I hate the word “confident.” When doing presentations for class, the main feedback I received was to “be more confident” and “sound more confident.” I never knew what that meant. I was confident. I knew what I was talking about! To this day, all I hear when that comment comes back is “be more neurotypical!”
I watched a recent video on strategies for coping with anxiety by Dr. K. One of the strategies was to “become more confident.” Becoming more confident to Dr. K means realizing that not everyone is going to like you, and that’s okay. Or that if you do something wrong, you will apologize and it will be okay. For autistic people, it’s not that easy.
Autistic People and Social Anxiety – What Most People Get Wrong
I think a lot of strategies for anxiety don’t work for autistic people, because many of our fears come from real past experiences due to how people perceive us as autistic people.
As autistic people, we cannot objectively assess the social situation in the moment. We don’t know whether the person talking to us is being genuine. We don’t know whether their statement about us was half-joking, or if they’re genuinely upset. We don’t know when we may have stepped over a boundary with the way we worded something and unintentionally hurt someone’s feelings, especially when they don’t clearly show it or let us know. We also don’t know when we’re being taken advantage of.
Ideally, we could become more confident by saying “some people are just not going to like us, and that’s fine.” But the fact is, we don’t even know what’s happening during a social interaction, especially a face-to-face verbal conversation. And we know that we are not going to know. That is where the anxiety comes from. We know that we do not have the neurotypical processing to figure out the intentions of someone else, or figure out what they want us to say in the moment. We know it’s more likely for us to “mess up” than it is for neurotypical people to mess up with other neurotypicals, especially when we are at our most vulnerable and cannot mask.
Being “More Confident” Leads to Masking
This leads into a second problem. If we play into the idea that we can “become more confident” to then reduce our anxiety, this leads us to masking. This leads us into doing excessive research on neurotypical social interactions. This leads us to try to “solve the problem.” And this leads us to (if we do want to feel confident) performing autistic masking to please neurotypical people. Masking prevents any potential issues that may happen in a conversation with a neurotypical person, due to their misunderstanding of our body language/tone of voice/facial expressions. There’s nothing for neurotypicals to misunderstand if we play our part “correctly.”
Masking Leads to More Anxiety
However, masking actually makes our anxiety worse because we are not showing people who we are. This means that our self-worth slowly falls because we know that people enjoy having conversations with the mask, not with us.
Then, the anxiety comes from what people will think of us once we take off the mask. And to be honest, we already know the answer because we’ve already experienced people’s reactions to our real selves, which is often negative and judgmental. That’s why we put the mask on in the first place, to “solve the problem by becoming more confident” and to prevent other people from getting upset at us, since we often can’t easily smooth over social interactions on a whim.
Masking may reduce anxiety prior to a social interaction, and even during it, but it slowly depletes your cognitive resources and erodes your self-esteem. People like the mask, not you. This eventually can lead to autistic burnout due to the stress of constantly acting around other people and using up all your energy. This leads to even further mental health problems, and can even lead to suicide.
Common Advice from Non-autistic People
Good-intentioned people will say “Write out a script and practice it” or “rehearse ahead of time what you’re going to say.” And sometimes, as a means of survival, you have to do this, like when talking to doctors. But for me this only works about 10% of the time. During the interaction with a stranger, I’m at 7/10 anxiety because of being in a new environment or seeing the person’s body language and knowing that they’re likely going to misinterpret me. At this point, I’ve already lost most of the words to the script I’ve rehearsed, unless I spent multiple days thinking about the interaction beforehand, which for most interactions, isn’t worth it. This again costs me a lot of cognitive resources, and even further anxiety that I won’t be able to actually use the script that I prepared over multiple days. “What happens if I forget the script?” Then I’m completely unprepared for the meeting.
What’s the solution?
I’ve learned to understand and recognize that I will always have some amount of anxiety in social interactions, especially regarding interacting with strangers. I’ve also learned in everyday life to make sure to surround myself with people who understand me, and who know me and honestly like me. I know not every autistic person will be lucky enough to have that support, but I have to say that it helps.
I also specifically avoid interacting with people who I know will misinterpret me. If I can’t avoid them due to necessary meetings or events, I limit my time face-to-face with them. I remind myself that I don’t owe my time to anyone, especially not someone who will add more stress to my life. If I can send them an email instead of meet with them, I will.
And the thing that has helped the most?
Reminding myself that I have a disability.
Honestly, this misinterpretation of my signals is one of the things I have struggled with the most for my entire life. It’s caused me a lot of fear and pain. And so many non-autistic people don’t see it. They don’t see the problem and they don’t see how they misinterpret me. To them, I don’t have a disability, I am just judgment #1, judgment #2, and judgment #3.
I have a disability. I’m autistic. This means that most people I interact with in the world will often read me wrong, especially if they don’t know me. I’ve learned to accept that most of the time. I’ve learned that I don’t have control over how other people see me, and trying to exert that control means changing who I am and hurting myself in the process.
So here’s my solution: Acknowledging that I have a disability, that other people will misunderstand me, but remembering that their judgments don’t reflect who I am. Remembering that most of the time, I’m working so much harder during an interaction than they are. Realizing that the more I accept this, the less I mask or try to make sure I have a smooth interaction with someone, especially when I have a track record of this person misunderstanding me multiple times, no matter what I do.
And in case no one has reminded you today: It’s not always your fault. That interaction you had last week that didn’t go well? That’s not your fault. That’s not on you.
I make sure I have down time after a meeting with someone who I know will likely misunderstand me. I make sure I have people around who do understand me (I can’t emphasize this enough). And I make sure I remember who I am.
Sometimes, when I’m really down, I remind myself that there are people in the world who care about and appreciate autistic people. There are also a lot of non-autistic neurodivergent allies who have been great friends to me. And my life isn’t based on what other people think I said, or what other people think about my facial expressions or tone of voice.
It’s Okay to be an Anxious Autistic Person
I have anxiety sometimes. I worry about things. I worry that people will misunderstand me, because they do. But that’s okay. There are people who appreciate me for who I am and love me for who I am. Being autistic in this world is a disability. I’m not bad or wrong or snarky or defensive just for being autistic. I’m allowed to be a human being.
It’s hard to love yourself when the world puts so many negative judgments on you. But you are not those judgments. You are a whole loving, caring, compassionate human being.
I’m an anxious autistic person.
I get anxious because I know people will paint over me sometimes with their own projections and assumptions due to how I speak, how I move, where my eyes are looking.
But I know who I am, and I love myself for it.
They don’t have to love me, but I do.
And I know I’m not that first layer of paint. (And neither are you.)