[cw: ableism, NT misinterpretation]
Neurotypical people say this a lot. I’ve heard it many times, followed by “relax!” like I wasn’t relaxing properly. It is not easy to be yourself in a neurotypical society. This is what neurotypical people don’t realize when they tell autistic people to be themselves.
I want to talk about what happens in an autistic person’s daily life when they don’t mask, because it’s not something neurotypical people likely see. They don’t see us being misinterpreted, talked over, or assumed to be rude. So, these are some of the reasons why we need to mask, why we need to feel safe in a society that isn’t naturally welcoming to us.
People say “oh well we all mask!” like it’s some sort of exhausting thing for neurotypical people too. But the difference is what happens when we do not mask, when we are too exhausted to mask, or when we are actively defiant of neurotypical norms.
Neurotypical Reactions to Unmasked Autistics:
The first time I truly asked a math teacher a question in class that I felt would truly show my incompetence, their response was to rehash the entire concept that they had just taught to the whole class. I had already understood the concept. I felt embarrassed because she had completely misinterpreted my question. I was asking about the wording of the problem and what was being asked of me very specifically, not about the concept I needed to utilize. She explained the concept again, and acted like she had answered my question, and walked to another student. I was left in confusion and frustration. If I had asked 50% of the questions I never asked in school, I probably would’ve gotten very similar responses from teachers. I was slightly relieved I had only started asking questions in high school, and how much humiliation was saved from not asking questions.
This kind of misinterpretation still plagues me. Many times, I will feel as if I’m saying exactly what someone else is saying, but they will not understand my analogy. They will think I am saying something completely different, and only when I repeat what they said on their terms, do they agree with me. Oftentimes it is easier to simply try to solve the problem myself than to ask, because asking is just one more problem to be solved.
When I end up highly frustrated, or just exhausted, I cannot speak with the right context (but can speak in at least sentence fragments, possibly full sentences). I am then told that no one understands what I am saying, of course in a frustrated tone by the other person. I am then bombarded with more auditory stimuli, like that will somehow help me think and get words out faster. Sometimes I simply shake my head no, or put my hand up (like a stop sign), signalling that I’ve given up. Maybe I sigh and say “nevermind” under my breath. It is always an effort to talk in another person’s language. So it is always an effort to talk.
This one is likely the worst of all. There are some people who don’t mind if I stare off into the distance, or look at the floor. But there are others who are adamant about eye contact and will judge you for not doing it, or not doing it correctly, whether they realize it or not.
If I don’t give them eye contact:
- They may talk to me like they are dominant in the conversation, and I am somehow being submissive by looking down and talking relatively quietly (but audibly).
- They may expect a quicker response to know that I’m paying attention.
- They may get concerned (you know, with their Neurotypical Worry), and proceed to try to force direct eye contact with my pupils for the next 3 minutes of the conversation.
- They may think I am not listening.
- They may think I do not like them.
- They may think I do not want to have a conversation.
- They may think I am being rude on purpose and somehow inconveniencing them, since I am, so clearly (to them) NOT paying attention, no matter how wrong they are.
When I reply with a well thought-out answer, it doesn’t matter. To them, I am showing disrespect. What I say doesn’t change that.
Tone of Voice: Volume
For me, this is by far the most common problem. You see, I talk quietly. Everything in my head – my chewing, my breathing, my talking, – is likely amplified compared to a neurotypical’s inner auditory experience. The reason I speak quietly is because I can hear myself perfectly clearly in 90% of situations. If other people spoke the exact same volume as I do, I could still hear them. But they often speak so much piercingly louder because they do not have that kind of hearing.
This is a very common interaction I have, especially on the phone:
Me: Says something.
Them: “What did you say?”
Me: Repeats at the same volume, but thinks it’s slightly louder.
Them: “I can’t hear you!”
Me: Shouts what I said previously.
Them: *assuming I am trying to be rude, will act hostile towards me for the entire rest of the conversation.*
This happens way too often. I can only mumble, or shout. There is no inbetween. People think mumbling is inconsiderate and see shouting as rude and aggressive. This is an area I have not been able to “mask,” even with all of my years undiagnosed and immersed in NT culture. It is exhausting. It makes me not want to speak to strangers, ever.
