Image: Black shadow of a person with a fedora hat and coat, shown chest up, face shaded. Words at bottom in white Double Agent. Mysterious feel conveyed.

About “Passing Privilege” and Being Autistic

Sometimes I feel like a double agent.

I am Autistic. I’m not ashamed. I think I’m pretty obvious – at least to my own people. Autistics can pretty much peg me as part of the neurotribe pretty easily. But it seems many others can’t.

Like several (though not all) Autistic females, I guess I “pass” pretty well. At least that is what I have been told anyway. Not that I’m trying to pass per se; I’m pretty “out.” But a lot of my “obvious” Autistic characteristics are more internal, and some of the ones that are not internal are traits that are also seen in other groups, such as gifted adults (of which I am one) and introverts (of which I am one also, though it is not always apparent). So they may not necessarily be perceived as being associated with autism as opposed to something else. It’s hard to explain. I feel that the way I advocate, research, and go about doing things is very much Autistic, but it is not seen as such, I suppose.

But there are indeed times that I can tell that I am coming off in a way that is more neurotypical. In other words, there are times that I DO perceive that the way that I am being read is as a non-Autistic person. Basically, in those instances I can “feel” that I am “passing,” even though that was not my intention for whatever situation. It’s weird. I don’t necessarily plan to act or speak any differently away from home, but it kind of happens instinctively. Maybe it’s a learned survival mechanism; maybe it’s just what feels safe. Just like people put on their business attire in order to go to work, I can turn on the neurotypicality as needed. It’s not perfect, but it works.

I guess if I think back and ponder the larger issue of how one might learning skills that might make one speak and act in a manner that would result in seeming to “pass,” I suppose I had good role models; my parents are immigrants. They moved from Africa to America many years ago and learned how to balance navigating life in a foreign place…they learned the language, the customs, the etiquette, the nuances, etc.  They are proud of who they are and never hid it, and raised my siblings and I to be aware and proud of ourselves and our cultural and racial heritage too. In order to survive in this society they learned how operate according to its rules, but they never abandoned their own language, customs, beliefs, etc. Their true way of communicating, living, thinking, etc never disappeared even as they learned to incorporate the new ways. They simply learned how to “code switch” between the two.

So did I. I somehow learned how to codeswitch between my natural Autistic way of being and the neurotypical way. I can do it – apparently well, though it’s tiring.

Consequently, I think I am a lot more noticeably “Autistic” in my home than I am in other places. Not because I’m hiding who I am when in public, because I don’t necessarily suppress my natural way of moving, talking, or speaking. Maybe because home is my haven and I feel more free to just…be. The desire to flap, spin, engage in scripts, echolalia or perseverative speech, or whatever is much stronger when I am in my comfort zone with my family than when I am out in the world. (Similarly, my desire to have bare feet is stronger at home than in public – to let my toes “breathe”  and not feel confined inside shoes. I guess home just evokes a sense of being truly free.)

Back to feeling like a “double agent.” Since I am not immediately pegged as being Autistic, I am afforded the ability to speak about autism in circles where self-advocates aren’t always able to do so. I don’t hide who I am, but to many my role(s) as a parent of Autistic children and/or an individual with a graduate degree in autism and as someone with pre-doctoral fellowship training in autism are more evident (and seemingly perceived to be of more value) than my own identity as an Autistic woman. It seems, sadly, rather than having interest in my neurology, people are more drawn to those other things. The piece of paper and letters after my name. The research I’ve done on autism. The “big name” professionals I’ve worked with. Or the fact that Autistic children came out of my vagina (or, more accurately, out of my uterus).

All of that apparently carries more weight and is of more value than living over three decades in my own Autistic skin.

I don’t understand it. I don’t. But if it gets me in the door, then I don’t have to understand it I guess. If it gets me a seat at the table and a platform to share my people’s views then maybe my ability to “pass” is useful. Because I’m no token; this stuff is important to me. So once I’m allowed “on the inside” I don’t waste much time before I begin to share important concepts that are central to the Autistic community (as well as principles that are important to other marginalized groups, including people with other disabilities, people of color, women, queer/non-heterosexual individuals, etc when I can).

