For starters, I’ll lay down two facts right away:
#1: This blog is about autism
#2: Yes, I’m autistic
/takes bow, backs off stage
Most people pick up on #1 right away, but I’ve found that #2 comes to many by surprise!
This weekend, I volunteered for a girls + data event — an absolutely inspirational delight and joy. During a small bit of downtime, I had a great conversation with one of our program managers who was stunned and delighted to discover that my autism narrative and advocacy were personal.
“I had no idea; I would never have guessed.”
And that’s a common reaction!
I wouldn’t blame anyone there for coming to the same conclusion: during the event, I engaged the campers, landed about 75% of my jokes, made just enough eye contact to pass as normal, and did my level best to help bring energy and enthusiasm to the room.
It was as amazing as it was exhausting; I’ve gotten good at masking the exhaustion.
For every burst of meet ‘n’ greet, I needed “sweet retreat” — where I could recharge at my desk in the back for many a moment.
For every conversation I had, I needed to keep a “getaway excuse” handy, so I wouldn’t start getting awkward or run out of things to say and feel embarrassed.
I was invited for lunch with the volunteers, and I was thankful I had some work to do, because the real reason was “I need a little bit of time to muster up some momentum to socialize and be close to people.”
And after the event was said and done, I was dang near catatonic, staring off into the distance and finding little alcoves to not be seen shutting down.
For the ride out and off to dinner, I said: “Please, I can sit in back – you all can catch up – I don’t mind!”
In my mind, I thought: “I just can’t sustain the conversational energy if I’m up front, and I’m going to unspool, and it’s going to be weird, and I don’t like being the awkward silence in the middle of a chat, and I kinda just wanna look at the hills of Santa Cruz and listen to other people talk and power down without being noticed.”
I am glad when people find it a surprise to learn that I’m autistic. It opens up the great door that comes next.
Where I can share that it’s work. That it’s hard work for many. It is for me.
And that others can support that kind of work — being mindful of when we need a break, or when we need something to focus on, or that little bit of reassurance when we’re firing on all cylinders for a greater good (like keeping happy campers happy!), or just a quick, knowing, “you doing ok?”