Where does the stereotype of the unemotional, cold autistic person come from?
I had a minor meltdown today as I come face to face with returning to a job, public-facing for the first time since I started to live a more authentically autistic lifestyle. I am terrified because I am not sure whether I can put the mask back on fully – can I be “functional” in a traditional way again post-burnout, post diagnosis? This mini-meltdown and the subsequent tears and exhaustion which followed led me to think again about the stereotypes surrounding autism – two conflicting ones in particular that I see differently in my post-diagnosis world.
The first stereotype is the one most common in “high-functioning” autistic stereotypes. The Sheldon Coopers to bring up that example again. And there is something to this stereotype in that autistic people, or many of us anyway, are awkward socially. Our brains don’t always process information the same way, and so our answers are delayed or oddly worded – perhaps too formal, indicating a rigidity of grammar or understanding. Many of us also feel very uneasy in our bodies. I know I find watching myself in a zoom meeting because oh-my-goodness! that’s MY face doing those movements. My connection to my body and its movements is sometimes tenuous, and definitely not experienced like the normal people do. That makes our movements, our processes, our language seem odd, distant, and sometimes cold.
Living Masked = Traumatic Dissociation
When I am overwhelmed from input, from the stimuli of my day-to day life as mom, wife, person, and (formerly) professor, I am often not in a space where I can show my overwhelm. Like those who have lived experienced the trauma of war or abuse, autistic people have been traumatized by the very social interactions and expectations that serve as a guide for your neurotypical life. Living autistic, with our hyper connected brains and our differently processed senses, in a world not made for us, creates a traumatic conditioning. Our masks that help us mediate the too-bright, too-smelly, too people-y places are hard to maintain with a battering of emotions under the surface. Our faces can crack. So we do what many traumatized people do – we dissociate in order to hold it in, and keep our often too-powerful emotions in check.
Sometimes the emotions are too big to allow ourselves to feel.
Sometimes our emotions are inappropriate.
I am reminded of a scene from one of my favorite books, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. The main character’s first husband has died after a relatively unloving and unpleasant marriage, and Janie must attend the funeral. Her dead husband was the mayor – a big man in town, and Janie is expected to feel sadness, to be adrift without him. Her feelings are rather the opposite of that, and as she prepares to go down to meet the funeral procession, she pauses in the mirror and “starches and irons her face”. I have never felt a phrase more fully as this is what it is like to try to mask, to live and react according to neurotypical expectations. I must starch and iron my face and present the Very Best Version of Me. Too bad that person is pretty much barely me.
When social chameleon me reaches her limit, you get to meet dissociated me,
What happens when the mask is gone? What if we intentionally unmask?
My mother wants to know why I have to feel everything so much?
Why does the plight of others affect me in such a profound way?
Why can’t I just get along?
I don’t know. I believe that my hyper-connected brain doesn’t just allow me be sensitive (or absolutely not) to the stimuli of the world, but it also allows me to feel a hyper connection with others, and I cannot abide injustice.
I have found this to be true as I let myself unmask, to feel the things I have disallowed myself to feel, to express my astonishment at the neurotypical rigidity, to cry when the world is too much. An unmasked autist is one who does feel and express their emotions, even when those emotions aren’t acceptable or proper. I just wish we could unmask and participate in the world as ourselves without fear and repercussion.
Because our tears are often seen as mental illness, as emotional immaturity, as a temper tantrum, as hysteria (especially if a woman). And that leads us to the second stereotype here – the melting down, gibbering mess of a human autist. Because this one also exists and for good reason. This is what happens when the mask cracks and the world hurts too much.