The way that I might introduce these principles might vary depending upon the audience and their ability to comprehend what I am sharing. Some people are more receptive when a gradual approach is employed; others prefer being given a lot of information that they can think through and ponder. It might mean that I have to wade through a lot of “muck” to make my point and it might mean that I have to give people some latitude to make mistakes and even unintentionally offend me (“choosing my battles”) while they figure things out. Such is life as a double agent…

If I think about the whole thing too long, though, have to admit it bothers me that if I was understood to be “just” an Autistic adult I would likely be relegated to the outside and not taken seriously. That’s not cool. I, and others, should be respected and sought after for our perspective and lived expertise as persons on the autism spectrum. But more often than not that doesn’t seem to be the case. Instead of “Nothing About Us Without Us” it seems more like “Nothing About Us With Us.”

But all marginalized communities throughout time have needed different types of people to get the job done. Abolitionists were slave and non-slave, black and white. Suffragists, desegregation activists, disability rights pioneers, gender and racial equality advocates…all of these groups are composed of “affected” stakeholders from within the community as well as others who align with them who might not be personally affected in the same manner but still care.

And it also includes people who can “pass” but choose to use their passing privilege not for their own gain but for a larger purpose, the collective benefit. Rather than disappearing into the “majority” group and blending in, they opt instead to serve as a bridge between the group they look like and the group they are actually a part of. To improve understanding, communication, interaction, and relations between the groups. To help increase acceptance of the marginalized group. To use their role to make things better.

So while it might be annoying to constantly hear things like, “You?!?! YOU’RE Autistic? Are you sure? I NEVER would have known; you seem so ‘normal.’ You must be ‘really high functioning’ or really mild on the spectrum,” I can endure it if it means that the way that I present affords me the opportunity to use my voice for the greater good and to help make things better for my people.

11 replies
  1. Vicky
    Vicky says:

    Of course, the flip side of the "passing" coin is being treated with suspicion by your true neurotribe.*** It's hard to trust those who seem to move effortlessly between a place of oppression and a place of privilege. Especially if they claim that they're "not [actively] hiding it". That rings of hogwash; of course they're hiding it in some way. Because if they were truly open, they'd be out in the cold with the rest of us. But they're not. And in an indirect way, it gives more ammo to the proponents of conformity: "See? SHE's learned to blend in. So why can't you?" Eyes roll at the notion of how "haaaaard" it must be to have a seat at the table and taken seriously. Accusations fly about "selling out" and having "internalised self-hatred".

    *** To be clear, I'm not accusing the author of doing any of those things, just spelling out some of the beliefs about people who "pass".

    To the author: I get it. I think a lot of us with our foot in both worlds – Autistic parents of Autistic kids – can relate in some way. It's wonderful that you recognise your own privilege; so few actually take the time to think about all the "why". Perhaps it's the end result of a lifetime of ableist conditioning – for some of us, anyway. Admittedly, I far more admire those who could pass but choose not to… while at the same time getting why others don't. Convoluted thoughts on all this. Thanks for writing.

    Reply
    • Anonymous
      Anonymous says:

      Morénike messaged me this reply which I post on her behalf:

