Once, I took a class about leadership, but really it was a presentation class. Every class period, we learned to be more aware of what we were doing, how we were sitting, how it felt. I was waiting for them to say what I was doing wrong, how I wasn’t speaking well, or not making eye contact, or not taking my hands out of my pockets. I was waiting for them to show me how to do presentations “right.”
Clearly I didn’t know what I was getting into. In fact, I was told that everyone presents differently, and talks differently, and exists differently. Every time I said “yea sometimes I don’t talk loud enough or don’t communicate very accurately” the instructor said “Really? You really seem to be doing fine to me,” I would think, I am? Do they really mean that? That can’t be right. That’s not what I’ve heard before. Every single class period, we would just talk about things, and go around the room. They would ask us how the person who was speaking acted – did they fidget with a pencil? Were they in open or closed posture positions? Where did they look? Who were they engaging? How did they like to sit?
And every class period, I thought, Ok, here’s the right answer. They’re going to tell us the right answer now. And every week, they would say, “This class is for you to learn about how you move your body and what feels comfortable to you, and just make you more aware of it so that you can hone your strengths and know what works for you.” And every week I was waiting for that facade to break. I thought, no way, they can’t just say that! No one has ever said that! But it never broke. I was desperate to get tips so that I could fit in, so people would stop telling me to look up more or speak louder or “sound confident” (by far the most infuriating one). And every week my perspective was flipped. I got *gasp* validation?! What is that? What do I do with that? That it’s ok to stand still while presenting?
“Did you notice you were doing that? It seems to really work for you, and ground you.”
That it’s okay to not look at everyone’s eyes across a room? That it’s ok to sometimes, when you need to, to put your hands in your pockets?
“See how you kind of relaxed once you put your hands in your pockets?”
It really wasn’t what I was expecting at all. It was a really small class. A lot of people hated it. They wanted to “learn leadership.” They didn’t want to learn presentation skills. I was kind of blown away by it. I was like, my body language is acceptable to most humans? Is that what you’re telling me? That can’t be right! And like, to be fair, sometimes it’s not right – sometimes people judge you just for being you. But damn, that validation was kind of eye-opening for me. This was before I completely believed I was autistic (though I did some thorough research on the subject before then, of course), and it was before I really understood that maybe I just have different body language, because you know, I’m autistic!! I just thought they would give me rules, and I would follow the rules and win over the people I don’t normally win over – usually the extroverted, less anxious, talkative small talk people.
So, the bad part is that there is no silver bullet for “presenting.” There’s no right way. If I walk around, I’ll probably get anxious and forget what I was going to say. So maybe I won’t do that. The other bad part is that yes, sometimes people will judge you for your natural (potentially “boring,” “less enthusiastic,” “less confident”) presentation style. In fact, I did worse on the last day of class presenting because I was so absolutely aware of what my body was doing – now I knew how other people probably perceived me and it scared the shit out of me. I was completely hyper aware of how I presented myself, which didn’t do me any favors. But I think it has helped my presenting in the long run, to understand how I work.
But the good part – the good part is that autistic body language is VALID. And I didn’t even first learn that from an autistic person (that I know of). I had this amazing opportunity to actually be understood and validated by someone who doesn’t have my neurology and who acted like I was perfectly natural, like I was a human being who wasn’t doing anything wrong by existing by myself. And I am a perfectly natural, autistic human being.
So that’s kind of awesome.