'Always performing' – my autism diagnosis helped me accept the person beneath the act

Madeleine Ryan

"Ah, the actress," the psychic said. "Yes, I am an actress," I replied. "Oh, no," she corrected. "You're a writer. But you're an actress in your day-to-day life. Always performing. No one really knows who you are. Not yet, anyway."

Eight years ago, at the time of that reading, I didn't know I was autistic. I had no idea that the way I experienced life was different from the way others did. Nor was I aware that, in order to cope, I had become exceptionally skilled at playing the role of someone else – to the point that I had even fooled myself.

In recent years, studies have shown that autism manifests differently in women. But unfortunately, assessments are often based on indicators sourced solely from boys and men, so women are left undiagnosed or misdiagnosed and may spend a lot of time being labelled as anything but autistic.

I've been called anxious, overly sensitive, manic, depressed, hormonal, introverted, extroverted, controlling, self-involved, "too cool" and "too much" and I've been diagnosed with eating and adjustment disorders.

Women with autism are also more likely to go out of their way to pursue a connection with others, and to try to fit in. Much of my life has been spent wanting to fall into social situations with ease and adapt to different environments without difficulty. But even the most basic of interactions takes a huge amount of energy to navigate. Choices most people aren't even aware they are making are like World of Warcraft for me.

Because, I mean, when is the appropriate moment to say hello, goodbye, please, thank you, yes, no or maybe? If I take a deep breath, will I seem exasperated? Am I exasperated?

Are they smiling because they're pleased to see me, or am I being funny and I didn't realise? Would crossing my legs in this moment be weird? Am I speaking too loudly, or too much? Why are they leaning forward? If I lean back, will I seem arrogant?

If the room starts spinning, I'll focus on what's being said, because spoken words are very important to people. They're probably going to ask how my day's been, and telling them that it was orange smoke with rose petals in it and the tarot card I pulled was The Ace of Pentacles won't go down well, because I could be fired/put in an institution/laughed at/frowned upon/lectured/condescended/judged.

Madeleine Ryan.

Madeleine Ryan. Photo: Hector MacKenzie

It takes a lot of preparation to meet with people one-on-one, and on the rare occasion that I commit to a dinner or to a party, we're looking at weeks of thought beforehand.

And, if things don't go as expected, the helplessness I feel is crippling. In public situations I can become so dizzy and distressed with sensory overload that I start hallucinating, or having visions. But, paradoxically, I don't give much away emotionally.

It's as if I wear a mask not of my choosing, and people see me as responsible and unaffected no matter what I do. But my experience of myself is quite the contrary. Feeling and sensing is all that ever seems to be happening. 

As a result, the life I choose to live is by no means conventional. But I know for sure that it's no longer a live performance piece. It's real, and it's mine.

The life I choose to live is by no means conventional. But I know for sure that it's no longer a live performance piece. 

Now I know that social interactions and expectations are a maze that I can become lost in, so I'm more mindful of how and when I enter into it. I love reading self-help books and studying what it means to be a human being because, if I didn't, I'm not sure how I'd survive as one.

In order to process feeling overwhelmed, I run or go to the gym each day. I work from home, and I live in the country. To guide my thoughts and actions I do tarot or oracle card readings throughout the week. To better understand people, I work out their numerology numbers and I restrain myself from asking everyone I come into contact with when their birthdays are. I interpret my dreams, I focus on one task at a time and I won't go 12 hours without a hot drink. I see a therapist regularly, I have baths frequently, I burn oils constantly, I love Reiki and I cry easily. 

The woman with the white-blue eyes and dolphin stickers stuck to her windowpane was onto something when she spoke of my exceptional acting abilities, but the toll of the performance is great. It takes an enormous amount of energy to learn and use a language that I'm destined never to be fluent in.

Accepting the autistic girl and woman beneath the act once seemed like a luxury I couldn't afford. But, really, she's a necessity I can't live without. 

from http://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/life-and-relationships/real-life/always-...