What Does Authenticity Look Like?

"Be yourself." It sounds so simple. But is it?

Posted Mar 04, 2012

Be Yourself
Authenticity.  It's a simple word — but for some of us, it isn't so simple.  When it comes to those of us who have different methods of expression...what looks like authenticity may not be, and what looks like inauthenticity may actually be the opposite.

Recently, my friends over at The Thinking Person's Guide to Autism published an essay by Bev Harp, who blogs at Asperger Square 8 on language and authenticity entitled "Scripted Language and Authenticity."  Bev's work has always resonated with me, and this was no exception.  (Regular readers may remember that I featured an educational video by Bev in my post "Perspectives: Asperger's and Empathy")

In her post, Bev talks about how, for her, language abilities can change from day to day and how that fluctuation in abilities is often judged by others as dishonesty. Like me, and many others on the spectrum, one of the ways Bev copes with these challenges is using scripted language. Unfortunately, that too is often misconstrued.

She describes: "One of the common forms goes like this:

First someone asks a question and I can't think how to answer it. Either several possible (equally valid) answers compete to be said and confound my ability to choose, or I can't, at the moment, figure out what the question means. I've tried saying 'I don't know what that means,' or 'I don't know how to answer you,' but this tends to anger many people and even (perhaps especially) therapists and other 'helpful' types have accused me of lying in these cases. Other times, I may be unable to formulate even that much of a response.

Sometimes, though, the answer comes as easily as I imagine most answers do to most people, that is, almost automatically. Only the answer isn't 'from' me. It's one of my scripts, which may or may not make sense to the other person involved."

I identify with this more than I can tell.  Like Bev, much of my social repertoire involves a list of scripts, which may or may not go well.  Some make sense, others less so.   Bev describes responding to the question "How was work today?":

"Of course, things go more easily when the answer is 'fine' rather than 'asafetida.' No one thinks I am being a smartass, though they might wish for more information. Yet, I haven't answered any more authentically. The response is 'cut and paste' whether or not the listener thinks I have made a legitimate effort to converse."

And this is where the point of this post comes into play — as a person who communicates differently, how do you find authenticity in a world that requires that you communicate in a language not your own?   How authentic can you be, when you are pretending to be something you are not? 

Be Yourself -- Sometimes it's the worst advice
I recently had a conversation with a co-worker about my disabilities — a partial disclosure.  I talked about how hard it is to have to cover up what you are. She responded, "No one should have to."  I said I agreed, in theory...but the world isn't so tolerant.  How well would someone be received in a workplace like ours, I asked, if they didn't acknowledge other people or say "Hi"?  If they just didn't "do" the niceties, or were blunt to the point of appearing rude? 

She sat back in her seat, thought a minute, and acknowledged that yes, people wouldn't be understanding of that. She seemed to take my meaning.  As easy as it is to say that everyone should "just be themselves" — the world doesn't really make it possible for autistic people to do so.  In fact, there's a whole industry built around ensuring that autistic children become "indistinguishable from their peers."

So where does one balance the expectations of the world with the need for an authentic self?  And, to what extend does the current climate around autism encourage that level of authenticity in children?  In my last post, I wrote about listening to old tapes of myself as a young child.  The insights from this were so numerous, it was hard to choose which ones to write about.  I had to make some difficult calls as to what to include and what not...in the end I still wound up with a very long post.

One insight came when I listened to one of the tapes with my neurotypical husband.   As we were listening, he turned to me and exclaimed, "I didn't know that that was your natural laugh!"  I wasn't sure what he meant, so I listened more closely.  Once he pointed it out, it was obvious.  There was a distinct difference between the laughter I heard on the tape, and the way I laugh today.  What I heard on the tape was awkward...a barrage of short, staccato bursts, with a gurgly undertone, "Eh eh eh eh eh eh."   When I try to come up with comparisons, I can come up with no perfect one. 

