When I was a chameleon…. Autistic Identity and social ‘acting’

When I was fifteen I went from being a fundamentalist Christian one week to a revolutionary socialist the next. This is probably quite an unusual and swift about face in terms of beliefs and identity. I didn’t do it because I was confused about who I was. I did it to be accepted and have a peer group to belong to. I was at school some years before the Asperger’s diagnosis became available where I lived so had gone through school as the loner, the ‘weirdo’, the target of apparently every single bully in the place. While as a small child I was confident and liked myself, years of bullying and harassment at school taught me I was stupid, worthless, ugly and everything else. I thought it had to be true or why would so many people say it about me? I didn’t think anyone would want me to be their friend with my evidently deficient personality so I joined a peer group where all I had to do was toe the party line and agree with what everyone else said. To this purpose, a group with clearly described and stated  beliefs was quite easy to join – hence the revolutionary socialists. (I was brought up in the Christian group so that was sort of my default peer group or ‘culture’ from which I joined the socialists.) In order to be accepted with the socialists – or anyone really – I took on a persona which fitted with their views. I was like an actor studying a role. I observed my new peer group,saw what they did and how they spoke and took it on as part of me. I had in fact ben doing tis at high school for some time already. In school I had tried to be inconspicuous and avoid detection but it was about was effective as trying to hold back the tide!

I left home at 17 and became an independent adult. I worked so I took on the role of ‘good employee’ when at work. I had the odd experience of being probably the only revolutionary socialist ever to win Worker of the Month! When I was at work I put on my diligent employee ‘hat’ and at protests I was radical Jeanette complain gin about ‘the bosses’ and saying rude things about politicians.

It is probably evident to you that this would have affected my sense of self, my identity. It did but teenagers are not always the most self reflective of people and I simply didn’t see it. I was unaware of this part of me. It became second nature.  ada[ted to whatever setting I was in. It was like putting a chameleon on a rainbow t-shirt!

All this was unhealthy but it got worse. Regular readers of my various things will know I spent time in prison in my twenties I am not going into detail about hat here. It is easy enough to find information about that  and a blog post needs to be reasonably short! Anyway the day I went to prison I put my acting skills to effect. This was a world I was only vaguely aware of and I wanted to ensure I didn’t get anything ‘wrong; socially. I realised as soon as I got there that this was essentially high school but the bullies would do more than call you names if you messed up. My effectiveness at turning from middle class leftie student to criminal in a space of days, and the fact that in the over three years I was there that I was never physically assaulted by the other women, amazes me. I always talk about doing what works and in that situation I somehow did what worked for me to stay safe (at least from other people). This was great in terms of my personal safety in a very dangerous place but in terms of my identity it was a disaster. I took on my criminal role so effectively it took some years to move past it. My act even fooled me!

In 2000 I found myself wanting an end to the world I knew as a criminal. I hated who I was – negative violent, self-destructive, disrespectful of others, socially devalued and alienated form all that was good. I had the amazing privilege to get to attend a residential therapy program which, while its target audience was those wth a misdiagnosis I had acquired, was in fact very helpful. While doing this course I realised I didn’t know who I was and didn’t really like what I saw in terms of my behaviour and attitudes, I decided to change.

I am someone who came from a dark place and was filled with remorse and shame at who I had been. I had a blank canvas. I got to decide who I would. be. A scary and empowering proposition. As soon as I accepted my Autism diagnosis I started heading in the right direction. I had never accepted that little ‘A’; word and I think that was because I was not comfortable being myself. Autism to me was like an insult, something not to mention in polite company. My new self was comfortable with her Autism – although not so much as I am now.

Over the course of a few years I built my new ‘me.’ It didn’t mean I stopped taking on mannerisms of people around me. One of my public housing neighbours thought I was ‘fake’ because he heard me talking to one of my university lecturers on the phone and my speech and use of language were different I was in fact unaware of that occurring – chameleons apparently take some time to change back to there regional green! These days I have a very strong sense of who I am. I don;t do so much ‘acting’ and think if someone doesn’t like me because I’m a bit quirky that it is their loss. Identity can be hard but I ended up with a ‘me’ that I quite like.

Here are some thoughts ardour this issue more generally

  • While the social chameleon is often seen as a descriptor of the female Autistic ‘type’ that is not always the case. We need to be really careful when using those Autism and gender ‘types’. Gender identity is not just sis gender male and female. Gender is a much more complex and nuanced thing than just male and female. A large percentage of Autistic people identify as trans, non-binary and other genders which makes a static notion of male or camel Autistic ‘types’ quite problematic.
  • Often people ‘acting’ do not realise they are doing it.
  • While it can be a useful way of avoiding being singled out for unwanted negative attention, ‘acting’ can come at the cost of a sense of identity to varying degrees.
  • For a lot of Autistic people identity is complicated by a number of factors such as how they view their Autism, the peer group they mix with or their other, intersectional identities, such as Aboriginally or sexuality.
  • Many Autistic people feel a great sense of belonging within their own Autistic community. For quite a few of us this happens after a diagnosis in adulthood.

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