NYNM Chapter 3: Role-playing

I knew how this went. Boy meets girl, they date, maybe fall in love? I remember feeling instantly attracted to Allen when we first met, not just because he was cute but because of his confidence and the way he behaved. He never seemed to care at all about other people around who might be watching him, and he also conveyed that he knew what he wanted out of his life. Those are two rarities, in my opinion, and I was happy to continue exploring where this budding relationship would go. We began sleeping together very soon after meeting, and I didn’t feel the pressure or nervousness that I had in the past, especially with my last partner. It was just fun and genuine to be with him. I felt free to be who I am, though within the parameters of the female-being-pursued archetype. I don’t think I was trying to be deceptive or put on airs, I was just comfortable in a role where I was perhaps a bit demure, shy in a sweet way, alluring if I could be, innocent, interesting/intriguing. I was trying to put forward the best of me while holding back anything that I thought might put him off or that didn’t fit the role. I was sure that doing or saying the wrong thing would cause him to lose interest, but over time it became easier to let go of these worries because he did seem genuinely interested in all of me as a person, and as a whole human being.

I want to take some time to compare this experience with the one I had in high school. In high school I was, of course, much more naïve and prone to masking as well as to conforming to the female ideals who seemed to be successful all around me, as I’ve mentioned before. This was a practice I’d begun mastering as early as middle school, and it had fast become automatic behavior in any and all social situations with people my own age. As I carried this tendency into high school, it became more awkward because it just wasn’t authentic enough to fool everyone. Maybe some people, or maybe those people just never brought it up or called me out on it. But I remember being enamored with a boy who was popular and arguably fit the “jock” archetype. I was this shy, awkward, overweight new girl who spent all her time either with her two close friends or in a group with the band and colorguard. But I still believed that I could emanate the popular, hot, cheerleader type to him, even as I was so immature and fragile in my self-esteem. My behavior was quite “young” for someone in high school (at least I think so), such as not being able to talk to him directly and instead passing notes and asking others to talk to him for me. Geeze, so much cringe, let me tell you. He was never mean to me about it, but, of course, he wasn’t up for the dates I’d indirectly ask him out on! To think that I never caught on to how this behavior must have appeared to others until years and years later is astounding now, in hindsight, but I do think a lot of these little nuggets of history help to highlight the mindsets and perspectives of young women on the spectrum as they are growing up. And you have to remember that I was not given the label of autistic as a child. I was not going into school with everyone around me treating me a little differently because of a “disability” I had. I was fully expected to integrate normally just like everyone, and believe me, I thought I was. Over the course of those four years, however, I received small hints and suggestions from people that were subtle. And when I received these hints as a high school girl, I pretty much immediately dismissed every one of them, thinking that people had it all wrong, that they didn’t really know me, that I was who I was pretending to be at every moment. I was fooling people…most of all myself.

By the time I was in college, I had shed some of the more immature tendencies. I was willing to talk to this strange man face-to-face, for one, instead of using a messenger. The set of tools that I considered essential as a young adult were certainly different from the ones I had at my disposal in high school as well. In high school, I was constantly portraying the girl I wanted to project to others on a very superficial level. I was all about wearing unusual clothing that I thought was cool but that also helped me stand out. A lot of times I simply liked the clothing, too, and my taste was different from the other girls I hung out with. This made for an interesting mish-mash where I was wearing things that I liked but also trying to be cool and consistent with what people seemed to like style-wise. I considered myself a trendsetter when I was different and a “cool girl” when I was conforming. These attitudes would go back and forth depending on my mood and who I decided to be that day, kind of like picking out outfits—only I was picking out personas. I was usually pretty quiet, constantly observing the girls around me, and frequently relying on my physical talents as a dancer and performer to stand out and earn attention and praise. I was on the colorguard team starting in the summer before my freshman year all the way to the summer just after I graduated. In that time, I earned several “features” or solo parts during our performances, both in the summer with the band and in the winter, when we competed by ourselves in Winter Guard. Performing was where I could express myself fully and share the best of my abilities with an audience and judges who appreciated it. My true identity since the time I was little has always been a “dancer,” but this wouldn’t process fully for a long time. More on that later.

So yes, in high school my tool set was: look pretty and cool, impress with my performance skills, and try to act like the friend in middle school who was popular.

It wasn’t enough to hook the cute guy I liked, and no one was really going to beat him, including the pudgy trumpet player who was fawning over me for some reason…that is, until he stopped and started going out with a friend from my colorguard team.

Before this happened, I’d never looked at him and thought of him as boyfriend material. But seeing him with another girl made me jealous. I had stopped receiving the attention I liked, and so I did some really shitty things in order to “win” him back, crushing my friend in the colorguard and toying with this boy for whom I didn’t have genuine feelings because I had no idea what that truly meant. It was a role, and I was ready to try out the girlfriend role, no matter how I got there. Now, it’s easy to look back years later and discard this as just a silly high school puppy love thing, but I do remember developing what I felt were very serious feelings about him, even going so far as to accept a promise ring from him just before I left for college, as he still had a year left before graduating. What I also remember is the nature of these deep feelings I had, which were more about the “Role” than real love, even though we’d made a habit of telling each other “I love you” regularly. What I know now is that I didn’t love him—I loved the role, I loved the attention, and I loved feeling “normal.” Those of you reading this as women on the spectrum will appreciate just how precious a thing that is.

But was this incredibly selfish and hurtful? Absolutely, and I fully regret my behavior, autism or not. What I want to do now is shed light on the mindset in hopes of revealing the mental workings that drove this behavior.

