I am autistic, and I represent the opposite of what our culture values. If fitting in and being part of a friendship group or community involves thinking and feeling like others do, appreciating similar things, idolising certain styles and behaviours, enjoying what others enjoy, keeping up with what they’re doing and mirroring the ways in which they like to socialise and connect—I don’t.
I think, feel, and process information completely differently. I appreciate very specific and idiosyncratic things. I don’t idolise or admire anything, and I don’t experience jealousy. I can’t “keep up”, I’m never “in the loop” and it takes me a long time to work out what others like and why they like it. I lack the mirror neurons to socialise and connect in a way that makes sense to others, and I need a lot of time to myself.
From square one I’m outside the square. Doctors, teachers, employers, administrators, friends, partners, and parents have always looked at me and said that the things I find difficult are meant to be easy. I’m too sensitive, too analytical, too much, too isolated, too self-centred and too cool.
It’s been easy to believe them, and to think that I’m the one with all the problems. Or, more specifically, that I am the problem.
Yet I’ve discovered that being autistic is a blessing, not a curse. After reading self-help book after self-help book and seeing shaman after shaman and being in relationship after relationship and doing meditation after meditation and card reading after card reading and talking to therapist after therapist, I can finally see how valuable the supposedly “problematic” things about me are.
“Missing social cues” helped me to survive being at a private girls’ school from the age of five to 18 because I was oblivious to the power struggles that shaped its social structure. I rarely sensed passive aggressiveness, and popularity seemed so irrational.
When I was 16, a friend made out with my first boyfriend the night I broke up with him. During the following days they both apologised profusely, and everyone was outraged on my behalf. Yet all I wanted was for the attention on me to stop. For whatever reason, I didn’t care. I’d broken up with him, and my friend who made out with him had always been a loose unit. It was hardly a shock.
Another bestie got together with a guy I very openly had a crush on, and I was strongly encouraged by our friendship group to seize the opportunity to hate her, but I couldn’t. Which is just as well, because the two of them were together for more than a decade, and she and I are still friends.
The ways in which those around me used social inclusion and exclusion never worked on me the way it was intended to. I recently had a wine with a “bff” of times gone by and before we’d even sat down she made fun of the fact that I wasn’t on social media, prior to wishing that she was as “strong” as me. I put “strong’” in quotation marks because not being on social media hasn’t required strength. I’m logical, not social, and the realm of online communication has only ever felt frustrating and painful. It wasted my time and energy and seemed life depleting, not life enhancing. So I deleted it.
She then talked about an overseas trip with the entire friendship group I had at school to celebrate their 30th birthdays and it was like a big happy family, she said. Just like old times.
Yet old times aren’t something I uphold especially highly. And when it comes to group adventures to unknown places, I think I’ll pass. Navigating a foreign land and language on top of social hierarchies and politics sounds more like unpaid work than it does a holiday. I asked her if people were able to go off on their own, because I couldn’t imagine getting through such a trip without time to myself, and she looked at me, perplexed. No, she said. No one had required that.
Somewhere in there, I think I was supposed to feel left out. Instead, I highlighted our differences and, in doing so, was perceived as being in opposition to her, and to the group. Highlighting differences tends to upset social security. It’s seen as a threat, and as a betrayal, not as something natural. We aren’t supposed to do things differently, or to truthfully share our needs, feelings and thoughts. Honesty and openness aren’t revered, or celebrated—they make us broken.
Because I’m “underdeveloped” when it comes to preserving the social status quo over expressing myself, I’m seen as rude, a problem, and maybe even "disabled." However, I don’t see how true intimacy or connection can exist when social instincts are stopping people from being themselves.
Someone I considered to be one of my oldest and dearest friends stopped returning my calls and texts and after a year of avoiding me, a friend of hers said, “When a person ignores you that generally means they don’t want to hear from you.” The friend then finally shared with me that she didn’t want to communicate anymore because she had no room for me in her life.
I thanked her for sharing this, because it was a relief. Taking what she said at face value made the grieving process easier, even if I sensed that she wasn’t being entirely honest with me. I have a feeling that she stopped wanting to be friends after I didn’t get her an engagement present. Although I’ll never know for sure, because she chose to conceal her truth.
Meanwhile, thanks to my “disability” I have no shame around exploring or expressing my inner world with others. I’m hyper aware of it and I can’t escape, or contain it. Emotions, ideas, fantasies, neuroses, smells, sensations, bodily fluids, sex, bowel movements, and physical health are free of judgment, and fear.
I worked as a life model for years and stood naked on stage every night for weeks while doing a theatre production and I didn’t feel exposed. I was surprised by my degree of detachment, though, because everyone around me had made such a fuss about my impending public display of nudity.
Friends had applauded my “courage” and my parents had rolled their eyes. During rehearsals the director had been overly sensitive to my every need: another soy cap? Shall I draw the blinds now? Do you need a break? How are you going? The guy I was dating laughed when I spoke about it and didn’t know where to look. He joked about bringing his mates along right up until he dumped me a week beforehand. When I told him about the terrible diarrhoea the breakdown between us had caused me, he said, “too far.”
I still don’t know why that was too far, though. Why is speaking of the impact something has upon us too far? It’s the truth, and I see that as sacred. Yet, in our culture, a rich inner life isn’t as valuable as crafting a rich exterior one. It doesn’t really matter what we think or feel, so long as others feel comfortable with us and want to be us and have sex with us and be associated with us and promote us and spend time with us.
I can’t get past myself, and I do a very shitty job of pretending to be something that I’m not and, for that, I am autistic and disabled. Or, to put it into my own words: I’m the anti-heroine, and I’m cool with that.
Check out more of Madeleine's writing here.