Left to my own devices I waltz through life at my own pace, to my own rhythm. I can be largely oblivious to the people around me or their activities as my thoughts dance.
Around and around, I spin, and twirl
Skip over the ground, my head: a-whirl
This tune in my mind: it sets my beat
Subconscious-defined, it guides my feet
Until somebody steps inside my world, like the intrusive too-loud stereo in a car that draws up alongside.
I glide through the room: a pause, then turn
From out of the blue! What’s this? Thoughts churn
You take my hand and lead the dance
I trip and stumble, caught off guard
You failed to ask, give me a chance
To turn you down; you jumped in hard
I try to adjust: the beat, it bucks
A signature in complex time
And I hardly know; thoughts slip, in flux
With seismic shift of paradigm
I’m dragged out of my comfortable one-two-three, one-two-three and forced to adapt to their alien 4/4 measure.
It’s like a pendulum. Hang a weight on a piece of string and let it swing back and forth: it has a particular tempo. You can take hold of it and make it move any way you want but that takes conscious effort and energy. Once you let go it returns to its natural rhythm.
I’ve talked about masks and masking in the context of autism, but if I’m honest the concept never resonated much with me. A mask is some inanimate object, used to conceal and disguise what lies beneath: it’s that lack of animation that strikes a discordant note when I try to use it as a metaphor for how I try to fit in.
I find it hard to reconcile what I do to fit in with the idea that I’m hiding something fundamental about my nature. I’m a trans woman: I lived for years hiding who I was through fear. That was masking: that was being somebody I’m not, somebody people expected to see. Because the risk of being unmasked could have been so high.
Being autistic, to me, means dancing to my own tune. My life is lived according to a rhythm that’s out of step with the world at large, so that when I want or need to interact with that world I’m forced to change my tempo, pick up that different beat and respond to that instead of the one in my head.
And that takes an effort. I need to consciously override my natural inclination to move in time to my internal music so that I can try to mimic the steps of this strange neurotypical dance. It’s like I’m waltzing by myself when a dance partner suddenly steps in and leads me in a tango. While the band continues to play the Blue Danube!
I’ve learned to do it over the years. I’ve watched and mimicked and practised over and over and over. I’ve taught myself those dances that allow me to join in: I get up there with my neurotypical partners and trip the light fantastic. Okay, it’s not exactly Dancing with the Stars, but I manage not to get voted off most of the time.
It’s a performance, a hard-learned and rehearsed act that allows me to take to the stage for a while without looking like the comic relief. It can look very real: I pass. But it’s not something that comes naturally to me. When the curtain comes down and I leave the stage I can stop fighting to ignore the song of my soul, and once more it moves me like a tree sways in the wind.
Songs have so many different tempos, different time signatures. Different beats. Play two different songs at once and most of the time you just get a confused, cacophonous noise. That’s what it’s like to exist as an autistic person in the neurotypical world.
Sometimes, though, you find that two tunes complement each other. They mesh, fit together effortlessly. I’ve often felt that in the company of other autistics: we can jam together, we are mutually simpatico. We might not have the same rhythms but they align: we come together and step on the same major beats.
So, what I do is not a mask. I don’t take anything off when I’m back in the safety and privacy of my own home. I adapt what I do to fit the shape of the environment I find myself in. I perform the steps according to whatever the established choreography might be.
I do all this as myself. I’m not hiding behind any mask, any more than I would be if I were to speak a foreign language when abroad. I don’t have a French mask to put on when in France, and I don’t have a neurotypical mask that I wear when I step out of my front door.
Instead, I’m out there like the Blues Brothers playing Rawhide in that Country & Western bar: I can generally go there and do it but it’s not where I live and it’s not comfortable. And it doesn’t always end well!
Forcing my pendulum into a different tempo is possible but it takes focus and energy to keep it there. And if my attention slips–if my hand comes away from controlling it–it falls back into its innate behaviour. My unconscious feet fall back into step with my own rhythm, and I’m left out there on the dance floor moving to a different beat.
Many thanks to Sonia Boué and Dawn-joy Leong for expressing the thoughts that inspired me to write this. Please read A Delicate Dance #masking #actuallyautistic by Sonia Boué.