Trigger warning; this article has references to bullying and trauma, and I acknowledge that passing is also privilege
This post is about the sheer emotional labour of managing neurotypicals’ cognitive styles and preferences. This is heightened when autistics find themselves in a minority of one in almost any situation where our own cognitive styles and preferences are not yet understood. It is a serious issue due to the ongoing trauma of cultural suppression of autistic perception and sensibilities.
I rarely look back at old blog posts, so I may have written about this before. I feel I can’t be blamed for repeating myself, as it really doesn’t matter how many times we articulate our lived experiences we will always find ourselves outnumbered and misunderstood at some (usually unexpected) moment. It’s long been my belief that autism and so-called neurotypicality are like mirror worlds, sometimes a literal horror hall of distorted glass. We see each other’s faults and ‘superpowers’ through the lenses of often polar opposite lived experiences. For example, I am sometimes quite appalled at neurotypical behaviour, but rarely feel empowered or emboldened enough to say this out loud. This does not stop me believing in the inherent goodness of the majority of neurotypical humans. I just wish they could look outside their own experience as autistics are forced to do all the time.
I’m sure that many other humans belonging to minority groups will feel acutely the issue of number bearing down on them in their daily lives. Oppressions come in many forms when a majority culture doesn’t fit you or even attempt to fit you in. But autism is a singular disability and a unique difference – the ability to decode non autistic human behaviour is variable among us. Our social antenna are not the same. This makes us not lesser or greater, but it means that those of us who learn to get by to some degree in neurotypical spaces are probably relying on years of practice and an archive of memories. Our presence among you when we’re ‘passing’ is hard won. The battleground on which our skill has been honed is beyond painful. I need to tell you now that I bear the deepest of wounds to be so fluent in your company. When I transgress your norms it is quite possible that you have also transgressed mine. The injustice of this situation goes beyond simple annoyance.
When I acknowledge this truth my ‘resilience’ astounds me. The ability of autistic people to survive the emotional harms of (what I’m sure are unwitting) neurotypical oppressions is astonishing – though of course many of us don’t make it.
The influence of this majority culture can be so overwhelming and our enforced passing so habitual that navigating neurotypical spaces contains inherent risk for those who venture there. You never know when an emotional booby trap will plunge you downwards, or when the next psychological landmine will blow. Days can be lost in recovery. The blow is always familiar, you reel with incomprehension and lick your wound. Some time later comes the work of analysing events and rebuilding your inherent right to be alive.
Anyone living with trauma will recognise this process. It is visceral fight or flight territory. Cortisol surges wildly. The barbs are electric. We are always wrong until we can right ourselves again. If it sounds exhausting and a little dangerous, it is.
Passing for any group will always be fraught. Passing is an enforced state, a perilous training in avoiding bullying and worse. I would not have survived my secondary school (now demolished, thank god) without extreme passing/ code switching and other wildly self-injurious strategies.
I don’t want your pity, what I want is consideration. But what I know is that to get anywhere close to this I must lay myself bare, which represents more emotional labour.
Looking back over recent times I realise that I’ve found myself in a lot of new situations where I’ve had to work out what’s expected of me. This can take autistics a lot longer. One survival strategy is to observe, pick up clues, and seek the patterns. This comes so naturally to me I don’t even know I’m doing it. What I feel is anxiety, I know I don’t yet know what the dynamics in the room mean. They’re all fuzzy interference until I’ve observed them for long enough. The pressure to pass before this process is complete is almost intolerable. I can feel at my most klutzy.
With all this pressure to pass – usually as the lone autistic – I’ve been forgetting myself. I’ve been skirting round the booby traps and feeling almost immune. Passing confers great privileges. It can really take the edge off util it’s payback time.
So I write with a renewed sense of my identity as an autistic person who doesn’t want to spend her life passing, which is a bitter sweet moment. There’s a real rub to it, which is that ‘feeling more autistic’ is often a result of being more disabled. But until more progress is made in the wider world, anything else is a mirage.
The emotional labour involved in navigating non-autistic spaces has a huge impact on our life chances and our mental and physical health. We need to start building more honest bridges between us NOW.
What is good about my renewed sensitivity is that it will make me a better advocate, a role I’ve missed. It also prompts me to seek autistic spaces for new ventures. I’m tired of being the lone autistic in the room.