Social imagination and judging the #JudgeyFace 

The National Autistic Society’s recent Twitter campaign aims to highlight how autistic people often receive judgement and scorn from members of the public. An array of celebrities, autism advocates and ordinary people, some autistic, many not, have shared pictures of their own judgey faces.

The judgey faces on display are like an homage to Kenneth Williams. But it made me think about my own experiences in public, particularly as a parent to a child who can display unusual, challenging and somewhat bizarre behaviours.

Apart from my teen years living in a small town where looks of disapproval were smugly satisfying, much of my life has been spent avoiding being noticed. I’ve mostly managed to escape unwanted judgey faces. Occasionally I forget to filter my thoughts and say something which raises eyebrows or elicits an exclamation of shock. I don’t always notice, however, as most people’s facial expressions aren’t very obvious or consistent.

Struggling to read facial expressions is fairly central to the the ‘social imagination’ part of the autism triad. Social imagination is essentially the ability to understand what another person might be thinking or feeling without them explicitly telling you. Autistic people often ‘fail’ standard tests devised to assess social imagination. This is often mistaken for a lack of empathy.

I really struggle with the claim that autistic people lack empathy. I may not read other people in the same way as a neurotypical person, I may not show the same visible emotional response in the expected neurotypical manner, but it doesn’t mean I lack empathy. My strong sense of justice and fairness wouldn’t exist without empathy.

I cannot help but wonder if it isn’t the neurotypicals amongst us who have the greatest empathy deficit. It is almost always neurotypical people, mostly adults, who judge behaviours they don’t understand. It is almost always an average, ordinary sort of person who makes a judgey face.

Behind the judgey face is often a person who hasn’t experienced a meltdown, hasn’t parented a child who stims, has never felt disorientated and overwhelmed by lighting, noise or smells, who isn’t autistic. It is a person who cannot comprehend or imagine any reason for the behaviour beyond ‘naughty, spoilt, badly parented’.

The judgey faced person’s frame of reference for such behaviour is so narrow, so lacking in imagination, that they don’t imagine other possibilities. It makes me wonder who really lacks imagination.

A great advantage of being an autistic parent of an autistic child is that I’m largely oblivious to the reactions of witnesses to my son’s public displays of autism. Alongside not noticing any judgey faces, I become hyperfocused on the situation at hand. Random strangers, judgey faced or not, become blurred background matter.

This makes me think that the campaign is primarily aimed at supporting neurotypical parents and carers. It does little for me as an autistic parent. By not noticing judgey faces in real life, they don’t matter to me. Except as funny faces.

Performing normal

I am beginning to think that us late diagnosed autistic adults deserve Oscars and BAFTAs for our performances. We study our roles and learn our parts with great dedication. We are method acting every day. We knock spots off Daniel Day-Lewis. We immerse ourselves in the worlds of those we seek to emulate. We often maintain the role every waking hour. We mostly do it without even noticing. We work hard to perform normal. We are unconsciously competent.

Until we can’t do it any more.

It starts in childhood and probably never really ends. Even when we have our autistic epiphany it’s a hard habit to break. It can be a useful skill if we use it wisely. It’s like an ultimate special talent. At the height of our performance career we slip chameleon-like among social worlds, studying our characters, always studying, trying to be better actors, better characters.

But over-use comes with a price. For us, it isn’t a role which we get to leave at the end of the contract. This is our life and performing normal is exhausting. Maintaining the roles we construct, often subconsciously, very often leads to our downfall. We risk losing ourselves in our performance.

If we are lucky enough to realise we are autistic, and we have sufficient resilience, confidence and support, we can free ourselves from the performance. This is where I am now. I am trying to drop the performance and be me. I have become more conscious of the roles I perform and can sense the changes from one role to another. It is unsettling and disconcerting to acknowledge the process as I shift through the social realms I inhabit and encounter. I have moments when I feel like I’m in a body-swap movie, like I am being inhabited by an interchangeable set of personalities and competencies.

Training for these roles starts from birth, we are continually measured against a set of criteria based on population averages. We are pushed to meet typical developmental milestones and encouraged to perform to the audience. We are applauded for using speech, for playing nicely, for sharing, for good manners and for following the rules. Some of us find these things harder but we learn quickly what is expected and we do our best. Even when we are teeny, we seek approval. We learn that compliance is good, challenging is bad. We are being shaped to fit the norms.

Girls are almost certainly more heavily burdened with neurotypical social, emotional and development expectations. School is where we undertake our apprenticeship. It is in school where we find our first role models, the happy social butterflies who make it all look so easy, so effortless. We try so hard to be like them. We might copy their interests, their style, their mannerisms as we desperately try to fit in, to be normal.

Some are lucky and find a niche in adulthood where they can bloom, able to drop the performance. Many start to experience deteriorating mental health. Some, like me, muddle along, performing normal and wondering why we find life so hard, and why are we so exhausted by normal when everyone else seems fine.

Autistic realisation brings new insight. As well as being more aware that I am performing I am also more aware and, perhaps more consciously, planning and preparing for every possible encounter. Every possible social encounter has to be considered and planned for. I draw on my history, trying to learn from my mistakes. I wish I could forget all the mistakes.

I go to bed planning the next day and I wake revising and rehearsing my plans. As I drive to work I am reminding myself of the potential subject matter I might encounter and ways I can show an interest in people’s lives, because that’s normal. Has anyone been on holiday? How was the night out? Is an ailment better? How was the move? I don’t need to remember what I need to do at work as that is on my list. But I also have to maintain a virtual list of things that I should remember about people’s lives. I am mostly not interested, but I do it anyway. Performing normal means being interested in other people and the trivialities of life.

Life is a long list of encounters, each with different expectations, some with very subtle differences. Lots of rules. Lots of roles.

In a typical day at work I have to adjust to the different social expectations of my immediate colleagues, the ones I share workspace with, people I know and bump into around the building, people I don’t know who I bump into and people I don’t know who invade our workspace. I need to be able to make requests of support staff and defer to senior staff. I have to adjust for client needs, though somehow that is easier as I am in my professional role and that’s my favourite work role.

Outside of work I have different roles to perform when thanking the postman, bumping into neighbours, attending school and medical appointments and meetings. Social interaction with friends requires even more planning as I fear getting it wrong and losing friends. I have lost many wonderful friends over the years when my performance was clearly not up to scratch.

My autistic realisation has helped me be more honest both with myself and my friends. I have disclosed my autism to my immediate colleagues, and am getting better at dropping the performance and being honest about what I need. I have noticed that when I drop my performance I am more animated, I gesticulate and I am just a little bit less inhibited. I am loosening up and freeing myself.

My son’s current favourite insult is to call me ‘normal’. I am normal. Normal for me.