You don’t look autistic.
Yes I do.
You don’t act autistic though.
Yes I do.
Yeah, but you’re not like “properly” autistic.
Yes I am.
You can make eye contact.
Yes I can.
You don’t flap all the time.
I do at birds.
You flap at birds?
I flap at birds.
Why do you flap at birds?
It would be rude not to wave at them when they wave at me.
That’s a bit weird.
But you don’t do all that proper stimming and stuff, do you? Or do you?
Every day. Most moments of every day. See this?
Looks like a tiny bead mat.
Yup. I made it, I made lots of them, for when I lose them. I get distracted easily.
Can I have a go?
Go for it.
It feels nice.
It feels essential.
Why do you do it?
I’m an addict.
But it’s not like proper stimming, is it? I can feel that that’s nice.
Yes it is.
But you don’t look autistic. You’re not all twitches and movements.
Not at the moment.
What do you mean?
At the moment I’m devoting a certain amount of my brain to keeping my legs still and not twitching my nose. Even though my forehead feels too tight.
But if you can stop it, why don’t you just stop all the time?
I can’t process at that level all the time. It takes energy, I’d rather use that energy on something fun.
You’re smiling, that’s not very autistic, is it? We’re talking and you’re reacting?
Do autistic people not smile?
Don’t you, I mean they, I mean you, have less… Feelings? See! You’re smiling again.
No. I have feelings. Lots of them. I have huge empathy. I feel. I’m just not always great at putting out those feelings as visual signifiers.
Give me a second to think about how I want to say this.
Right, when I feel something I react to it. I imagine it’s in a similar way to the way you do, but that reaction is an emotional one, it’s not necessarily an action.
What do you mean?
If I’ve got spare processing power, then I’ll use that to make sure that my face and my hands look like they’re supposed to when you have a feeling. I’ll behave appropriately. If I’m stressed or overloaded, I might look cold and expressionless. It’s not that I’m not feeling, it’s that I can’t project that emotion in a way you can understand it.
So you have to think about it?
Essentially, yes. Not always, at least not so I’ll notice, I’ve been doing this for decades, it’s not new. I do the relevant action almost automatically, but the action is not automatic.
But you move your hands when you talk. You gesture a lot.
Yes, not always, but I’ve seen you do it. You’re doing it now. I thought autistic people didn’t do that.
Am I? Have you watched what I’m doing?
See how I wave pointedly, and in between waving or emphasising something, I’m rubbing one hand against the other?
It’s all just stimming. I noticed people do it. I do the waving to give myself some sensory information to have more of an idea of where my body is, and then I use the gaps inbetween to quickly stim in a way that isn’t obvious. It’s not a social gesture. It’s a designed one.
It all sounds a bit… Exhausting.
It is. I get tired easily. When I was small I never had to be put to bed. I’d do it myself. Then I’d read for hours to try to calm my thoughts enough to sleep.
I do that sometimes.
It must be nice to only do it sometimes.
Oh. Have I offended you?
So when you say that your emotions don’t always lead to actions, what does that mean?
It means I get a choice.
In what way?
Ok, for years I thought people were pathetic when it came to phobias.
Because you don’t have them.
Oh god no, I’m as irrational as the next person. Because they couldn’t choose their actions.
Is this an autistic thing then?
I don’t know. Maybe it’s a ‘me’ thing. But it comes from black and white thinking. I’ve always been scared of cockroaches. I don’t know why. But they terrify me. I think I have a fear that they’re winning on an evolutionary scale. Whatever it is they bring out the fear in me.
I’m like that with spiders.
Like you and spiders. So when I went to a local animal place, and they had hissing cockroaches, I felt the fear. The woman noticed my interest and asked if I wanted to hold one.
It was. I said yes. She put it on my hand and I held it up to my face. I’ve never been more scared.
I don’t think I could hold a tarantula to my face.
You could. All you have to do is move your hand and it happens. The woman said I was very calm and that she didn’t think I was scared of them at all. I was terrified. But I held it and looked at it all over its ridged body.
Why did you do it?
Because emotions aren’t actions, I guess, and I wanted to know it applied to all fears. That I could overcome them. That I didn’t have to be held back by them.
There must be more to it.
Because as much as I fear cockroaches, I can avoid them. All my other fears are everywhere.
What do you mean?
Coming here today, to a new place. Not knowing what the room looks like, where the switches and air vents are, how the doors open, who would be here, what they’d say, who they’d want me to be, what patterns might be on the floor, and so on and on, the fear that causes is immense.
You don’t look scared. You’re smiling again.
If I told you that everything in my head is currently in fight or flight overdrive, and I’m surprised you can’t hear the whirring of gears as I concentrate on decoding what you say and how you say it, in an unfamiliar place, whilst maintaining my look of relaxed interest, would you believe me?
I don’t know.
But it’s ok. Because I don’t look autistic.
No you don’t. I mean that as a compliment.
Because you don’t know what looking autistic means.
No I don’t.
And you think not being autistic is a compliment?
I didn’t mean it like that! It’s just… No one wants to be autistic, do they?
I don’t know. Do you want to be neurotypical? I bet there’s awful bits of being normal that I don’t have to deal with. The only difference is the world is designed to make life easier for you. Not me.
That makes no sense.
Doesn’t it? It made sense in my head.
It’s just hard when you look so… Normal.
What do you think autistic looks like?
I… A bit… Not as conversational.
Do you believe me when I say I’m autistic?
I believe you have a diagnosis.
Ah, weasel-words. That’s not answering the question.
I suppose it’s hard when…
When we look like versions of you?
Yes. Have I offended you again?
I’m trying to decide… No. I don’t think so. I don’t think I should be surprised that I look like everyone else when I’m trying to look like everyone else.
I think I believe you do that.
What? Pretend to be normal?
I used to think everyone pretended to be normal all the time. That it was some big secret. That you all knew what I knew and thought how I thought.
Why did you think that?
For the same reason you’re assuming I’m just like you. Because I assumed you were just like me. I just thought everyone else was better at it. I couldn’t work out how people did it so effortlessly. It turned out it was because it involved no effort on their part.
Anyway. I’d best be off or I’ll miss the school run.
You work with kids? Autistic kids?
No. My kids.
What? I thought autistic people didn’t like to be touched?
Haven’t we already established that you don’t know much about autistic people? Do you really think it’s appropriate to ask me about my sex life?
No! I mean, I didn’t mean to! Sorry. I won’t hold you up. Nice to meet you.
It was an education.
You’re smiling again.