When being true to oneself means revealing differences.
It is widely acknowledged that authenticity is an important part of mental health and overall well-being. This message can be seen in everything from cultural tropes to empirical research.
But what is authenticity? The term is used to describe a number of constructs in scholarly literature, from sincerity, to truthfulness, to originality. However, a succinct and simple definition of authenticity is “being true to one’s self.”
Online, there are memes galore that suggest that authenticity is indeed trending, with hashtags such as #Authenticity and #AuthenticSelf on Instagram giving rise to over a million posts. There is a wealth of resources on living authentically. Notably, Brene Brown has written books, including her bestseller, The Gifts of Imperfection, which implore the reader to embrace one’s own quirks, flaws, and foibles in the interest of authenticity.
Living authentically can mean shedding outdated coping behaviors and refraining from shaping ourselves to fit in with others, and that part of this process may involve saying goodbye to people who do not accept us as we are. This can be a painful process; intense vulnerability and grief may emerge as we unravel our lives, disconnect bonds, and weave all that remains back together in colours and patterns that better represent who we really are.
But what does that mean for those of us who are fundamentally different from the majority of the population? We are not just weaving at whim and wont in the hope of creating a more pleasing cloth. For those of us who share distinct differences and divergences, we are actually weaving with different threads and our ideal weft and warp criss-cross in unconventional directions and intersect in unorthodox places.
The process of developing greater authenticity in everyday life as an autistic adult presents even more complex layers of pain and vulnerability that it does for most. This is not to say it is impossible but that it presents greater challenges when living in a society that assumes neurotypicality as standard and projects neuro-normative expectations. In a previous article, we explored how autistic women are often viewed as “difficult” or “lazy” when engaging in acts of self-preservation. With this piece, we expand upon that notion to unpack what it means to embrace an authentic, autistic identity.
Authenticity and autistic camouflaging
The process of unravelling learnt behaviors and differentiating them from the authentic self is often incredibly complex for autistic individuals and can present a major obstacle to authenticity. For many years, the therapeutic space around autism focused on modifying the behavior and superficial presentation of the individual in order to align with expectations of society. This enforcement of behavior that is not innately autistic is at odds with the concept of authenticity. There is increasing awareness and understanding that it is not ethical to prioritize normalization over mental health and well-being, and there is a rise in approaches that aim to better meet the individual’s needs and preserve their autistic nature while supporting development and teaching skills as needed.
However, there remain long-term consequences for individuals, and for society, as a result of the way in which normalizing autistic behaviours has historically been promoted as a helpful, rather than a harmful, endeavor. And perhaps it is the broader socio-cultural climate that created and perpetuated these ideas of normalization that is the most harmful of all. Even for those of us not subject to childhood interventions, including the authors who were diagnosed in adulthood, these embedded norms, patterns, and rules, which were acquired either deliberately or unconsciously in an attempt to fit in, are difficult to shed, shift, or even identify.
Even without knowing we were autistic, we still learned to avoid showing our authentic selves, to avoid appearing different, to avoid appearing autistic. This phenomenon is referred to as “camouflaging” in the scholarly literature and is defined as a discrepancy between one’s internal experience and external presentation.
What is camouflaging and why is it bad for us?
Camouflaging involves both compensating for aspects of social interaction and presentation that don’t come naturally, and masking by hiding one’s autistic impulses and behaviours. Examples of camouflaging include suppression of visible self-regulation strategies (such as “stimming”), scripting, and mimicry of social norms.
Camouflaging has historically been viewed in a positive light, and the teaching of skills and strategies to camouflage remains frequently embedded in interventions and therapies aimed at autistic people of all ages. However, while camouflaging may appear beneficial in the short term, recent research asserts that chronic camouflaging may be harmful in the long term. Increased stress, anxiety, depression, and suicidality have all been found among individuals exhibiting high rates of camouflaging behaviors. One study found that camouflaging was related to a sense of thwarted belongingness, which resulted in an increased risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
Honesty and openness are essential to embracing authenticity, but prevailing views of autism in the broader community typically don’t incorporate the vast diversity that is present in autistic populations. In spite of a number of high-profile individuals openly disclosing, such as Anthony Hopkins and Hannah Gadsby, many people still cling to dated tropes of trainspotting and male math geniuses.
As autistic women who do not fit the autism stereotypes, we frequently encounter people who simply do not believe that we are autistic. People can become so connected to the neurotypical veneer we have created as part of our camouflage that they question whether we are really autistic, rather than accept that our camouflage has been carefully crafted over time with great effort and opt to support us as we move towards more authentic, autistic ways of being in the world.
We can both reflect on pre-diagnosis behaviors that were highly performative and involved camouflaging our true selves. However, it is only with the benefit of hindsight that we are able to identify this; at the time it was habitual and integral to existing in neurotypical spaces. As adults, we question how thick and tangled this camouflage became and whether we will ever successfully peel away all of the layers to discover our true, authentic selves.
Our camouflage developed as a survival mechanism; a way to hide needs that felt atypical or excessive, to avoid being “difficult,” to hide our differences and just blend in. But now it is that very survival mechanism that is posing an obstacle to authentic living, and thus impacting our well-being. While there are many people who will not, and do not, react favorably to our authentic autistic selves, there are also autistic spaces that welcome, honour, and appreciate our divergences, which, in turn, encourages self-acceptance. It is in these spaces that we can explore our autistic identities and find our #AuthenticAutisticSelf.
The #AuthenticAutisticSelf will mean different things for different people. Such is the diversity of people and experiences that constitute the current understanding of a spectrum which is not a linear progression but rather a vast and heterogeneous range of characteristics. Often it takes time to accept our autistic selves and move towards authenticity, especially when we have unknowingly internalized the multitude of neuro-normative and ableist messages from the societies we were raised in and those we continue to live in. Some of us never find our way to accepting our autistic selves, which may be indicative of the depth of internalization of stigma and the challenges of dealing with neuro-normative constructs.
For us, authenticity means constructing our own spaces in which to live and work, seeking out like-minded and understanding friends and peers, and allowing ourselves the latitude to exercise self-care without shame or self-reproach. In practice, this is indulging in special interests, engaging socially in ways that are comfortable albeit unconventional, celebrating our strengths, and accepting our challenges. Autistic individuals require support as we explore our autistic identities and the freedom to determine our own notions of authenticity; we urge our non-Autistic peers to honour this, for it takes courage to be #AuthenticallyAutistic.