[This post was commissioned by one of my patrons, Geoff.]
I stim more now than I did when I was diagnosed, and much more than I did when I was fifteen. I sway, I rock, I flap, I jiggle my leg, I pace, I make satisfying patterns with my fingers. What’s more, some of my autistic body language is clearly copied from other autistic people. I took up flapping when I met an autistic friend who flapped.
It is easy, I think, to assume that you are faking your autism, if these things are true of you. Perhaps you are an autismtrender, or a fake self-diagnoser who is just doing it for attention.
I suggest an alternate explanation. Whether or not they were diagnosed with autism, all autistic people experience a process of normalization. For people who are diagnosed, it’s an explicitly medical process: quiet hands, M&Ms for not stimming, therapeutic and educational goals to extinguish the way our bodies naturally move.
For people who are not diagnosed, the normalization process is subtler, but no less real. I still remember making soothing patterns with my fingers when my father asked, in a tone of disgust, “why are you doing those weird things with your fingers?” and mockingly imitated the way I held them together and separated them. I learned not to make patterns, not to shake my foot when I’m thinking, not to rock or sway when I’m overloaded, not to flap when I experience joy.
Those of us who self-diagnosed with autism or were professionally diagnosed as adults are often those for whom this subtle process of normalization worked best. We are the most dissociated from our natural body language. The research suggests this experience is particularly common among cis female autistic people (and probably, albeit more complicatedly, among transgender autistic people as well).
Being able to pass as nonautistic is an important skill. We live in a world full of people who hate autistic people. Other people find the natural way our bodies move to be upsetting or repulsive to look at. It is not realistic to expect nonautistic people to change, so those of us who can acquire the skill of passing will often be better able to achieve our goals if we can pass.
But the process of normalization, I think, cuts us away from ourselves to some degree. It’s hard to throw myself into experiences, to enter a state of flow, when I’m constantly monitoring myself to see whether the way I move is sufficiently normal. Trying to look at my body the way other people look at it creates anxiety. I don’t have access to the ways of self-soothing that are most natural to me. And creating the beautiful patterns with my fingers is a source of joy.
So I have made, since my diagnosis, an effort to return to the natural way my body moves. And because I have been cut off from it so completely, it sometimes requires looking at other autistic people. Perhaps toe-walking will feel natural and right. Some typically autistic gestures I try do not, and I abandon them; I don’t get anything out of spinning, although I’m glad you guys enjoy it.
Rather than being inauthentic, I think, this is a way of becoming authentic, when we’re raised in a society that cuts us off from ourselves.