Self-defensive #autistic camouflage or cross cultural competency?

side-by-side pictures of a woman standing with an umbrella - on the left gray and burred, on the right, clear and sharp and colored

I’ve been thinking a lot, over the past few months, about camouflaging, masking, and otherwise concealing my autistic tendencies from the people around me. I’ve been doing this all my life, and much of what I do in this regard is really reflexive. It’s not necessarily something that I do intentionally, it’s just a seamless adjustment to the immediate environment.

There is been an increasing amount of talk about how autistic women get missed, don’t get diagnosed, and miss out on a lot of support because clinicians and other people in positions to support them don’t actually recognize the autistic nature of their traits and the challenges. What people observe in us — and then see — can be very different from how we know our lives to be. And it can cause tremendous suffering. I’ve been through much of this, myself, and it really is annoying to be told by others that I seem too “normal” or I don’t “present as autistic at all”, so therefore it must not be a genuine issue for me.

There are so many things wrong with that point of view, I can’t begin to count them. And if I were to write up a response, my rant would last for a good 20,000 words at least. So, I’ll spare us all, and take a different – and slightly more positive – approach to this conundrum.

Autism has been discussed here and there in terms of being a cultural difference, as well as a neurological one, and it seems to me that in that light, we could consider so-called masking or camouflaging as just another form of cross-cultural competency. I lived in Germany for two years while I was attending university, and I generally passed for European. That was fine with me, because those were the Ronald Reagan years, the Cold War was in full swing – starting to flame out, actually – and Americans did not have a particularly good reputation in the part of the world where I was living. So, it was more to my advantage if I concealed my American citizenship, and I blended with my surroundings.

Did that make me a traitor? Did that make me disloyal to my country? Some people might think so. But the area where I lived was not very well-versed in what it really means to be an American, and there was a lot of prejudice, bias, even discrimination towards mainstream Americans. I was not a mainstream American, so they actually had no quarrel with me… so why should I have to be vexed by the problems caused by people other than me?

It was rare that anyone thought I was American. My accent did not betray any trace of the United States, my clothing choices were strictly European, my habits of schedule and the things I bought for myself and ate for meals, were all distinctly European. In the end, I did return to the United States and not long after I got back, I started to really understand what an American I really was.

So, my passing as European ultimately did not change anything fundamental about who I was, where I was from, or my character.

The very same thing can be said for me now, as I pass within the neurotypical world. I have a distinctly autistic outlook in life, I have the full range of hyper- and hypo-sensitivities, and when left to my own devices or surrounded by other artistic folks, my very neurodivergent character shows up in plain view. I stim, I rock, I go on in great detail about my passion projects.

But when I’m surrounded by non-autistic individuals, it serves me better to blend in, to meet them on their own terms, and interact with him in a way that will facilitate communication rather than block it. I mirror them. Because it works for us both.

In many ways, this is like moving to a country or living in a country where your native language is not the official language. That doesn’t make your native language any less valuable or useful, it simply means that in order to get along do you have to conduct business in the official tongue of the place where you live.

The same holds true for customs and etiquette. It’s all very well and good if I have my own sensibilities about whether or not to shake someone’s hand, whether or not to eat with my fingers, whether or not I should wipe my nose on my sleeve, or spit on the ground around me. But if those behaviors are not acceptable within the cultural context of where I am, then doing them puts me at a social disadvantage, and it also disrupts the customary interactive flow of the world where I reside.

Being autistic in a non-autistic world is for me really no different than living as an immigrant in a whole new country. If I’d moved here from Balochistan, I’d still live out my years as an ethnic Balochi. And as much as I may seek to adapt and blend in, and as much success as I may have a doing that, it still never gets rid of my “ethnic” autism. Because, that’s my nature.

Looking at things in this light, the stresses and strains of camouflaging, blending, fitting in, all seem a lot less vexing to me. If I get caught up in thinking how hard it is that I have to camouflage, how hard it is that I have to make the extra effort to blend in, I can quickly start to feel like a victim who has no place in the world around me. But if I look at this as just another form of cultural competency — knowing how to meet the requirements that we all have to meet, on some level — then it seems more like a skill and less like an affliction.

Of course, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s often not easy and that it often takes a lot out of me in terms of time and energy and even money. I don’t want to amplify the glories of blending, acting as though there’s no cost. There is.  But I’m still dedicated to job bringing myself into alignment with my immediate world, because it’s important for me to do well with others, to do right by our relationships, and to have as full a life as I can… even as I do make the concessions and the sacrifices that are required to simply get by.

So, as with many things, I have very mixed feelings about the whole business of blending. It’s a useful thing, but is demanding. And sometimes it takes so much out of me that I have nothing left for my own life, when I’m done with taking care of my obligations. It’s not easy. It’s hard.

But at the same time, I don’t want to make it sound like it’s a horrible cross to bear, or that there’s no element of choice in this for me. I think for me, there is a certain element of choice, even while I just instinctively blend, almost by reflex. I suspect that women do this more readily than men – then again, I know of a number of autistic men who do this instinctively, as well. So I don’t think it’s fair to make generalizations in this respect. I’d rather talk about my own experience and leave it at that.

Would I ever want to not have to blend? Would I ever want to stop camouflage and completely? I don’t think so. For me, social interactions are very much a business – they’re transactional, they transcend the individual, and they require extra effort to be successful. I think that everyone makes certain concessions to others when they interact, and it’s important to me that I do that for the sake of others, as well as the sake of the relationship that we have. If there are people around me who or comfortable with my autistic quirks, then they will see those autistic quirks. But if they’re not, I’m not going through the effort of dealing with them and their biases.

I can avoid that. I’ve trained myself well.

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