication or whatever that got them to the place they’re at today.