Becoming Autistic

Two vignettes:

The day after my Mum died I had to call someone about a project. During that call I said I was going away to my Mum’s funeral and it emerged that she’d died the day before. The person said “But you sound so cheerful!”. I remember wondering how else I was going to sound, given that I’d been phoning them about a professional project, not for sympathy. The easiest default option I had available in my voice register was “Happy to help”. It would have taken some work and effort to find or perform “Feeling some complicated grief, identity confusion and dread right now”, and wouldn’t have been relevant to the subject of the call anyway.

Many years ago I worked in the open plan office of a radio station. I’m not sure now what the context of our conversation was, but I remember being surprised when one of my colleagues said it made them a bit sad to see me coming in each day and attempting a greeting, perhaps a general “hello”, in such a low-key way that it was generally ignored. I probably wasn’t doing eye contact right and was doing it with a lack of volume or conviction. It was basically a bad performance of “Greeting”. It was unusual for someone to point something like that out to me. It may or may not have made me better at doing “Hello, I’m here” after that.

I thought of both these things when I was in the company of two hundred people last week for the “Autscape” conference. Given that it’s grown year on year since starting in 2005, then perhaps it was the biggest gathering of majority-autistic people there’s ever been.

Coming down to breakfast in the hotel each morning, I’d institute a round of “Hello!”, breezy smiles and “Good mornings” at people I recognised. They’d nod or smile back. Once I noticed one of them was sporting a red badge. Red badges mean you don’t want anyone to initiate interaction at that moment. “Argh! Sorry” I said, then tried to continue my self-berating over the coffee machine so as not to make it about me. One of the many wonderful things about the rules and guidelines for being at Autscape (set out in the handbook and at the “Orientation” session) is that autistic people, as all people, make social mistakes, so to be tolerant around not following a rule- interrupting someone or not noticing an interaction badge or using the wrong pronoun or whatever.

By morning three I had come to recognise that my round of constant greetings was actually a bit tiring and unnecessary. I’d learned a behaviour that works well in neurotypical space but isn’t needed in autistic space. In fact, it might well have been taking my own energy and also using up the energy of people who were already managing hundreds of interactions throughout the day.

When I caught myself doing it, I self-berated internally for being “so neurotypical”, whilst at the same time, recognising my clumsiness mirrored in many people around me, which somehow felt like it was making me even clumsier than usual, berated myself for being “so autistic”.

Both of these (internal, quite ableist and inaccurate) berating voices are NOT the voice of Autscape itself. It’s strength and sustainability seems to come from recognising that, as well as being a place where autistic people can “be” themselves, it’s also (especially given that at least half the delegates in any year will be newcomers) a space where autistic people can “become” themselves. Experiment with just who this is and might be. See it reflected and responded to in others. Had I stayed another day, I would have tried to do a breakfast without greeting anyone. Put on the red badge and dared to say that I was too tired for interactions for a bit. After all, being officially identified as autistic only two years and having spent the vast majority of my life among mostly non-autistic people, I’m still very much in the process of saying hello to my autistic self…