There’s a misconception that Autism is more common in boys, and the reason why many girls go undiagnosed for so long is because we’re more accustomed to hiding our autistic traits by “masking”. Masking is when a person covers up their differences and tries to blend in by copying the behaviour of the people around them.
When I was a teenager, I began to notice that there were lots of situations that I didn’t understand. I took people very literally, and I struggled to read people’s tone, so things like sarcasm, jokes and cultural nuance went over my head. I constantly found myself drawing blanks in conversations where I couldn’t keep up with what was being said and what everyone meant.
I hated feeling like the odd one out, so I started reading lots of how-to articles about socialising. I asked my parents lots of questions before every event; what would be expected of me, whether I should give a hug or a handshake, if it was appropriate to ask certain questions, and so on. I rehearsed what to say on phone calls, and I made a list of common conversation topics to practise. Basically, I did everything I could to cover up my challenges and make it look like I was “normal”.
But on the inside, the struggle continued. I had a lot of trouble understanding and regulating my emotions, which meant that sometimes I would come across as cold and unfeeling, and other times I would be overly upset about something without knowing why.
Autism also affected (and still does) the way I process sensory information. For example, loud and unexpected noises are physically painful for me, and I have to use noise-cancelling headphones to block them out. Other times, I have trouble working out who’s speaking and what they’re saying (which is especially challenging on Zoom calls and online lectures!). I also have a very low register for tactile feedback, meaning it takes a lot of pressure for me to feel something on my skin. This means I can injure myself without really noticing. It also means I do things like rocking my body, flapping my hands, and using weighted blankets to feel grounded in a space.
Telling friends and family about my diagnosis was difficult because for the most part, I’ve always hidden the things I struggle with. I’ve squashed my impulses to rock back and forth in public. I’ve memorised questions to ask and tried my best to make eye contact and learn to read tone.
To many of my friends, my diagnosis came as a surprise because they didn’t know Autism well. Many of them understood ASD the same way I once did, the way Autistic people are (poorly) represented in TV shows or movies. Once my friends learned more about Autism, they were able to recognise its impact and support me better.
Today is Autism Awareness Day, and in honour of that I’d love to share with you three ways that you can love your Autistic friends.