Learning to let the mask slip

Photo by Tomáš Petz on Unsplash

I’ve regularly had conversations where I’ve noticed I was different.

It’s been hard to put words to this, and whenever I’ve talked about being different to other people they have always tried to reassure me – we are all different in some way, right?

I never thought of myself as demonstrating signs of autism. My understanding was that autism were for those with very exaggerated traits. Even when I saw some resonance with certain common behaviours, I thought of autistic people as showing little regard to emotion, whereas I knew myself as highly emotional and sensitive.

Yet I read an article which highlighted that many traits of autism vary a lot – non-stereotypical autism shows up as being highly empathetic and sensitive, as well as being existential or spiritual beings. These signs of non-stereotypical behaviours are more common for women, ethnic minority and queer/gender non-confirming folk too.

So am I Autistic? Most probably.

The signs fit closely, and several online tests showed a high probability. One even came out that I had a 86% chance of being neuroatypique/autistic. This week, I went on to read a book on Autism. I did find that a lot of what was written in the book resonated deeply with me, including particular stories of Autistic people who described many things, including having difficulty making friends and finding certain social etiquette like small talk rather pointless.

The funny thing is that even my response in of itself is quite an obvious indicator of autism. I only started down this rabbit hole this on Sunday, after which I took multiple tests and I ended up reading a whole 300 page book within three days. This morning I read another few chapters of another book on it too. This is what could be described as a hyper fixation, a sign of Autism. Whilst I thought this was normal, it turns out most people don’t have an insatiable desire to consume information like I do.

Whilst self-diagnosis has some obvious potential dangers, in this space it is pretty important. Most people who get diagnosed with Autism or related disabilities only learn of them through contact with other people with such disabilities.

For those feeling like I may be jumping the gun here, there is a difference between watching a 60 second Tik Tok video compared to doing proper research including talking to people with the condition, researching articles, following forum threads and reading a whole book too.

Autistic people also talk about how if you think you are Autistic, you probably are. This is especially important to note considering how hard and potentially expensive getting an official diagnosis generally is. There are loads of people who are evidently neurodivergent but will never get tested because of lack of access.

There’s a lot for me to process with this new-found information, which is incredibly tiring mentally. Suddenly all the moments in my life have a new lens – my brain is reviewing thousands of moments. There were many times I found it difficult to understand what was expected of me. There were other times where I felt excluded or how challenging it was to make friends (no matter how hard I tried).

Yet my overriding feeling is one of relief. Whether it be autism or something related, it explains a whole lot. The way I process information is very different to most people. The difficulty of connecting with people isn’t just in my head, and I’m now building the vocabulary to both understand and explain it.

The reason I had no obvious idea of being Autistic was that I’ve become extremely proficient at masking my differences. Many adults have simply learnt to mask their behaviours to fit into the rigid, neurotypical world we live in. There are also many people like me who had no idea, and thought that whatever they were doing was just how everyone lived.

My whole career is riddled with instances of me downplaying my own intelligence so that I don’t intimidate or frighten the people around me. In my social life, I’ve deeply studied and practiced social cues to get better at socialising as a response to finding it difficult to connect with people.

I am relieved to understand why my methods aren’t really bringing me the reuslts I want. No matter how hard I try, I’m not going to find success by hiding my weird quirks. Even with all my practice on socialising, there is still an undercurrent of inauthenticity if it is just to hide my true nature. Meanwhile, diminishing my own intelligence only leaves me feeling frustrated and undervalued.

I’m still in the midst of digesting a lot of new information, so it will be a tiring journey to really understand what it means. Nonetheless, I feel a lot more grateful for understanding more about myself.

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