Most young girls in high school are overly concerned with their social standing, looks, popularity, etc., but for me personally, all of these concerns were simply props I used for the massive stage performance and masking that were necessary to survive. Sounds dramatic, yes, but when you are on the spectrum trying to function in a neurotypical society, fitting in is a matter of survival in a lot of ways. No, I wasn’t going to be put to death if someone recognized my masking and called me out on it publicly, but let me try to explain what I mean. Contrary to popular belief, women on the spectrum are not devoid of emotion or empathy, and in a lot of cases, we are actually very intensely tied to our emotions and/or empathetic feelings, and this creates a lot of space for pain—loneliness, alienation, embarrassment, depression, constant anxiety, fear, confusion, anger, hopelessness, hate. Our “survival” instinct is to avoid these feelings by being as socially attractive and normal as possible. Now, not every woman on the spectrum is desperate for friends or a romantic relationship. There are plenty of women with autism who are quite content with a solitary life, as long as they are given adequate respect and consideration for how they choose to live that life, such as in their working and living situations. What I’m describing is my personal experience, and I can’t stress that enough, which is why I often come back to this point.

From an early age I knew that I wanted to find the Prince Charming that was supposed to exist for all girls. Nothing less than that would do, and this childlike focus persisted until I ran into a brick wall at full speed in college following a confusing and hurtful “friend with benefits” situation just before meeting Allen (more detail in Chameleon). And what is one of the predominant characteristics of a Prince Charming according to all this media I was using as a barometer for my own life? An absurd level of affection and adoration for the Princess. And so, guess how I felt, sitting across from this boy who was so desperate to hang on to me that he gave me a promise ring so that I’d remember our love as I left him and went off to college? Like a winner, baby. This was the prize, this was the reward for all the hard work I’d put in over the years to be that attractive, ideal girl who “had it all.” Even at this point, I remember some of the feelings I felt as I accepted this ring, and not all of them were about elation or joy. I think this was the point at which I first felt in touch with the imposter inside me, leading on this boy who was looking forward to spending the rest of his life with me. It was the first time that idea had hit me, but it wasn’t really part of my plan, not on the deepest level. One of the big feelings that came to me in that moment was trepidation.

I worked really hard to convince myself that I wanted the same thing and that I felt the same way, but I was also a young girl ready to go on a new adventure as I left for college, and I was already getting bored with this high school sweetheart. My feelings for him became more and more superficial as my freshman year progressed, and eventually I broke up with him altogether—rather callously—over the phone. I’d gone as far as I wanted to with him, and one of the dominant factors in my decision to dump him was that I was bored. He was not offering me the interesting conversations that I craved, I wasn’t experiencing anything new with him, and I just wanted to keep exploring. And I had been doing quite a bit of exploring already by the winter of my freshman year, let me tell you.

Okay, so now I was free and ready to take on the game again, but this time my tool set had shifted and gained a few new additions. I was now sexually experienced and found that sexuality was pretty huge when it came to college relationships, or more aptly, “flings.” I quickly picked up some new strategies and a new game.

One of the things that autism has gifted me with is the power of observation. This is common in people with autism, and it gives us women a leg up when we are doing our best to project the ideal woman we envision everyone wants to see and admire. I carried a lot of what I craved on stage to how I interacted off stage. I didn’t just want to “fit in,” I wanted to stand out, to be exceptional. I was good at things, and I used that as a tool. At this point, I was also using my own custom-designed sexuality as a tool, taking what I’d learned in high school, revamping some old strategies, and practicing my “self” on lots of different types of people. I enjoyed playing the intriguing, different chick at a party who could draw boys to her instead of having to pursue them. Sometimes it worked out, and sometimes it didn’t. When it did, we’d end up having what felt like a beautiful, enlightening discussion of “intellectual” and academic subjects, when in reality we were just drunk and trying to sound smart. I was sure that it would be through one of these crazy, drunken parties that I would meet my real Prince Charming. He would fawn over me, the way the princes are supposed to fawn over their princesses, and the rest would be happily ever after.

I have to highlight here the naivete that plagues most women on the spectrum, especially when it comes to boys and romance. This is me as a young adult, one and two years into college, holding on to this idea that I was supposed to meet a Prince Charming who would sweep me off my feet. I felt this comforting sense of destiny that if I just tried hard enough, I could get whatever I wanted…quite millennial, isn’t it?

There were a few times when this game would get a little scary. I would be flirty and cute and all the things I knew boys wanted in a girl, then they would offer to take me home…and I knew what that meant. I would feel fear and quickly come up with an excuse for why I couldn’t, almost shocked that things had gone this far. It didn’t take long for me to fully integrate the idea into my psyche that if I ever wanted to have a “real” relationship, I was going to have to buy it with sex.

By the time I met Allen as a senior in college, my mindset had been altered quite a bit in this regard, and I was working through all kinds of things mentally that I was never prepared for. Sex was simply essential for a relationship with a man. And you had to really perform, because at any time they might get tired of you or want someone more talented. Just like the idea that my Prince Charming was just waiting in the wings, this idea became absolute truth to me. And this time I was basing it more on personal experience than the movies and other media on which I’d depended up until that point in my life. As autistic women, we grab on to whatever life lessons we can glean, oftentimes equating the lessons that come from experience with the lessons that come from anywhere else, like a cheesy song or chick flick. It is simply all the same—and equally challenging to sort through and understand.

All of this to come to the point that when I met Allen and our dating days began, I was equipped with this new tool set that integrated sexuality and the experience of what I “knew” men wanted, combined with the naivete of the things I’d carried with me since childhood. This world was full of rude awakenings and heart-rending surprises that would slap me in the face over time again and again. But for right now, I was relishing the sweet experience of showing myself to a man who was open and exciting, full of interesting conversation, and seemed absolutely enthralled with me as a person and not just an archetype. How long could this last?