Pop Culture Taught Me How To Hide My Autism

Around my parents I was Angela from ‘My So Called Life,’ with my friends it was Cher from ‘Clueless,’ and in front of boys I became Alice from ‘Closer.’

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Oct 16 2018, 12:29am

Illustration by Madison Griffiths

I’m autistic and growing up I often turned to film and television characters to figure out how to express myself and survive socially. Instead of embracing my own thoughts and feelings, I’d mimic those of Buffy the Vampire Slayer because she was badass; Cher from Clueless because she was wealthy, pretty and super entrepreneurial; and Alice from Closer, because a guy I had a crush on was obsessed with her.

I wanted to be more like them than myself. I saw the way that they were revered, and admired. So I carefully studied how they spoke, the way they dressed, and carried their bodies. I strove to stand out and—simultaneously—fit in. Just like them. Every cock of my head, sigh, and swish of a hip was considered, designed, and exhausting. Yet I never questioned the amount of energy this took. I performed the gestures and nuanced tones of voice like a robot following an algorithm.

No one ever suspected that I had doubts, let alone that I was disabled. I didn’t even think that I was disabled. I wasn’t officially diagnosed as autistic until a year or so ago. I always assumed that the scientific way in which I approached self-expression, sexuality, and communication was the same as what everyone else was doing. I didn’t realise that it might have been revealing of someone who didn’t have the same interpersonal instincts as others.

Mimicry got me through everything. As an only child, the pressure of communicating like an adult felt immense. So I would mimic my parents back at them, or become a character. Angela from My So Called Life was a pretty solid template: I vaguely recognised some of my own yearnings and resentments in her. Yet she also communicated a lot with her friends, which I didn’t.

Talking to friends about what I was experiencing felt like a no-no. I sensed that by sharing what I was struggling with, or what I found confusing, I became more vulnerable. Vulnerability doesn’t feature much in popular culture. It’s usually presented as putting us at risk socially; it leads to teasing, bullying, ridiculing and rejection. Intuition and learning to follow our instincts doesn’t make for particularly compelling plot points, or third act climaxes.

But while mimicking popular culture oriented me socially to some extent, it did nothing to preserve the sanctity of my inner life. I didn’t know what I truly thought or felt. I didn’t know what I wanted —and I certainly didn’t know how to express it. I just followed the script that popular culture presented to me, hoping that it would keep me safe.

Characters in musicals were a particularly powerful influence. It was easy to grasp what they were experiencing, and wanting to share, because they would sing about it and communicate it with their bodies. Their thoughts and feelings were highlighted like neon signs, and I took them very seriously.

Sandy’s makeover at the end of the 1978 film Grease really fucked me up. Even as a child, I understood that everything happened for her when she finally made the boys turn their heads, and the other girls gasp in approval. That was when Sandy got her power, and it had very little to do with what she was thinking, or feeling. It was about what she wore, and the way she moved her body.

When Sandy was modest, naïve and unsure, she was on unsteady ground socially and sexually. It was only once she began to dress and dance more like Danny that he began to appreciate and interact with her openly. So much of my late teens and early twenties were spent walking tall and wearing Lycra, leather and blood red lipstick.

I crafted a persona to hide all of my uncertainties, of which I had many—especially in social situations. I was prone to taking what people said and did at face value. I couldn’t tell if someone was trying to seduce me until they went in for a kiss or tried to grab me. I only knew if a friend was upset when they told me directly, and if I ever felt overwhelmed, I pretended that I didn’t.

With the help of post-makeover-Sandy, I was able to give off the impression that I knew what I was doing. The illusion of security that this provided was seductive. People interacted with me in the way that I had calculated they would: guys turned their heads, girls wanted to know where I bought my clothes. I had a lot of sex and was expected to do sexy things. Yet intimacy with myself, and with others, became impossible.

One night I went home with a guy after a party and he took it upon himself to interpret me, and my behaviour, in great detail. He came to the conclusion that I was a woman who was very competitive with other women, and that I enjoyed male attention. He came to this, I suspect, because I had gone home with him that night in high heels and hot pants without knowing his last name, or batting a mascara-laden eyelid.

I didn’t know what to say. It felt like he was talking about someone else. And he was, in a way. He was talking about Sandy; maybe a sprinkling of Buffy; and bucket loads of Alice. She was all about being unavailable emotionally, and overly accessible physically. Because I didn’t especially enjoy male attention, and it had never occurred to me that by wearing revealing clothing I had gone into battle with other women.

Popular culture had betrayed me. By dutifully following its code of conduct, I had completely lost contact with myself.

Eventually, my inclination to role-play rather than be real led me to acting. I performed in theatre around Melbourne, and did short films. I went to acting school and, ironically, it was there that I consciously accessed my own feelings for the first time.

I participated in a class based on the teachings of Yat Malmgren, who was a Swedish dance and acting coach interested in physical movement as an expression of the inner world of a character. One day we were asked to embody horror, or the feeling of being horrified. I got up in front of everyone and imagined my dad being hit by a bus, or a car, or whatever it was that we were told to imagine, and the teacher stopped me and said: “Okay, enough. Now just feel it.” I didn’t know what she meant. I thought I had felt it. I’d wailed and cried and everything. What more did she want? “Don’t perform feeling horrified,” she said. “Just feel horrified.”

Everything went still. Then, an unprecedented experience rolled out of me. All of the colour and movement of popular culture faded away. There was no more room for Angela or Cher or Sandy, or for premeditated gestures or thoughts.

I simply felt something, and expressed it.

There was a whole universe inside of my heart, away from popular culture—and I was finally ready to explore it.

Check out more of Madeleine's writing here.

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