The neurotypical mask

We all spend a good chunk of our lives putting on a metaphorical mask for the world around us. Relatable, right? You wear an “I’m fine” mask when you are dying inside. Or an “ideal version of me” mask when with people you can’t quite be open with. Or an “I’m in control of my life” mask when you suddenly realise you are an adult…

Or a “neurotypical” mask, as an Asperger person in a world of neurotypicals. That is, non autistic people.

This past week has not been the best. Having got a packaging job the week before, I turned up for day two and was sent home for not working fast enough on day one. Ouch. And it’s at times like this that my neurotypical mask keeps slipping.

Let me explain.

With my mask, I can listen to someone without breaking eye contact to look at everything else I can hear just as clearly. With it, I can laugh at my own mishaps without getting frustrated or embarrassed. I can not react to people I don’t know well touching me unexpectedly. I can go to parties, and have fun while fighting the feeling of being both overcrowded and isolated. I can not only make small talk, but also put new people at ease with my sense of humour. With my mask, I can manage rather a lot.

But when the mask slips, I say the bare minimum to new people. When it slips, I get irrationally angry about any mistake I make, autism related or not. My brain drops my social skills in order to free up the capacity to deal with my current situation. I am slower at understanding sarcasm and jokes, and interpreting instructions. I either avoid social gatherings, or spend the whole time feeling desperately lonely and self conscious when everyone else knows how to bond in a big group. I am very easily confused by too much background noise, or too many people talking at once.

See? The neurotypical mask is a hard mask to hold. In fact, the other day, when I had a panic attack at a social gathering and shut myself in the bathroom for ages, I think it must have fallen off altogether. And when that happens, I can’t face anyone other than – at most – my parents, and I either clam up, or rattle off every scary thought and feeling inside me without even trying to find my mask.

Basically, having a learning difference can be exhausting. We on the spectrum put so much brain power into making sense of the neurotypical world that we are bound to burn out. If this happens over something that “isn’t that hard!”, then either it is that hard for us, or something else has pushed us to that point. I speak for myself when I say I will explain what I need when I can. Neurotypical people, I realise that learning differences aren’t an excuse for every shortcoming, but do try and cut us some slack once in a while.

 

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“Things Not To Say To An Autistic Person”- my reaction

If I had a pound for every time I read or hear the statements below, I wouldn’t be job searching…

Today I thought I’d take a different approach to usual and have a look at a video: BBC3’s “Things Not To Say To An Autistic Person” available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d69tTXOvRq4. It’s part of a series in which people in a social minority share with each other – and the viewers – what sort of things they constantly hear from people. And after watching the one about autism, I thought why not share my thoughts? So here are the statements covered.

“But you don’t look autistic!”

Can you tell me what an autistic person looks like? I’ll have a go. Human sized. Hair, mostly on the head. Two eyes. One mouth and nose. Four limbs, but only two are used for walking. I can’t really give much more detail, though, because no two autistic people are alike…

Autism isn’t a physical condition. In fact it’s not even one condition, and I’m well aware that those on the severe end of the spectrum may present as being obviously different. But it’s only their behaviour that shows it.

“What’s your special ability?”

The assumption that people like me have a special ability is, to be fair, loosely based on truth. It also implies that people on the spectrum have superhero alter egos. Which isn’t the case, because frankly, life’s not fair.

It is common for autistic people to have an above-average IQ, and an intense, detailed fascination with their area of expertise. I mean, not every five year old would know a polymorphic snake when they saw one. And yes, assuming someone is gifted is better than assuming that they’re dumb. But blatantly assuming anything can sound annoying, and anyway, it’s not always as simple as autistic people having one super-talent and struggling with everything else. Autistic obsessions may be rigid while they last, but they can change and overlap.

“Everyone’s a little bit autistic”

Nothing wrong with this statement exactly, but does everyone who coughs have a little bit of asthma?