I can compare it the "Eh Eh Eh Eh" of Bert on Sesame Street, but his syllables are too clear, too precise. Mine are almost guttural.  Or the "He he he" of Sheldon Cooper, in The Big Bang Theory, but his laughs are too breathy.  The closest comparison I can find is the laugh of Dustin Hoffman's character in Rain Man.  

As an adult, this laugh shows up rarely — usually when my mind is occupied elsewhere, and my guard is down.   My husband, in fact, is probably one of the only people who've ever heard it.  It tends to happen most frequently when he tells a joke that I don't understand — at least immediately. Then, suddenly, the light goes on, surprising a spontaneous laugh out of me. The thing is, to a neurotypical ear, this laughter sounds forced, even fake. Patronizing. 

It's something that's driven miscommunication between the two of us for years.  It took listening to a recording of me in my "natural state" for both of us to realize that what sounded to him like forced laughter, was actually my most natural form of expressing amusement.  And that the laughter he'd always accepted as "real" and "natural," was actually forced — a social façade trained into me at some point through the years.

I frequently wonder when and where that happened.  And why.  Was it my teachers? My parents? My peers?  Or, worst of all, me?  Who told me that my laugh wasn't "good" or "appropriate" as is? 

Who Am I?
Then comes the other question — what now?  What is real about me now? In order to be fully authentic, do I need to go back to the voice I heard on that tape?  Or, have these modifications been so trained into me that they are now a part of me?  What is authentic? What is not?  What does "being myself" really mean at this point?  It's a difficult question. 

In a sense, the level of assimilation that I've managed has left me a woman without a country.  If you look at interactions between autistic people and the greater world as a communication across cultures, you have a question that many cultural groups have dealt with over the years.  How much should those who are different be required to assimilate? And when we drive children to assimilate, to "fit in" in order to be successful, what are we doing to their sense of self?  Some day in the future, will they, like me, find themselves asking, "Who am I?"

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Journeys with Autism: On Passing, Overcompensating, and Disability

"People with disabilities are never more disabled than when they are overcompensating.

For so many of us on the spectrum who can 'pass' to one degree or another, especially those of us who were diagnosed in mid-life, overcompensating is how we have lived our lives. For most of my life, I struggled to hear people in noisy places rather than simply blocking my ears and easing the impact of noise on my nervous system - the equivalent of Zola using a wheelchair to get through an airport. I sprinted to keep up with rapid-fire conversations, despite my auditory delays, my inability to use nonverbals, and my need to translate all of the words flowing like an endless caption in my head to speech. I smiled politely in conversations that bored me to death while struggling just to keep up with the words, and I said all the 'right' things in response - or did I? I was gracious to people who recognized my difference despite all my spectacular attempts to hide it, and who drew away from me because I wasn't like them. I spent most of my childhood and young adulthood learning social rules, only to find that they only went so far, and then I kept trying doggedly to make them work for me anyway. And I did all of these things, every day, for decades, until I was exhausted beyond most people's comprehension.

I overcompensated wildly to do all the thing that 'normal' people are supposed to do, and now that I've done them, I'm told that I must be 'normal.'"

Dude I'm An Aspie: To Be You, Or Not Be You
"Being yourself, when you're an Aspie, can get you in heaps of trouble. A poorly timed meltdown, a missed signal, a split second reaction, can form a lasting impression. 'Be yourself,' but not your whole self, lest you offend someone.

Being yourself is sometimes not advisable. There are times we must fit in to survive. We want to fit in at school, or with the company culture. We want to be polite. We want to hang onto valuable relationships.

So we develop different versions of ourselves that we trot out as needed. But being phony takes energy. In squelching authenticity, we fragment. We start to doubt who really is our real self. Is 'the real me' so great, if it's so often censored?"

Maja Toudal on "Passing" as Neurotypical
"I play a character every day. I play neurotypical.  I act neurotypical. And I'm really good at it.  But that doesn't make neurotypical.  I just makes me a really good imitator.  A really good actress."

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