      Thanks for your reply and your thoughts. I am not really able to respond in as detailed a manner I’d like, but I just wanted to address you quickly. Although I do think that for some, their moments of passing are due to “a lifetime of ableist conditioning,” I agree that it is not the case for others – and certainly not for me. I was raised by an Autistic mother (who was raised by a neuro-atypical and probably autistic father), and in my household my differences were celebrated and encouraged. Additionally, I think it bears repeating that as stated in my post, I do not pass all the time. It is situational, and it is typically not for self-gain. I did not write this seeking approval nor admiration from anyone, but I believe it is important to make clear that my instances of passing allows me to gain access to people, circumstances, and platforms that would likely not be available to “those who could pass but choose not to.” Through this access, I act explicitly to advance the cause of autistic people – passing and non-passing alike. I do not leave my integrity at the door when I’m passing. I do not compromise my authenticity nor pride in being an autistic woman when I do so. What you call “privilege” I more accurately call a skill, not privilege; it is learned, it is tiresome, and it is not without personal sacrifice that I engage in it. And for many like me – a black, non-wealthy person of immigrant background – it is not a luxury but a survival need to be able to pass at least some of the time. I write in more detail about that here: http://whoneedsnormalcy.blogspot.com/2015/04/black-lives-matter-day-after-walterscott.html
      and here: http://whoneedsnormalcy.blogspot.com/2014/05/dont-let-them-be-autistic.html

      Thank you again for engaging. -Morénike

      Reply
    • Anonymous
      Anonymous says:

      And from me personally, I don't think passing is always internalised ableism. And I don't think we should value those who choose not to pass over those who are passing. It's just not black and white like that. Passing and not passing is a moment to moment thing, a contextual thing, and a subjective thing. and we can't make assumptions about the motivations of others who are simply being their authentic Autistic selves, even when passing as neurotypical. Our community needs people who can pass at times.

      Reply
  2. BiolArtist
    BiolArtist says:

    This is great! I share a lot of these feelings. Most people think I'm just geeky/shy/etc. on a good day when I have my game face on. When I'm so low on spoons that I can't maintain game face, though, people are very shocked at the difference. Does this happen to you, and if so, how do you handle it?

    Reply
  3. Morenike
    Morenike says:

    Thank you both for your comments! BiolArtist, I can definitely relate. I have handled it different ways, but one way has worked pretty well for me recently. Based upon this having happened to me many times in the past, I have since created a few "template" texts/emails/messages for various potential scenarios in which I perceive that I might find myself in where I am devoid of spoons and time. I have them stored in the notes of my phone and computer. When I feel my spoons depleting and can tell I am soon going to be in a place where things are likely to unravel, I try to get out of there if I can. And then when I am safely away from people/places/issues whatever I pull up some of the posts and send them to whomever so that they know why I had to abruptly leave, If I am able, I send it before I leave, but if that isn't possible because of low spoons, I do so afterward. The messages vary slightly, but they basically describe something similar to the following:

    -that it's not that anyone necessarily did anything wrong to me, but I am emotionally spent, physically drained, have overloaded senses, have been around people too much that day and need a break, feel triggered, whatever.
    -That it is necessary for me to take some time away from whatever person/event/activity to recharge and that I apologize for any inconvenience/broken plans/lost money, but this was unforeseen.
    -That I am likely at or nearing the point where expressing myself cordially and/or coherently via speech is limited, so I have to respectfully decline any request for more information, clarification, or efforts to persuade me to change my mind.
    -That until otherwise informed I do not wish to be contacted.

    Then I cocoon myself and get myself back "right." Alone in my bed, or whatever. Often this technique has helped me prevent things from deteriorating to a point that I can't handle things anymore.

    Hope this helps some!

    Reply
  4. Joanna Capello Paul
    Joanna Capello Paul says:

    This is essentially everything I've been wanting to say since my adult diagnosis in 2013 at age 34. So, thank you. Thank you for this. This is why I continue to write about myself and put it out there. So the rest of our community can breathe deeply and so that those wanting to learn have things to read.

    Reply
  5. Meg Murry
    Meg Murry says:

    Yes, this is really great and so helpful, maybe especially for those of us just diagnosed in adulthood. I was just diagnosed yesterday at age 36, and as my psych explained her point of view to me, the difference between typical and atypical neurology tends to get filled in by depression and/or anxiety – which I think is true for me. That is to say, I can "pass," but the strain of doing so manifests in low level depression for me. Hoping that getting dx and coming out will allow me to not have to try to pass all the time anymore!

    Reply

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