Being 'myself' doesn't work. Many people seem to have this fanciful idea that if only people could let go of their fear and insecurities and just be themselves, then everything would work out fine. Unfortunately I learned very early on that for me this was not the case.
Autism typically makes people less likely to care what others think. This is definitely true in my case. When I was younger my 'default' was to just do what I wanted, to 'be myself' if you will, and not be too disturbed by if others around me were doing the same thing or not.
If it isn't obvious already, I'll tell you what happens when I put this into action. I end up alone. I am the only one not dancing. I am the only one who wants to crank the metal music at 7am after a big night out. I'm the only one who wears a perhaps less fashionable yet extremely practical wide brim hat, or who uses a 30-minute lunch break to have a powernap.
So often, when I do what I want. I do it alone. My choice often comes down to: 'Do I be myself? Or do I be around others?'
Maybe you can imagine how isolating this choice is. I like people. I want to share my experiences just like everyone else, but the version of myself that is socially acceptable is a mere shadow of my true self.
The socially acceptable me is subdued, lethargic, uninterested. It takes so much effort for me to stay engaged or to speak about something which doesn't interest me. People are a burden. What do they want me to do now? 'Just dance,' they say. 'Do whatever you feel like.'
It's too late. I have already subdued my desires for the sake of company. I cannot resurrect a modified socially acceptable version on the spur of the moment.
To illustrate, I'll tell you a story about something that happened recently. I had planned to attend a professionally organised BBQ on the beach with a large group of backpackers. I was excited in anticipation of a fun day out. I love the beach and hadn't been in so long. I also love meeting new people, especially travellers because they are typically more open than most.
The day of the BBQ came and the forecast was for thunderstorms and rain. Pelting rain out my bedroom window confirmed this situation but did little to dampen my enthusiasm. The temperature was still quite warm and the rain would be some added adventure. Swimming in the rain is actually really fun.
I even had the crazy idea that I might be able to convince some of the random people I haven't met yet to come skinny-dipping with me. It seemed the perfect opportunity, since the beach would be deserted in the rain. What fun! I was even more excited! This had the potential to be a fantastic day!
Unfortunately the others didn't see it that way. The BBQ was cancelled because of the weather and no-one took me up on my offer to go anyway.
So I went by myself. I took the train by myself. I ate lunch by myself. I walked on the beach by myself and went swimming by myself.
As it turned out, the storm passed quite early in the day, so by the time I arrived there was nothing but beautiful sunshine all afternoon. It was actually a really nice day. I enjoyed myself immensely. But it was just another reminder of how 'alone' I am. Even when attending a pre-organised event at the beach on a beautifully sunny day, I still end up alone. Doing my thing. Being myself. Alone.
There are precious few times when my desires have matched with the people around me and these have been some of the best times of my life. So I guess I should be happy to wait for the right person and the right place and the right time.
Too often though, this feels like little consolation. The everyday choice remains. Do I do what I feel, or do I be with other people? From experience I know how good social interaction is for me. It's absolutely crucial for my mental health, for example. It's just a pity that I can't get it by 'being myself'.
I've been very well trained. It's not difficult to fit in. I just need to make sure that I don't forget that this version of me is not all of me.
So I every now and then I still practice acting on my impulses and hope that one day I can find someone who can share them with me.
Paul Micallef is studying to become a spiritual director and works for the I CAN Network as a mentor for young people on the Autism Spectrum. Previously he worked as an aircraft structural engineer for Boeing in Port Melbourne and Seattle.
Main image: Shutterstock
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25 February 2016
Thank you Paul! Beautifully written. Such a lovely positive description of life and it resonates with many people.
26 February 2016
This is an accurate description of the situation that most people face every day of their lives. This is how life is for social beings. We rein in our impulses of the moment to consider the bigger picture. Possessing self control doesn't mean we lose out on being ourselves. The refinement of how we express ourselves guides us to a better understanding of who we are and how we fit in.
26 February 2016
I agree we all need to learn to fit in but as Paul says we are all more than these social selves we have to be. Its a problem that many people are limited by their 'social' selves and lose the courage to be alone with their 'impulse' selves. I admire Paul's insight into the need for balancing our various selves and continuing in hope because every day is new.
29 February 2016
Achieving the balance is a very tricky skill. Sometimes I morn the disappearance of eccentric people from the world. We seem bent on putting them all away in boxes. Having been on this earth for a very long time I am still striving to find that balance. Maybe that will be one of the many joys of Heaven. Hope I manage to find out.
29 February 2016
Thank you Paul, This paper has assisted me to understand a child that I have known and tried to assist with ideas about how to fit in to others in her age group. I now see a better path ahead for her and a better way to assist her as she grows up.
29 February 2016
The truth of this article really spoke to me. It seems Paul's dilemma is a very common one, only his is 'writ very large.' Many sensitive and creative people battle to find those who might be soul mates and they, too, have to resolve the conflict between essential social engagement and essential freedom to be oneself. These often don't fit easily together. I wish Paul well in his battle for life balance.
29 February 2016
Thank you so much for this wonderful and honest article Paul. You sound amazing! I understand a bit about all this, as I have an adult son with autism. He isn't as high functioning as you, but you have given me really helpful insight. He also often gets lonely and wants to make friends, but finds it very difficult. Autism is a hard road and society seems to like us all to be the same. You have so much to offer and the world needs people like you. I pray that you and my son, find good friends to share life with. Cheryl, if you do not have autism or similar difficulties, you should not possibly say this is how it is for everyone.
01 March 2016
Thank you for sharing your story. My grand nephew who is in High School is on the Autism Spectrum. I will share your story with him and his family
14 March 2016
Thanks you so much Paul for your moving, lucid account of what it is to be you. You should make a sensitive spiritual director, both for autistic people and others; and your authorship should help pay bills too. Many blessings.
18 March 2016
A life truly lived is one doted with experiences that feed the energy of our souls. The ability to enjoy the experiences that we are gifted with, in the company of no-one but ourselves, is a rare and wonderful gift. If we are very blessed we find one or two people with whom we connect so profoundly that even in silence there is understanding. Connecting is rare, so do not feel isolated. It is largely a myth that all 'normal' people know instinctively how to interact in social situations. Many do not. They just mimic what they see. Genius is understanding that you do not know, and asking. The questions that you sometimes ask that lead others to mistake your intent are your path, not only to the answers to those questions, but also to an understanding about how each question must be worded to bring you the answers that you seek. The ability to deconstruct that which others do not question allows us the opportunity to ask why such things are the way they are. There is genius in this, and the ability to adjust questions to specify intent is a scientists prerogative. You are an engineer, so ask, and know that it your job to do so.