Tonight I got my very first “You don’t look like you’re autistic.”
It was at an aspie “coffee and chat” meet with new acquaintances. Because I’m used to meetings with other autistics, my guard was down and I wasn’t expecting judgment. It was like a dip in icy water.
I shouldn’t have got upset.
But then, there’s the sensory context : the noisy cafe, the two, sometimes three conversations going on at our table, including someone who talks a whole lot and has a high-pitched voice… I shouldn’t have had coffee, of course… And coming here, downtown, where people are so much more aggressive than in my quiet, peaceful neighborhood… The sex club lighted signs on the way here. The firetruck flashing lights just outside the cafe a few moments earlier. The full cafe and all the movement. The noise. The noise, visually and sound-wise. The ideological noise of a news story this week about discrimination and violence, which made waves everywhere and created conflict between good people.
And now, social noise.
I thought to myself, “Don’t get upset. It’s true you don’t look autistic. You know it. He’s just stating the obvious.” But my mouth was faster, as it often is when I’m overwhelmed.
I berated him on judgment and the wrongness of it. He apologized and said that he didn’t mean anything by it, or put my neurodivergent nature in doubt, but that he considered that I didn’t look autistic and that he was, in fact, envious. Others at the table stated the obvious, that he didn’t look autistic either, to which he replied that people did see it, every day… No matter how clearly we reminded him that autism isn’t visible, he insisted that his was.
Envious… I think that was the detail that broke my ability to stay calm. While I was the uncomfortable center of attention of a group of mostly strangers, in a noisy cafe, in the middle of the part of downtown Montreal known for its riots and sex clubs, he was judging my everyday life and experience after observing me for a few minutes. We hadn’t even talked. It was the statement of a gross stereotype in the midst of a group who shared, as a common life challenge, the pain to have been judged against gross stereotypes.
Simply put, his judgment of my manner and appearance was triggering, even if it was meant, for him, in a positive way.
I wish I could have told him about all the people who gave me grief as they got to know me, all the “I thought you were nice!” and “Why are you so upset?” and “Don’t be so sensitive” and “My friends think you’re weird” comments. All the trouble I’ve gotten and complaints and broken friendships because of my blunt honesty and my inability to communicate my feelings in the standard way, the complete ignorance I have of my own facial expressions or body language, unless I am working really hard at playing a role. But at that moment, I couldn’t explain anything at all. Besides, you can’t just explain your whole life to any stranger who makes a callous remark. Especially not when your brain is numb, the fear of meltdown starts to overtake you, your core goes stiff, your limbs turn to jelly and your heart is racing.
So, I didn’t explain, I couldn’t. I asked that we change the subject, because it was upsetting to me and I might shut down. I got a very supportive reaction from him and the group.
But this subject was interesting and touched us all, so despite some efforts at changing it, the conversation continued on the same topic, and I had to leave. I didn’t want to, I was interested in continuing the debate. But I felt the overwhelm coming again, and needed to go. I told my new acquaintance that I understood what he was saying, and that it wasn’t personal, and that he shouldn’t worry about it. I hope he heard me.
I’m not angry with him. How could I be? He was only speaking his truth. But still, I wish he hadn’t judged my experience, just like that.
I wish things were easier. But here we are. I wish I wasn’t so sensitive. I wish I could think on my feet and not have my brain tilt when social interaction becomes challenging. I wish that sensory overload didn’t make me a blubbering fool. I wish, I wish.
It’s nothing really, this little snag. But sometimes, the little snags add up, and make for a big tangle.