Being autistic, like being human in general, comes with a lot of false and contradictory expectations to meet.
I often find myself caught between the belief ingrained in me for years that my autism means I’m Being Neurotypical Wrong, and the the more recently-developed feeling that I’m Being Autistic Wrong. In the past I rarely bothered asking for accommodations or disclosing disability beyond the standard equal opportunity tick-box in applications, worried that people would think it was fake, but now I’m also worried that not doing that makes people think it’s fake. I still can’t quite shake off the passing-for-neurotypical mask I put on automatically around other people, which makes me feel insincere and (again) fake, but at the same time I still stim and generally am sometimes more obviously autistic and people react badly to that too. Some people who only see me in certain contexts think I’m too quiet these days; others see me in certain contexts and think I’m too loud. And, of course, neurotypical people have that tendency to either only see an autistic person’s weaknesses but not their strengths or vice versa, creating a tightrope of constantly trying to prove “I’m not faking” and “I am capable of these things” to other people at the same time.
Like it or not, the expectations of others are powerful. We often look to what other people are saying and doing in order to work out what is required of us, what the ideal outcomes are, and what is and isn’t appropriate. Importantly, though, looking at what other people do shows me what is considered to be normal – in a world that’s also constantly telling me that “normal” should be my ultimate goal.
So by extension, I feel like I have to generally do what other people are doing. Blend in with other people. Wonder what other people think about me, to the point of fixation. As it turns out, there are lots of potential reasons for people to judge you – what you do with your free time, how you socialise and how often, how you look, what you eat and drink (or what you don’t), the extent to which you express emotions and how, how you carry yourself generally, how you react to certain events and experiences in your life, how vocal you are (or aren’t) about various topics and issues… and in case it wasn’t complicated enough, different people expect different and often contradictory things from you. I can’t please everyone even if I wanted to.
As I head into my final year at university, the future is becoming more real and more scary, and the bigger long-term expectations of other people are playing a significant part in that. The combination of what and where I’m studying means I’m currently in a world of “well obviously you’ll want this career and these are the steps you have to take and even though it’s not statistically possible that everybody does the same thing it’s all we’ll ever talk about ever“. In the graduate recruitment context, everything seems to have rough ages and degree stages attached to it too, and the fact that I’ve just done an Erasmus year abroad (which, of course, I spent constantly worried about whether or not people thought I was making the most of the experience!) makes me feel like I’ve fallen behind my graduated friends, and watching them all go on to do these great impressive things just adds to the pressure.
Having said that, over the past year I’ve learned that other people’s expectations are mostly rubbish and it’s not healthy to constantly compare your whole reality to other people’s Facebook statuses, funny anecdotes and general highlight reels. Slowly but surely, I’m starting to think “You know what? This stuff really doesn’t matter. I don’t need to fit exactly what everyone else expects of me, and it’s better for all parties for me to be honest, be myself and work towards goals I really do want to achieve.” Sounds good so far, right?
One small hitch: I’m so used to relying on what other people want me to be that if you take all that away, I’m not sure how to figure out what I want to be anymore.