In the psychiatric system (and among most parents of autistic children), where autism is considered a mental handicap, people sometimes discuss whether an autistic child can ever hope to become normally functioning. This tends to only mean one thing, but actually there are two kinds of normal functioning: Acting normal – or acting natural. For someone who wasn’t born normal, these two are opposites.
Autism does not mean that your brain is normal, but had the misfortune of picking up a bug along the way that is tearing away at it. Autism is inborn and for life, and the reason it can’t be cured isn’t because we haven’t found the cure yet, but because it’s not a disease – the autistic mind is not a defective normal mind, it’s a mind that has never been normal and would have to be reconstructed entirely (what is commonly known as ‘brainwashing’) to become normal. Therefore, to act like a normal person, an autistic has to learn to put on an act, like a cat pretending to be a dog. This will never feel natural, because it isn’t. It can, however, be very healthy – in the sense that by acting normally, you learn to function in society better. There are a ton of situations where acting normally is the only way to get what you want, whether it’s to land a job position, get an education, keep from hurting or offending others, go out in public without getting harassed or singled out, etc. So I would strongly advise any parent to help their autistic child learn to act as normally as possible.
However, putting on a facade of someone you’re not always requires more energy than following your instinctive impulses – and for an autistic, you can expect the gap between those two to be pretty big. Pretending to be normal means carefully considering your every move, literally, because body language is one of the indicators of not-normal. For instance, eye contact can be quite overwhelming for autistics, and I’ve noticed that if I want to relax and not use up a shitload of energy on just going to the grocery store, I have to accept my impulse to not seek eye contact and to be a little hard-to-reach (focusing on what the other person is saying and giving the appropriate response also takes a lot of energy, so when I act natural, my responses tend to be delayed half-sentences). The same goes for things like letting my legs and arms swing out from my body when I feel like it, even if that makes me look like a five-year-old or a retard. An autistic acting normally isn’t like a normal person pretending to be another normal person – this is someone for whom 80% of human communication makes no sense whatsoever having to pretend to completely get it and to play along – without any of the benefits of emotional connection and reassurance that normal people get out of it. Since I’ve never tried being normal, I can’t accurately compare how much energy being socially streamlined takes for normal vs. autistic people – but my guess is that I use up about 4-5 times more energy on it than the average. And I’m in the Asperger’s category, which is the ‘mildest’ form of autism – so the energy level required only rises the further down the autistic spectrum you go.
Therefore, as strongly as I would advise a parent to teach their autistic child to act normally, it’s just as important to teach them how to act naturally – and in which situations which of those is applicable. Because if you learn to put on a facade so thoroughly that you never follow your impulses and never let your body loose, you never relax. That’s a recipe for severe stress. (This of course goes for adult autistics too, if your parents haven’t taught you these things. I’m in the process of re-learning to act naturally after not having done it for decades – but more about that in the next post.)
It’s really important – and not self-explanatory! – for an autistic child to know that when you’re alone in your room, or when you’re with family and/or friends that know and accept you, your body language can spaz out as much as it wants (as long as you’re not hitting or otherwise hurting anybody), and if you want to just say random shit for no reason, you can – but when you’re out in public, among strangers, fellow students or coworkers, you have to act normal, because otherwise you will be classifying yourself as disabled, and that limits your possibilities in life tremendously. It’s equally important and not self-explanatory to keep in mind that aspies need time for recharging in a secure environment every single day. It’s basically like with professional athletes: If they don’t rest for as long as the body needs to recover, they’ll keep doing worse and worse at their sport until they eventually break down. Tension and relaxation complement each other, and we need to make time for both every day to stay healthy and alert – both mentally and physically. How much tension vs. relaxation is needed is not up to a therapist, a diagnosis, or a parent – only the autistic him- or herself can feel that.
And that’s actually quite an exercise in itself: learning to feel and respect your own boundaries when nobody else is equipped to.
My next post will be more personally about my own history with acting normally vs. naturally.