Ask any autistic what statement is among their top 5 of most irritating declarations from others… and they will say one of them is the phrase, “But you don’t look autistic!”
And that, right there, is a huge problem because autism doesn’t have a specific appearance in any one specific individual. You could be surrounded by autistic people right now and you wouldn’t really have a clue because if you think autism has a look… well, you aren’t paying attention enough to know what autism really “looks” like.
Hint: it’s got nothing to do with a person’s facial features… at all.
Autistic women mask. Period. This is the number reason so many women aren’t diagnosed or are misdiagnosed by the medical community. They have been working off an assumption of autistic traits based on males — but for women, things are more complicated and therefore, the diagnosis is often overlooked for other things like bipolar or borderline personality disorder.
I spent my whole childhood (which was difficult for many reasons) watching people and learning and copying. I mimicked, I learned what was acceptable and what wasn’t, and I applied those lessons to my life. Unfortunately, even though many NT’s will think, good, you are capable of learning what you can and can’t do… that doesn’t mean those things were appropriate for who I was. Why? Because despite how hard I tried to fit in, I only stood out more and made myself a target because other kids just knew I wasn’t “typical,” which made them pick on me even more.
Recently, I was thinking about how when I was in fifth grade, I got a haircut and the entire class picked on me for it. This also happened at the same time the most popular girl in the class found a piece of paper I had doodled on… one that included how much I liked this male classmate. Their teasing was so bad I ran out of the classroom and hid in the bathroom to cry. The teacher had to coax me out, the kids were all kept inside for recess, and I knew that day none of those kids would ever be friendly with me.
But then I remember how I had gotten my hair cut, and suddenly that day took on a whole other dimension. What had I done to deserve such treatment? Why, the crime I committed had been to copy the hairstyle of the popular girl in my class to try to fit in better and that is no doubt one of the main reasons why the bullying from her and others increased.
I’m 34. It’s taken me over twenty years to realize something I did in an innocent attempt to fit in actually ended up causing a complete opposite reaction. This is the result of a completely different topic I’ll get into another time, however.
For many autistic women who are finally diagnosed, it’s hard not to grieve the years we spent wondering why we looked the same as everybody else yet felt completely different and left out. Why we were targets when all we wanted was to make friends, just like all the other kids around us.
And that’s the thing. We look the same as non-autistic people. There are no facial features or other bodily differences that will give away who is autistic and who isn’t. I am articulate and a mother and a writer and I can drive as well work, just like many other people in this world. I go out and date and like to do things such as hang out in a bookstore (where it’s always quiet, luckily). But there were years when I couldn’t drive (didn’t have my license until I was 21) and didn’t work and didn’t like to go out anywhere — just like many non-autistic people, too.
You’re human. I’m human. We don’t have a specific look, just like you don’t have a specific look.
So stop commenting with “but you don’t look/seem autistic” when someone tells you they are.
Validate their statement. Accept their neurodiversity. Believe them. Support them. Love them.
All of those things will go much farther than anything else in the world and the autistic people in your life will appreciate your understanding of exactly how much we all look the same even if our wiring is vastly different from one another.