I once asked for spinach at a Subway, and they asked me to repeat it, and I did, without shouting. They thought I had said tomato. So then I had a sandwich with tomato on it. It’s not worth arguing about. They don’t want me to shout. This happens way too often in sandwich places. A different time at Subway, they asked if I wanted it toasted, and I said no, and they asked me to repeat it, and I said no and I shook my head no (side to side). They toasted it anyway. It was actually pretty good toasted so I can’t complain about that one. But this occurs far too often for me to want to go out to eat, and can happen at restaurants too.
I’ve had a receptionist literally yell at me because I ended up shouting a number at her, because she asked three times before what I had said (meanwhile she was barely audible on the phone). I asked a question after that and she was absurdly rude, refused to answer the question, and yelled at me “Do you want an appointment OR NOT?” like I was somehow intruding on her lovely day off.. it was definitely not her day off.. she was at work.. to answer phones and schedule appointments. But for me, she didn’t have to do her job. Because I was “rude” for asking a question that was quite relevant, and for telling her a number in a “defensive tone.”
These are not isolated incidents. This would happen everyday if I didn’t mask while interacting with the outside world. This is my life.
Sometimes, I have gotten yelled at for simply existing. For not doing something expected of me, when there was no way I would have known. I feel like people who like to roll over others are drawn to my blank expression and assume I am either unimportant, incompetent, or “being rude” by standing somewhere.
I have gotten yelled at for not closing a door. After I said “sorry” to her and closed it, she then told me (aggressively, clearly annoyed at me) that she was “not talking to me” and pointed to her earbuds, like that somehow meant she couldn’t hear me. Everytime I saw her thereafter I have been petrified, and have made sure to close the door.. She has not yelled at me or talked to me since.
I have gotten yelled at for standing somewhere, where I was told I should wait, after a service person had a heated argument with their family member. I was supposed to wait for my results, but I did not. I left because she literally yelled at me, saying “Why are you standing here?!” (She told me to wait). The reason I was there in the first place was due to a miscommunication with the receptionist on the phone (which was their fault, not mine – and yes, it was a different receptionist at a different place). To her, I was literally a waste of space.
My family thought I was a pessimist growing up, and they still do. They think I only think about negative things. I think about negative things socially because they are most likely to happen to me compared to a non-autistic person. And I’ve always known it. Since I was a kid, I thought I just had bad luck or that there was a cloud following me around all the time. In reality, it was stigma. Stigma, assumptions, misinterpretations, confusion, neurotypicalism. I was a wonderful backboard for other people’s projections, with my “quiet demeanor” and blank expression. It wasn’t me, it was society. I am not a pessimist. I may be a realist, but I am not a pessimist. And I have a surprising amount of hope for change and autistic acceptance, more than most people would expect from me.
Unfortunately, part of that change comes from taking our masks off, when we can (for those who can), and subjecting ourselves to the harsh reality of what other people think about us. And hopefully, we can slowly remind people that we’re still human beings, even if we don’t look you in the eye, even if we might only whisper or shout, and even when other people act like we are less human than they are.
SideNote: And you may think, oh, I just have a problem with that Subway, or I just have a problem with receptionists! If that’s you’re take away, then you probably aren’t autistic! There are subtler things, but I find them difficult to describe. There are ways people look at you. There are ways people talk to you, possibly condescendingly, but trying to pretend otherwise. There are ways people gesture (or don’t gesture) towards you, and people who playfully tell you that you need to “lighten up” or that “you’re boring” (in a bit subtler language than that, but still quite obvious). There are people who will befriend you, and once you get comfortable with them, and start having interesting conversations, will gravitate away from you. There are people who will befriend you and only know the mask you put up, and eventually break your trust and you will snap at them, and they will not talk to you anymore. And honestly, maybe you don’t want to talk to them.
This is the frustrating part:
It’s not that these were malicious events, or even conscious. One person just wanted me to “have fun.” What her fun was to me, was frustrating and annoying and pointless. But I hid it so well until that frustration boiled over and I’d had enough of NT frivolity and sensory bombardment. There are often subtle social cues that I pick up which seem like “harmless” social interactions to NTs, but I can tell. I really can. And if neurotypical people think autistic people don’t understand social cues, or empathy, they will unfortunately inevitably treat us as less than human. I find the only way around this to be education. I hope that they are listening.