An black and white image of bird flying out of trees with orange text: I may have passed as typical, though shy and awkward, to the outside world, but I never did to myself. I always knew I was different from most people, every minute of every day.

The Problem With Passing

I’ve always admired people who are willing to be unconventional without apology; for me, it takes some courage. As someone who’s always felt different and puzzled over ways to better fit in, being pegged as a nonconformist was once something I did my best to avoid. Knowing that I couldn’t and wouldn’t do as the others did, I tried instead to somehow become invisible for much of my youth. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it failed miserably – sometimes, it was hard to say which felt worse.

And then in some of my teenage years I flipped the whole thing on its head and thought if I could manage to be as deliberately weird as possible, my real differences would be safely hidden. Before then, I seemed to have blended into the crowd reasonably well, but in high school people began to tease me for being strange when I just being my usual self; they teased me and wondered aloud if I were on drugs (I wasn’t at the time, but later tried them out – might as well if everyone already thought I was). I shopped thrift stores for odd clothing, did my hair in wild colors or shocking styles, shunned the usual girly makeup and instead dabbled in green lipstick or, once, even face paint (that went over rather poorly at school). I didn’t see myself as being bullied – that would have required me to think of other people as bullies. I just thought of myself as weird and unable to fit in, so I stopped trying and tried the opposite instead.

I am 30something years old now and I think I am autistic. I plan to seek a diagnosis this year. Just thinking about the possibility that I have always been autistic makes every confusing thing about my life feel like it’s sliding into place. I was never put through therapies to try to make me pass as typical or “indistinguishable” (which other autistic adults have written of eloquently and heartbreakingly). I never intentionally tried to obscure my autism, because I didn’t know I was autistic, all that time. I “passed” because I was a girl and autism is not terribly well understood or identified in girls; because it was the 80s-90s and not many children were diagnosed back then; because I was an early reader and got good grades in school; because I was “well behaved” and did not manifest my internal struggles with a lot of outward signs.

But did I really pass?

I may have passed as typical, though shy and awkward, to the outside world, but I never did to myself. I always knew I was different from most people, every minute of every day. It never occurred to me that I might be neurologically divergent – I’d never heard of such a thing – so I had to chalk it all up to personal failings. I was too shy, too awkward, too afraid, too weird, too lame, too dorky, too self centered, too wrapped up in my own head. The fundamentalist religion with which I was raised confirmed my ugly suspicions about myself – I was not Saved, I had too much pride, I did not repent, I was too much in the flesh. It was all my fault that I could never be better or different than I was. My parents told me I should have a better attitude, not realizing that it took all my energy to handle all of my responsibilities and social interactions with a moderate amount of competence, and that I had nothing left over with which to project the right “attitude.” In school I was often (gently, since I always earned As and Bs on my report cards) chided to participate in class more, and couldn’t I work on keeping a neater desk?

It’s my contention, based on my experience and the narratives of so many autistic adults who went undiagnosed as children (I devour these with relish), that no autistic person ever really passes. And moreover, that asking them to do so is inherently harmful. Boys are more often diagnosed as autistic, especially in the 21st century, but I’ve read plenty of stories of autistic men who grew up undiagnosed or wrongly diagnosed, and were told repeatedly that they were just stupid, mentally deficient, lazy, and/or simply need to try harder in school and in life. I tell you, no one tries harder than the autistic who is attempting to pass as otherwise. This very trying utterly depletes one’s energy, well being, and sense of self worth.

So you’d think that being able to recognize, more often and earlier, which people are autistic, would save us from this fruitless struggle to pass – but sadly, too often it just means the pressure to pass begins earlier and with more vigor. More focus and determination. Now that we know for certain your brain is different, we can more precisely squish it into a new and improved shape!

No. Please don’t.

Though I knew, almost immediately upon realizing that my son Charles was autistic (if there can be any immediacy to such a gradual realization), that I did not want to subject him to any therapies that attempted to make him appear more typical, I did at first foolishly attempt to send him down the path that I had walked as a child. He was speech delayed to be sure, quirky I supposed (aren’t are kids at age three? I rationalized), but close enough to typical to pass, maybe, and go to a mainstream neighborhood preschool. That was a grave error, but of course I did not appreciate my wrongness at the time or I wouldn’t have done such a thing. My intentions were good. To some extent it was hard for me to objectively judge the rightness of my decisions because I was operating from a place of ignorance about my own neurology and personal journey. I’d gone to a similar preschool and I was “fine!” I’d had the opportunity to be like my peers and go to the neighborhood school, why shouldn’t Charles have that “opportunity?” The trouble with that, of course, was that Charles was not like his peers, and neither had I ever been.

In the next month or few (we have no idea how long the process will actually take!), we will be giving Charles the gift of a diagnosis. That gift is one of self-knowledge. He won’t have to go through childhood in the dark like I did, always wondering WHY he is not like other children or thinking there is something irredeemably wrong with him that he must keep hidden. We will not ask him to pass; though there may be times or situations in which he decides not to disclose that he’s autistic, I hope that they will be few, and completely of his own choosing. This gift also comes with a job. The job is mine: to cut a new path for him and others like him (including myself) through the world, treading with compassion where I can, scything fiercely when I must, to make sure that he can walk freely through his life just as he is.

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