A Comment on Autistic “Passing”

In autistic circles the process of “passing” — appearing as best one can to be a “normal” human being, thus reducing the stress that neurotypical reactions to autistic traits can induce in all parties involved — gets a lot of discussion.  An interesting disquisition on this, recently encountered, is https://amongsthumans.com/1134, “The Passing Of A Generation”.

I’m 69 now, have finally discovered and embraced my autistic nature in the past 18 months, and am still learning.  In my childhood, of course, autism was an extremely rare and horribly catastrophic illness that you DEFINITELY didn’t want to be identified with, as you might find yourself a resident in the Home for Feebs and Spazzes.  No stims, please, we’re entirely normal here.  Pay no attention to that six-year-old with a 25,000-word vocabulary who hasn’t mastered tying his shoes.  But make sure he doesn’t rock in his seat or flap his hands.  (Leg bouncing is OK.  Lots of people seem to do that.)

Sometimes passing has unexpected positive results.  I’ve had a lifelong passion for radio and electronics and, like the narrative in Neurotribes, got a ham license in 1964 and found myself at last in a prototypical online community of other nerds I didn’t have to encounter socially.  When I was drafted in 1968, I enlisted for an extra year of service so that I could opt for a specialty in electronics.  The Army can be autism hell, but if you have to be in hell you might as well try to steer to the less unpleasant parts.  (Nowadays a formal diagnosis is a barrier to enlistment, which is another topic entirely.)

For good reasons I barely made it through Basic Combat Training.  I was second from the bottom of my cycle, but passed because the cadre were compassionate.  After that, however, everything changed:  I have honor graduate certificates for every training course thereafter, especially including NCO training, where they turned me into a leader.  I was promoted to the grade of Specialist E5 eleven months after enlisting.

Besides teaching me many valuable things about how successful human organizations work, they taught me how to assume a command persona — to be someone that others will perceive to be a leader and will follow.

I now had a powerful tool for passing.  I used it in many ways in the years succeeding, including one way I completely failed to expect.

I’ve had a lifelong passion for live theatre, but it was always for a techie role backstage, fiddling with lights, sound or rigging.  In my late thirties, however, I was roped into attempting acting.  As I got more roles in professional theatre productions, I found I liked that at least as much as sound and lights.  Eventually, I got most of my roles not from auditions but from directors calling to see if I was available for a part in an upcoming show.

Acting can be exhausting when done right.  One thing I noticed, though, was that I wasn’t quite as exhausted as some of the other actors, especially on those trying days when you have two or more performances.  I felt pretty much as tired out as at the end of any other day.  The reason, it finally dawned on me, is that for a passing autistic, every day is a performance, whether in a theatre or not.  Creating and portraying a character, who isn’t truly me, is something I have been doing for many years, merely to survive and perhaps prosper in daily life.  I’m not really sure now who the “real” me is.  Peter Sellers once remarked on the Muppet Show: “There isn’t any Me.  I had it surgically removed.”

The wonderful thing about acting is that it doesn’t matter whether you have problems perceiving the attitudes and intentions of others.  You know who you are, and the script and the Director tell you who the others are, and you are free to be a neurotypical human who understands all the secret social codes.  You enjoy, and get paid for, just doing what you normally do in life, without the hassle of not having the Captain Midnight Secret Decoder Ring.

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