You’ve probably guessed that this is an essay about my sub-par autistic conversational skills that make me feel like an alien.
It’s actually the opposite of that.
It’s about my excellent conversational skills. Skills that I painstakingly learned. Skills that were modeled by my mother and her side of the family (i.e. showing genuine interest in a person, asking lots of questions, etc.). Skills that were directly reinforced by my mother (i.e. to look at someone when listening, orient your body to show you’re interested, etc.). Skills that were taught to me by other family members (“Jackie, it’s rude to stare at others so much.”) Skills that I learned from observing others and seeing what appeared normal. Skills that I picked up from taking classes on nonverbal communication, listening, and speaking (yes, I took college classes on each of those specific topics).
So here’s the trouble with all of those skills.
They can help me mask what I’m actually feeling REALLY WELL. While this can be a helpful skill to use periodically, the regular use of it makes me feel like an alien. I feel unreal. I feel like I’m a being operating an external robot. I’m thinking about all of the things I’m doing and not actually letting any of the real me through.
Who is the real me?
The one who gets so excited I jump in place and physically grab on to someone.
The one who gets so annoyed but what someone says that I roll my eyes.
The one who asks really deep, inquisitive questions that are almost certainly personally intrusive.
The one who gets bored and so I roll onto the floor and say, “Ughhh, I don’t want to hear that.”
The one who likes to touch someone as they’re talking.
The one who will directly say, “You’ve already told me that five times.”
In essence, the real me is the one who will say and act based on the ways I’m feeling and thinking.
I understand why it’s not appropriate to act that way with everyone. For example, I want to be socially appropriate with strangers or in situations where I want to maintain distance with someone.
I think these are skills to use in the short run, for short periods of time.
What I don’t like is when they seep into the long run or for longer periods of time. For example, conversations that end up going on far longer than I would want. Masking for that long feels incredibly alienating. I begin wondering things like, “How are they not noticing this? And how long are they going to talk without checking in on me?”
The second place it is hard is in conversations with people I’ve known for a long time where it’s not a safe place for me to be my full self. This primarily happens with some family members. It can easily become draining or frustrating. I try to deal with these alienating experiences by limiting the length and frequency I see them. However, it is a tight line to walk because I do still want to maintain a relationship.
What has changed the most since learning I’m autistic is twofold:
First, I now understand why I felt “unreal” or “alien” for most of my life. This in itself helps me feel less alien.
Second, I now limit or discontinue friendships where I don’t feel I can be my full self. Before, I thought I needed to “try harder” to make and keep more friends. I think that backfired. They were getting a false version of me, and who wants to be friends with that? Furthermore, if they are not someone I want to be friends with … why should I try harder to make it work?
I work to let the guilt go of not being a “nice” or “good” person (those archaic beliefs are tied to my religious upbringing), and simply be ok with not developing a friendship with someone.
For the people that I realize I don’t enjoy across time, I stop investing time. I try to not “ghost” them, meaning drop off with no explanation, but instead let our conversation come to a natural conclusion.
Writing these strategies can make it sound like I have it all perfectly figured out. I don’t. I was inspired to write this essay because I had a lengthy interaction with a neighbor this morning that once again made me feel like an alien.
So despite our best efforts, there will always be things outside of our control. But at least I know why I feel the way I do now.