(For Autistics Speaking Day 2016)
The reason this business caught my attention so strongly is because it relates to something I’ve felt in my own life for a long time– the pressure to be authentic and the impossibility of being authentic.
Authenticity is socially valued. Having a strong sense of your own identity and expressing it faithfully is supposed to make you a good person. Honesty and straightforwardness are supposed to make people refreshingly easy to deal with. People who are willing to defy social norms in pursuit of authenticity are supposed to be not just better company, but somehow also morally better, than people who are overly concerned with appearances and social conventions.
All this is true, if the things you express in defiance of social norms are the kind of things your audience likes to hear.
It’s circular logic. It’s a paradox. It’s a Catch-22. You’re supposed to express your authentic self in defiance of what’s normal, but only if your authentic self is normal enough to be acceptable.
If your authenticity is of a kind that contradicts what your audience thinks an honest, authentic person should be like– their ideas about human nature and what’s normal– or if your authentic self seems like an unpleasant person or even just a boring person to them, chances are you’ll receive a very similar negative reaction (if not a worse one) to what you’d have gotten for being “fake”.
Everyone sometimes has to weigh authenticity against social norms, choosing to either be honest at the cost of negative reactions, or to hide an authentic feeling or fake an inauthentic one in order to be accepted.
What do you do if it seems that you have to make that choice all the time? That your entire authentic self falls outside the bounds of what’s socially acceptable?
What do you do if trying with all your might to fake normalcy still leaves you outside the norm?
What do you do if you’re autistic, and
your body language
your tone of voice
the way you express emotions
the things you feel emotional about
the foods you like
your hobbies and interests
the things you aren’t interested in
are all somewhere on the continuum from “boring” to “deeply unpleasant” as far as your society is concerned?
Well, some of us become social outcasts.
Others put an incredible amount of effort into becoming more normal– often with encouragement from their doctors and teachers, who urge them to think of autism as something that can be practiced and trained away.
When they fail, their unintended authenticity is judged as boring, childish, obsessive, sloppy, robotic, oversensitive, passive, rude, inhuman. When they succeed, they have to live with the knowledge that they can never really succeed, because success is supposed to be authentic, and easy, not something you work for. Trying is failure– in your own eyes, even if other people don’t notice you’re trying too hard– but not trying is failure too. The only solution is to have been born someone else.
When I was a teenager, I went pretty far in the direction of becoming an opinion-less, personality-less void, in pursuit of not being weird. It was actually hard for me to remember that I had an authentic self I was hiding, I worked so hard for so long to hide all my unacceptableness. Other people didn’t like me, because I was boring at best, and I didn’t like myself, either.
I knew I wasn’t a real person, an authentic person. I hated myself for lying. I hated my reflexive fear of expressing any opinion about anything. I hated my choice between being a useless, lowly thing that made sense to the social order, or a wrong thing that didn’t.
Before I could start to learn how to speak– how to have different types of conversations, how to use social scripts, how to respond to overtures of friendship and how to reach out to others– I first had to remember that I had an authentic self somewhere inside me, and I had to believe that I deserved the chance to show it to other people without ridicule.
The fear of being fake does still follow me, even when I’m not trying to fake anything, because some things that are authentic to me look like fakes. When it takes me time to process my emotions, and more time to explain them– or even when it takes me time to jsut answer a mundane question– I feel like my lack of spontaneity makes me inauthentic, calculated, robotic.
But it doesn’t. That slowness is authentic to me. Those nebulous emotions are my authentic emotions. Those words that take time for me to think and write are the only kind of words I have. If they’re calculated, they’re calculated to be honest, and clear, and mine. I can’t become a person whose authenticity would be authentically normal. But I can do my best to discover what I am, and express it as clearly and carefully as I can.