Because I am autistic but did not know that until I was 30, I had to learn to compensate.1 I had learned as a child and teenager how to suppress symptoms and grit my teeth through problems and build workarounds so that I could act mostly neurotypical; moreover, I had learned all of this without knowing that that is what I was learning. Either this process was wholly unconscious or else I attributed it to the regular learning curve of a somewhat awkward teenager from a rural elementary school suddenly cast into a townie high school. But where I learned these social skills passably well in high school, I learned them very well in customer service jobs. I am now very good at the point-of-sale and tour guide personality performance; I have had coworkers call me charming and employers rely on me for impressing visiting dignitaries. It is a performance, though, that I turn on and off. I think many people in customer service do this. I suspect far fewer people in customer service also use their “customer service face,” as I call it, in almost all social encounters. I do.
“Mask” by Philippe Gillotte at flic.kr/p/anifrD
I have seen other late-diagnosis autistic people on Twitter call these compensations a mask, and that is a good description. Lately I noticed that two of my previous posts here on Accidental Shelf-Browsing have a mask metaphor in so central a place that I used a photograph of a mask as one of its images: the first pertains, by way of William Blake, to the way that all self-expression creates an imperfect persona that is not identical to who we are, while the second pertains to my personal sense of inadequacy and the brazen colossus within which I find myself trapped. Is this preoccupation with masks a consequence of the fact that, in order to function in neurotypical society, I have had to live under one for my entire life? Of course, I still stand by the claim that all self-expression creates a “self” distinct from the person who created it, that for each Borges there is another Borges. But it is possible that most people take their masks off from time to time whereas, since I only recently learned that I wore a mask at all, I haven’t the slightest idea how.
Since the beginning of the new year I have realized that I might have high-functioning autism. I am currently unclear about two things: how I would find out if I do and whether it would matter if I do.
This isn’t the first time I considered the possibility that I might be on the autism spectrum. When I was in undergrad I realized that certain of my traits–discomfort with eye contact, inability to interpret physical touch, minor social awkwardness, occasional bluntness and tone deafness, intellectual obsessions–were typical of autism or resembled symptoms of autism. But whenever I researched it I found that I didn’t have certain traits you would expect of someone who was autistic: not only did I pretend play a lot as a child, it was neither repetitive nor focused on a consistent topic; I am more than capable of interpreting tone of voice and reading implied content in speech; I am about average at interpreting body language; my verbal communication skills are better than usual. By my best understanding of autism at the time, I did not qualify, so I stopped looking into it and stopped thinking about it.
However, I’ve learned a bit more since then. One of the things I’ve learned is that autism is still poorly understood and that what traits are required for a diagnosis is up for (some) debate. Moreover, I’ve learned that adults have often found ways of compensating for symptoms of autism; if they learned these techniques unconsciously, they might not be aware that they are using work-arounds. This discrepancy between an ideal case of autism and what autism might actually look like prompted a particular Twitter user to create a list of traits common to people with autism that don’t appear in most diagnostic lists. It was her opinion that a person who exhibited half or more of those traits was autistic; indeed, there was one trait that she considered properly diagnostic, such that anyone who exhibits it is autistic regardless of how they answer the other items on her list.
I won’t be coy. I answered yes to the diagnostic question. When I first saw it I was very skeptical that the question was really diagnostic–indeed, I’m still skeptical–but I took it seriously enough that I worked through her list. I answered for how I act right now and got exactly 50/50; if I answered for childhood, I would probably have had just over 50/50, but distributed differently. That was high enough that I started to take it seriously. Continue reading