“Autistic people don’t feel empathy

Let me stop you there. Many autistic people aren’t as expressive as neurotypicals. We don’t always know how to respond to people during immediate, face-to-face interaction, and yet somehow, we over-empathise. If someone I’m with is unhappy, it’s like the air is thick with it.

“You could be normal if you tried”

I don’t try. I just am. For me. Don’t even get me started on healing

“How would you describe autism?”

A hard question, but not necessarily an inappropriate one. Having Asperger’s, i.e. at the mild end of the spectrum, I’d say poor co-ordination, difficulty reading people, a mix of detailed and innovative, and overall a bummer, but also perfectly normal. Well, “normal.” If you want a lengthier description, you’ve got one right here.

“What is the best thing about autism?”

To be honest, it’s a nuisance. But hey, I can joke about lacking empathy or humour in a way that would be insulting coming from anyone else. I have life experiences, and an understanding of the world, that are apparently different from neurotypicals’. Plus, if I didn’t have it, I might not be writing this blog.

There you have it. Personally, I wouldn’t put a ban on those last two points, but other than that, please try to remember the issues touched upon. And while you’re at it, watch the video, and tell me what you think. How can one deal with these statements? Could they be replaced with something more appropriate?

Five signs you may be neurotypical

As you may know (and as I have previously mentioned) April is Asperger’s Awareness Month. But have you ever wondered whether you might be neurotypical? If so, here is an unpublished would-be Derby Telegraph article to get your teeth into:

Out of every 10,000 people, around 36 of us have Asperger’s Syndrome. As it happens, I am one of that 36. Having been diagnosed aged nine, I am well familiar with many concepts – true and false – associated with the condition. Poor social skills and physical co-ordination? Sadly, yes. Literal minded and obsessive? In some cases. Lack of empathy and emotion? Well wouldn’t life be easier if that were true. But do you know what it means to be neurotypical?

If the above statistic is anything to go by, it seems that 9,964 out of 10,000 people are neurotypical. This means that their brain is scientifically proven to work a little differently from the Asperger brain, and many neurotypicals have to live with labels such as “normal”, “non-autistic” or “non-Aspergers”. What else do neurotypicals struggle with? Let’s explore this more closely.

Taking things at face value. I have often had people who have watched Rain Man or read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time assume that I am like the main characters in said stories. Which can lead to them not knowing how to react when I reveal that I do have a sense of humour, due to…

Difficulty in reading body language. In the past when I have used sarcasm or humour, some people have simply looked at me blankly or assumed I am being deadly serious, presumably struggling to notice the tell-tale body language. This gets more interesting when I use humour in response to a joke they made.

Lack of empathy. In a world where internet communication is rife, it is too easy for people to publicly share their opinions on whoever they are talking to, whoever is in that Youtube video, whoever wrote that article or forum, without stopping to think how their words could affect others. Note that this symptom does NOT affect every neurotypical, so please don’t judge each one by all the bad apples.

Obsessions over specific areas of interest. Fashion? Love lives? Sport? Politics? These are just a few common obsessions, and in my experience those who are not experienced at communicating with Asperger people find it disconcerting when we cannot keep up with the ins and outs of their chosen interest.

Difficulty fitting in. Many young people want to be part of the “in” crowd but just don’t know how to go about it. Possibly due to insecurity, they seek solidarity among other neurotypicals in the same boat, thus overlooking those of us who think differently and do not share all of their interests.

One thing to remember is that, despite struggling with any of the above issues, every neurotypical has their own individual strengths. Common assets include a good short term memory or attention span and superior physical co-ordination, traits which many Aspies lack. But as the cliché goes, no two people are exactly the same, and so to wrap up, what are your thoughts on Asperger’s Syndrome versus neurotypical?

 

As part of my work experience with the Derby Telegraph, I’ve been encouraged to help increase their publicity, so if you like a good news story, here is their website: http://www.derbytelegraph.co.uk/