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.

27 thoughts on “Performing normal

  1. Well, THAT sounds familiar! I can’t tell you how ingrained the whole acting thing is with me — but then, you probably know. I do have the benefit of not having any kids – that spares me from tons of social interaction with parents and kids I have no interest in interacting with. I’m intermittently aware of the roles I play, and the times that I’m passing. The weird thing is, I’ve almost convinced myself that I care about news from other people’s lives, but truly, I don’t. I couldn’t care less about their college drop-offs, their battles with their teenagers, etc. Even their trips to the emergency room don’t really spike my radar. I’ve learned how to feign interest and appear engaged and fascinated, but as you may suspect, I’d much rather be off by myself researching something far more interesting — and esoteric.

    It is strange, how we can lose ourselves. And as a 50-ish woman on the spectrum who’s been pretending out of self-defense for so, so many years, it’s gotten to the point where I can’t even credibly explain to others that I’m covering up, because who would believe me? Who would believe that I’m lost in the shuffle? I seem so in-tune with the NT folks around me, so interested… so involved in their self-centered little world(s)… when really, I couldn’t honestly care less.

    And I wish with all my heart, they’d just go away and leave me alone.

    I’ve gotten so adept — they’d never, ever believe me. I’ve tried to explain to people who are supposedly experienced with Aspergers, and even they didn’t believe me. I’ll take that BAFTA award, thank you very much. My SAG card should be valid for life 😉

    With any luck, researchers will eventually get a clue and find ways to both detect and diagnose us… and we’ll figure out a way to more peacefully co-exist, rather than constantly pretending and checking ourselves at the door, whenever we enter the NT “house”.

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    1. Thank you, and for sharing this post 🙂 Display your BAFTA with pride, it’s well earned, I’m sure!

      I completely forgot all the inane interaction related to being parent. There is a lot less of that now my son is at secondary school, thank goodness, as it just added to my stress load.

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      1. Lucky for you! I can’t even imagine having to interact with young NT mothers who chit-chat to relieve the anxiety of early parenthood. For autistic folks, I would imagine it’s even more wretched — adds to the stress, rather than relieving it. Maybe there should be Aspie parenting playgroups…

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    2. Yes, yes and yes. I know these feelings. When I triggered with ptsd in 2010 and functional neurological disorder and lost my ability, talk, walk, and major loss of cognitive skills and amnesia — I lost my ability to “blend” so well. My filters are gone so words blab out and I am much more animated now and hand flappy and rocking when anxious … stuff like that … and my emotions are sooooooo intense it’s like being a toddler and having to learn how to have them … egacks. I’m doing better now that I can remember patterns of behavior better and yet … I don’t think I’ll ever have the energy to “blend” again like I did. It’s too damn exhausting.

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      1. Wow – same thing happened to me, when I “shorted out” over life stress and caretaking for my wife. Altho, now that I think of it, my “decompensation” (if that’s the right word) has been more extended. For years, I just shut down and was in total block-of-wood mode, feeling under constant onslaught and attack from my sensory issues, plus all the demands on my energy. I melted down in private — until around 2010 — then I seemed to lock up and find a persona that worked for me, that was staid and stoic. So much was going on inside me that I could never, ever let on about — or the blowback would be too much for me and everyone around me, seriously — and I got used to just being impassive and not letting on what was going on inside me.

        Interestingly, now I’m less and less inclined to blend. I think it’s a function of age and being post-menopausal. I just can’t be bothered anymore. Plus, after years and years of continuous practice, I’ve got my adrenaline situation chilled out, and I’m not in constant fight-flight anymore. Also, my old therapist, who was both helpful… and not, has moved on, so I’m not practicing the persona I used with him on a weekly basis. That’s very freeing, as well. And I’m noticing myself stimming more, which is good, because it means I’m self-soothing. And I can really tell a difference in my life and energy levels. For the first time in years, I can actually sleep! It’s quite magical. 🙂

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    1. Hi Florence, do you mean me or you? For me I’m now trying to spend less time joining in office chatter and more time wearing my noise cancelling headphones! If the office is overwhelming I feel more able to walk out and get a break. It’s tricky.

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  2. Wow. Thank you for sharing this. It describes me to a tee. I’ve been diagnosed for almost 13 years and disclosing for the last 7 years. I want to drop the performance but it’s hard. It’s been my crutch for so long. I know it’s crumbling but I’m afraid to be without it. Like a school-age kid with a security blanket, I know logically I can live without it but it’s scary. I do have one advantage: I get to work from home since I can’t use noise cancelling headphones and be on conference calls for 5-6 hours a day.

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  3. I’m afraid of what happens when I can no longer keep up the act. I’m 58 and have known about my Aspie symptoms for 15 years. It is getting harder and harder to be normal. And I’m talking about work. I am myself the rest of the time and only work part-time because I would never leave the house if I didn’t have to. What happens at work when I can’t pretend anymore? It keeps getting more and more overwhelming.

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    1. Oh Debby, that sounds tough. But this is why I needed professional recognition, to protect myself and hopefully get better understanding and adjustments at work. I wrote about it in one of my early posts ‘Hiding in plain sight’. I think I probably felt similar to how you do now, like everything was about to tumble. Hope you can find a way that works for you x

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  4. So many questions. I have long suspected my adult sister has Aspergers. Among other things, she has great difficulty with relationships and keeping jobs. We feel she may ultimately be unemployable and that she may someday have to live with us because she won’t be able to support herself. I am reluctant to tell her what I think is going on because she also has a short fuse and would likely not handle it well. (In her mind, her problems are always someone else’s fault.) Should I tell her anyway? If so, how? Does it do any good? Are there “free” programs out there to help people with Aspergers/autism? If not, what would be the point of telling her?

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    1. That sounds very tricky, Jean. Some adults are relieved to have someone make the suggestion, and I suppose it depends a lot on a person’s understanding of autism/Asperger’s how they take it. You could introduce her to some positive articles by/about autistic adults.

      The main benefit for a lot of us is self awareness, identity and community. Just knowing you’re not alone helps a lot. I don’t know about programmes but learning from and with other autistic adults (through social media, articles, books, and talking!) is rather wonderful 🙂

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  5. A friend passed me your blog, wow, so interesting. I have a daughter with PDA and the way you share your experiences on various subjects is just so thought provoking. Thank you for sharing.

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  6. Reblogged this on Aspie Under Your Radar and commented:
    “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.” Oh, heavens – I know! I really could NOT care less about everyone else’s mundane and monochromatic lives, but feigning interest is the price of admission…. Oh, well. There are worse, more odious things than that.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. “This is where I am now”
    Hi AM,
    I have just found your post/blog and “surprise!” it suits me…
    As yourself at the time of writing, I’m transitioning from the multiple-person-role to the role of “me”. It’s as unusual as it’s liberating. No more faked smiles, silly talk, etc.
    Meanwhile, trying to act instead of react, learning to cope with what I thought I was, even though I wasn’t etc.
    Thanks for sharing your own experience on this, might make my life easier 🙂
    Will be following.
    Moshe

    Liked by 1 person

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