There was a moment right when I first realized that I was autistic. Like a bright, shining bulb. And once that bulb was lit, it lit up a maze I didn’t even know I was in. A tangle of emotions and discovering meaning within myself that I continue to navigate today. However, my internal discovery doesn’t change my outward appearance. This ‘eureka’ moment has led to so many answers to situations in my life, but it has also led to questions.
For most of my life, I’ve been a coded but open book. My emotions were a vulnerability that I bottled up, then shelved. I had a front that wasn’t really a front. I was cranky a lot and spoke in a verbally aggressive tone even if I was saying something nice. I spent a lot of time not knowing what was going on because my attention was continually shifting to my environment, and spent forever wondering what I was missing to be considered ‘nice.’
When I typed a social situation in Google, I was met with a plethora of forums, articles, and groups focused on single issues similar to the social situation I typed in. In forums, strangers comment on the person’s situation, and I would glean from those comments and finagle an answer to my situation. Each situation solution became a patch that was a social opinion of me, pieced together like a patchwork quilt. Sometimes I would ask my friends what particular actions or phrases meant to be better at socializing. It took up all my energy, and I still sucked.
I cared about social situations off-and-on depending on the situation until I understood why it was so important in the first place. There isn’t an economic logic to feelings, but there is an emotional logic. For example, if you hit someone, the emotional-logical next action is that the person will be angry and hit you back. Whether or not that is the case depends on the emotions of the person you hit and outside factors. Depending on the context of who you hit and how you hit them, it might not even be a problem, like in a boxing match. Another example, if you hurt a friend’s feelings accidentally, the emotional-logical next action would be to apologize. Again, whether or not you actually need to apologize depends on how close you are to the friend and the severity of the hurt feelings. Some people feel better with just knowing you’re remorseful.
Emotional logic got more complex, the more I learned about human nature and needs.
Masking is pretending to know what’s going on in a conversation involving facial cues, it’s acting “normal,” it’s hiding sensory pain, so people don’t make fun of you. It’s the struggle with coming up with the “right thing to say” all the time because it seems that everything you say is wrong. It’s someone you’re not so people will accept you.
My ‘patchwork quilt’ of outward responses to society was actually part of the foundation of my mask. It’s a mask I still put on in unfamiliar territories, like camouflage in a recon mission. However, I can’t separate the mask I use to protect myself as an autistic person with the mask I use as a Latina person because it’s the same mask. That said, facial cues change across cultures. The “right thing to say” is different depending on who you’re with. Some people won’t respect a word I say because of the color of my skin. Some people wouldn’t appreciate me anyway because I’m a woman. A lot of people probably don’t respect me because of a label, “high functioning” autism, that makes me unqualified to speak on behalf of “low functioning” autistic people. So between all of those restrictions… Who can I talk for besides myself?
I’ve been underhandedly refused service based on the color of my skin recently. It took me 30 minutes to figure it out. I watched as other people were served ahead of me, thinking over and over, “they must have an appointment,” “that lady probably only does hands,” “maybe they’re just disorganized,” getting more and more flustered that I hadn’t been attended to yet. Then I realized the reality of my situation: I was the only Hispanic person in the salon, in a racist state (that wasn’t Texas), in the crappiest part of town. That situation had nothing to do with me being autistic. I can’t really say how my autism affected me at that moment, and while I’ve experienced plenty of racism in my life, I have questions with this specific encounter. What is the standard time frame it takes for a person of color to realize that they’re being refused service? What are the cues involved with this realization, if not the culmination of experiences? Was this something I should’ve figured was a possibility once I entered the establishment? Although I don’t have answers to these questions, I realize that only because of my skin color do I even have to ask them. My autistic mask can’t be anything else: it must be Hispanic.
My mask has been constructed around unchangeable parts of me, and much like wallpaper isn’t coming off in one clean sweep. It’s a very delicate situation to be in: to know who you are and still mentally struggle with society’s views of what you should be. It’s a struggle to break patterns within yourself that negatively affect your interactions with people, especially if those negative patterns are positively reinforced. In those situations, it’s difficult to even pinpoint which pattern is the negative pattern: all I know is that some part of “it” makes me feel bad. To determine whether or not it is me making myself feel bad, my interpretation of society or actual real-life mistreatment requires much thought and careful deliberation. That’s probably why it took me thirty minutes to realize I was surrounded by racists, although I’m sure it would’ve taken less time if there were violence involved.
Instead of inciting a fuss, I left and ruminated on the encounter for the rest of the day. My interactions with people don’t shape who I am. Who I am shapes my interactions with people. I will probably always Google social situation answers because I am a person who likes to know social protocol and etiquette. I can be tough when the situation calls for it because I’m a tough person. I struggle with being gentle for the same reason. Fighting is an innate part of the human experience. Neurotypical people don’t hide it, and neither should autistic people. Just because we have different needs and strengths doesn’t mean that we are any less.