By being high functioning autistic I am very different to most normal (neuro-typical) people. Some of these differences are my difficulties (such as sensory overload) but many are not. I know the typical response to people who tolerate differences is “the world would be a dull place if we were all the same” which is nice if we all follow this principle and fully agree to it (of course not including tolerating people who are evil and who commit awful crimes). In reality, I believe, a good proportion of society discriminate against people being different in areas such as race, religion, disability, being poor, sexual orientation, being overweight and so on. The question I often think about is where is the balance between autistic people being accepted for their differences and how much should these differences be changed or hidden in order to fit in with society and social norms?
High functioning autism is a hidden disability, mostly (if you know what to look for you can probably tell someone is autistic or not). For me it is very hidden. I can fit into society quite well, when I want to that is. I can make eye contact fairly well (if I feel like it, which these days I don’t feel obliged to just to make other people feel comfortable). I can tell jokes and find some jokes funny (or I have learnt to laugh at the right time over many years). I can have a reasonable conversation with another person on a one to one level without talking about my special interests. Although I still struggle to a great degree to have a conversation with two or more people so I shut off (but even then I probably seem to be normal but a bit obtuse and rude). I have a job where I have to be social. I can do things that I am not meant to be able to (which I find exceptionally difficult but hide it) such as food and clothes shopping, going to some parties, going to some social events such as weddings and christenings. If I wanted to I could probably just about manage going Christmas parties with work and have a few drinks with colleagues. I could do almost any of these things but there are (or would be) consequences. Sometimes extreme consequences such as on one occasion I broke down into tears in the middle of a family member’s party (on my wife’s side) as I was sitting on my own and could not talk to the people around me as I did not know them very well and my wife was busy socialising.
Some of the ways I am different to a stereotypical neurotypical male are as follows (aside from sensory issues):
- I love reading books
- I do not drink alcohol
- I hate most parties and social events (apart from Christmas and some small family meals etc)
- I don’t support a football team
- I enjoy studying
- I enjoy subjects like maths
- Probably do more house work than many men such as cooking meals, washing clothes, ironing, changing and feeding kids, pick up son from school, vacuuming and cleaning
- Find talking to people very hard work, when most people see this as a rest and pleasurable, although I do like to talk to people on a one to one if I know them very well.
- I hate making eye contact but can manage it when I have to
- Need to spend some time alone to recover from sensory issues
- Although I have got high qualifications I cannot manage a career that uses them so am in a low paid, part time job
Should we fit into to society or should society accept us for the way we are?
I have had the good fortune of working with many people with autism on various levels. I understand that the more autism affects a person the less control they have over how they fit into society, as they can only be the person they are. An issue that I am tackling at the moment is: should someone like me, with high functioning autism, try to fit into society (regardless of the difficulties this causes me) or should society accept me for the way I am?
I have spent my whole life trying to fit in with the ways that are expected of me as I did not know I was autistic. I just tried my best to fit in with how everyone else was, just to be accepted. As I became more knowledgeable, I realised it is okay to be different but at the same time if you are too different you will be bullied and ostracised from others such as at the workplace. So, for me, it is sometimes better to keep my differences and often extremely opposing opinions to myself rather than upset others or be alienated.
I have know two people with high functioning autism that will speak their minds regardless of the hurt they cause. If they do not like a person they will be outright in showing this at any opportunity. They know they often say the wrong thing (which I do myself) but they will not correct this behaviour as they truly do not seem to care about other people’s feelings. With one person he would say nasty and hurtful things to anyone who would speak to him in an almost evil condescending tone. Whether this was due to being bullied earlier in life or if this person felt that other people should accept him for the way he was as he is autistic I do not know. I know I do not wish to be like this.
For me I try to fit into society and act my way through life as a normal person but now I know I am autistic I am finding that I do try to fit in a bit less than before. For example I make less eye contact with people when I talk to them, especially if they know I am autistic as I feel my difference should be accommodated. I’ll wear sunglasses more often, and have even worn them in a bright shop once, as sensory overload is worse than looking a bit odd for a few minutes. I don’t try to correct my strange walk as much as I used to. I tell people outright that I do not like to socialise when being invited to parties instead of making an excuse (which is just as hard for me as I find lying almost impossible, so I can only bend the truth when doing this). I don’t go to pubs any more. I don’t meet the couple of distant friends I have got any more and stopped meeting in pubs a few years ago. I don’t drink alcohol as I believe alcohol affects me in a more negative way to normal people due to my autism (I will research this in the future). I act less than I used to at places like work and try to be me more. I cut my own hair instead of having the extreme discomfort of going to the hairdresser, even though the hairdresser used to cut my hair in a more stylish and fashionable way (therefore helping me to fit in better).
I am starting to take the attitude that people should like me for me and not for someone who I am pretending to be. But at the same time I have got a responsibility to my family to do things that I sometimes feel uncomfortable doing such as going to christenings, weddings and some parties and being there for my children when they want birthday parties instead of hiding away, even though I find it so hard.
If I allowed my autism to rule me I would probably hide away from the world, certainly would not work, would not go to any social event, never go shopping and not talk to anyone other than my close family. This would probably lead to depression and increased anxiety, but at the same time I cannot pretend to be who I am not all the time as it causes so much tiredness, stress and sorrow. I suppose there needs to be a balance but I do wish, in many ways, I could be the person I am more than the person I pretend to be to fit into society.