Many of my earliest memories usually involved hanging out with my brother. I always thought, like many little sisters do, that he was so much cooler than me. He was fearless and smart. No one gave him a hard time. He wasn’t in the popular crowd, but he didn’t care. I idolized him. I watched TV shows, played games, and listened to music that I didn’t like – I’m sure he would be surprised if I told him that, as my mask was on, even for him.
Like typical siblings there was a lot of fighting and teasing in our relationship. The bad thing about being the youngest is your siblings know what scares you. Sometimes they use it against you, but it isn’t done with malice. It’s just a big brother or sister thing. One such incident involved my brother forcing me to watch a movie about man-eating spiders. I don’t remember the name of the movie, but I do remember being petrified with fear. But I didn’t show it, nor did I tell him how scared I was. But I checked under my bed every night for at least the next five years, even though I knew the difference between a movie and reality. Still, sleeping was only an option if I was sure that there wasn’t a horde of hungry tarantulas just waiting for me to fall asleep. The line between imagination and reality can be so thin.
Watching that movie with my brother was my first clear memory of fear. Arachnophobia is an easy fear to identify. What I didn’t recognize in myself as a child was the fear of being left out, rejected, ostracized. I knew I didn’t fit in. Adults didn’t see it. But children often see what adults miss. Something about me was superficial, and my ability to adapt too chameleonic for them. My brother may have been on the fringe, I, on the other hand, was a social outcast. And ostracism has a cost, even for those of us on the spectrum. You can cope the pain for a while, and try to find ways to foster social acceptance. But being excluded hurts, and after a while you give up, and decide you don’t care anymore. Sometimes that’s good, if you don’t care because you’ve decided you’re awesome just the way you are. But sometimes it can be a sign that you’re about to fall, especially for autistic women. Being an outsider is tough. Having to mask 24/7 is exhausting and can lead to flying face-first into the sticky webs of depression or Autistic burnout. And speaking from experience, escaping those webs takes a lot of effort and perseverance.
Over the years I have developed tool-kits of social skills and self-care routines to support my role in the neurotypical world successfully and protect my mental health. My childhood mask may have been ineffective, but as an adult, after years of observation and mimicry, it was flawless. A lot of those skills I learned from forcing myself to enter the sales industry. As a socially-awkward, painfully self-conscious young woman, this was not an easy road for me. I addressed a lot of my fear and insecurities by flooding them out. Sales teaches social skills like nothing else can. And let’s face it, social skills are useful. But if I could go back in time, I would choose a career more suited to my personality. Like writer, editor, artist, photographer – something that would feed my creative soul and allow me to work on my own. Because not everyone should have to be a team player.
Being in sales can feel two-dimensional. I’ve learned to love it, but I used to be unsure of which parts of my personality was authentically mine, and which parts were picked up from someone else. It’s like being a method actor – after a while you are not sure where the character ends and you begin. It is that lack of self-identity that I saw in myself and many of the people in the Autism community that I engage with online. We are so busy trying to fit into the picture, that we forget that others should make room for us. To give them the opportunity to embrace neurodiversity. To educate them, and to advocate for Autism acceptance. Somewhere along the line we forget that many of the greatest artists, musicians and scientists were on the Autism Spectrum. Our contributions are valued. We are not broken, we don’t need a cure, or to be “fixed.” We can be who we are, we can let go of the fear and anxiety and accept ourselves. No self-doubt required.
My brother mentioned that horrible movie when he called me this week. It has been years since that day, so I didn’t know what to say. Ironically, he said he’s convinced that watching that movie was the moment he became arachnophobic. I never knew. His sheepish explanation was simply “I wanted you to believe your big brother wasn’t afraid of anything.” I guess we are not so different after all.