By Katie Munday (They / them)
Since my Autistic realisation, I have been able to make more sense of how I fit into the world. I can now make more sense of strange experiences and interactions in my childhood, teens and early twenties: what it seemed to others that I had done wrong, subtext I completely missed and things I was supposed to be interested in.
I spent 25 years not knowing what was going on, in a flux of confusion and high empathy but also low interest and nonchalance. I was alone but very rarely felt lonely, it was only when I mixed with others that I just didn’t get it. I wasn’t interested in others, I found their subtext frustrating, I just wanted them to be clear with me but when I was clear with others I was called arrogant, rude, blunt and harsh.
I’m at peace now as I finally know the truth – that I live in a completely different culture and world to most others around me and that is totally fine by me.
One of the things that struck me during my journey of Autistic realisation (I’m still on by the way) is that sometimes confusion also comes from other Autistic people and within wider Autistic communities. Some things for me just don’t fit, the idea of masking or camouflaging is a big one. I have been told indirectly many times that all Autistic people mask, especially if we are unrealised in childhood – we mask to fit in, to make life easier for ourselves and to survive in a world that isn’t built for us.
I find the word masking difficult because it suggests that I can play a part and hide away consciously with a fair amount of effectiveness, and that has never been my experience. I suppose I have been lucky, or maybe I just happened to be in unrealised heavily neurodivergent spaces, I believe my scout group was one of those spaces. I have always been very proudly weird from a family of other proudly different people. I was brought up to follow interests and passions which aligned with who I am as opposed to who I was supposed to be. That doesn’t mean life hasn’t been difficult and that I breeze through all social and sensory interactions flawlessly, far from it. It just means that my behaviour has never really been convincing anyone of anything other than what I am.
I don’t mask, I shield.
I have a force field, a membrane by which I can (usually) decide what comes in and out of my inner world, this shield protects me from the confusing bullshit of neurotypical people and allows me to work and live relatively happily within systems which are not built for me and my kind.
The word shielding conjures up images of sorcerers protecting themselves from incoming attack – and I think that is a near constant thing for Autistic people and our communities. It’s the subtle microaggressions we hear every day; ‘everyone’s a little Autistic’, ‘you don’t look Autistic’, ‘oh but you go to university!’. The patronising way that Autistic adults are treated like children and Autistic children are treated like burdens.
We shield to keep these awful things out as much as we can, but we also use shielding in a more positive manner. My shield, like a membrane, is two way, I decide who and what I allow into the inner sanctum and protect myself from the viciousness of the world. There is an immense amount of joy to be had within my shield; stimming, following interests, talking deeply about things and being truly unique.
When I get home, I can lower the shield, as my home and my family are my inner sanctum, there is just no need for the membrane at that point. Coming home and taking down the shield, is like taking your shoes (or your bra!) off, it is immediate comfort.
My shield is brilliant, but it’s taken a long time to build, and it still becomes faulty sometimes – it requires a lot of maintenance which I don’t always have the spoons to keep up. There’s an awful lot of toxic neurotypicality out there to shield myself from but also a great amount of Autistic joy and pride to keep safe.