Life As Performance Revisited

I’ve been continuing the lengthy process of understanding my life through the lens of an autistic human being. Many interactions and events that had never made sense to me now have a context that finally does. Many of those events were stuck in my memory because I could not explain them. For decades, they’ve posed a puzzle I could not answer. Finally, things are beginning to click. There are also things going back to childhood that did not necessarily stand out to me before, but which are now resurfacing and look very different through this new lens.

I mentioned some of those things in my previous two posts, but I realize there’s a lot more to it. I remember it was a combination of my tendency to ‘sing’ under my breath in a monotone and speak in a sing-song voice along with my high-pitched voice and accent that led my mother to have me sit with a tape recorder in the first place. It wasn’t just about my accent. I also remember it wasn’t just listening to my own voice. I would listen to a recording (by my mother or others) of a passage, a literary work, or just individual sequences of words and then I would record myself saying the same, compare the two, and keep practicing until I could match inflection, tone, and accent. I did that for months almost every day and continued to use it as an occasional tool well into adulthood. I still sometimes do it when practicing for some sort of significant performance.

In another instance, I read a post in which another autistic person mentioned practicing expressions in a mirror as a child. I did exactly the same thing! I would spend hours sometimes as a child practicing different expressions in a mirror until I thought they looked ‘natural’ and conveyed the right emotion. Acting classes helped a lot. In those classes they explicitly taught how to convey emotions and meaning to the audience through voice, expressions, and body language. Even after I stopped spending lengthy periods of time practicing expressions and body language, I would continue to spot check my expressions in mirrors as the opportunity presented itself. Heck, I still do that today.

I have never quite mastered the art of processing all the verbal and non-verbal cues in real time conversations. I approximate it well enough that I believe I usually ‘pass’ as typical, but I’m consciously processing everything that’s happening while also trying to look ‘natural’ and relaxed. As a result, I’m usually slightly off-kilter or a beat behind (at best) in live interaction. And if things get too ‘off-script’ I quickly get lost. I usually try to make sure most interaction is in group situations and when that happens, I can step back and start nodding and otherwise look engaged while not speaking while I try to catch up.

I dread one on one interaction with anyone with whom I’m not already comfortable. I quickly exhaust my scripts in those situations and they generally end awkwardly.

I also dread entering retail or other businesses and being approached or greeted by an employee. I consider it a success when I can get in and out without talking to anyone at all. My wife hates the self-service checkouts. I love them!

The phone has always made me extremely anxious. I hate making even normal calls such as making an appointment at the doctor’s office. I can’t even explain it, really. I will often stare at the phone, steeling myself, and rehearsing what I will say. Then I usually try to blurt it all out right away as quickly as I can. The worst is when I do that and the person says they’ll need to transfer me and I’ll have to do it all again. I’ve always pretended nonchalance or casually asked my wife if she could call where I could. But facing the phone in private has always been a nightmare. And again, I never understood why.

So I guess I really don’t ‘look autistic’ or at least autistic enough to register to most people. Instead, I’m just quirky and eccentric. But that ‘look’ has come from intentional, life-long practice and very deliberate effort.

Most of my life truly has been a performance.

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