If you are the sort of autistic person who can talk, has average intelligence, can manage to hold down a job, can shop, use public transport, can go into pubs and clubs, theatres and restaurants and generally behave in a 'normal' manner, then it must seem very strange to non-autistic people A) Why we got a diagnosis of autism in the first place and B) What on earth are we complaining about when we talk about our 'sensory difficulties' or our struggles to understand communication.
Well, there is this thing that some autistics talk about and do, called 'Passing.'
Passing is the result of years, even a lifetime of trying to behave 'normally' even though we know we are different. Passing is paying intense attention to how other people behave so that we can copy them and hopefully not be found out that we are not really like them.
There are two places in life where Passing is mandatory, school and work. At school many (most?) autistic people don't pass very well. We are young humans and generally slower to develop than our peers, so for many of us school is pretty difficult.
But we finally get released from school and some of us manage to get jobs. And it is in the workplace that the art of Passing is honed to a fine edge. Do you know how difficult it is to work if you are an autistic person? Working in a non-autistic workplace is probably the hardest thing an autistic person has to do. And if they're really unlucky, they have to do it every day.
It's hard to explain how awful it is. If you're not autistic I can understand that it must be very hard to imagine it. But something happened to me yesterday that maybe illustrates something of the difficulty.
Now I'm lucky enough to work with some brilliant women who are doing their best to be accommodating of my autism. The work environment itself is frequently overwhelming and exhausting to experience, but these women are so great I keep going back. Yesterday my manager told me to "practice self care" and use the quiet room if I needed it (it had been a particularly challenging couple of days). Despite this being a lovely thing to say I found it extremely upsetting and even felt a bit angry.
I thought about why that was, because of course I should really have been grateful. It's extraordinary to be in a workplace that tries to understand and accommodate my difference. I've never had that before. The nearest I ever got to it was a manager that equated my autism with a character on a popular US sitcom and whenever she met a difficult or unpleasant person would declare "I bet he has Asperger's." (In retrospect I find this funny. At the time, not so much.)
Anyway I finally figured out that maybe my reaction was about past trauma. Anger for all the years of struggle, confusion, exhaustion and just trying to fit in. Anger that I hadn't heard this before. Frustration and some embarrassment that I have this annoying, different brain. And some strange emotion I cannot identify but that is about how working in NT land is so deeply difficult for me/autistic people that such kindness felt as if it was undermining the struggle. Undermining the heroic ongoing effort to Pass. To pretend to be normal.
It feels like I don't know where the line is now. Do I Pass, do I continue the struggle, or do I just accept my difference? And if I accept it what does that mean for all the effort and years of Passing?
But as I said to an autistic friend who is also struggling with working in an non-autistic environment (and to quote from one of my favourite TV series) those of us who are autistic and working are "Big Damn Heroes." Oh yeah.