I’ve been something of a performer all my life.

At primary school, it was drama. I never got to be the heroine or the pretty princess, but that didn’t bother me (mostly). Gleeful, gorgeous, grotesque riches were bestowed upon me in the form of ‘character’ parts: witches, ghosts, and anyone requiring an accent. I got to play around with voice, mannerism, posture, stature and facial expressions in ways that I found utterly delicious.

The move up to secondary school ushered in a small fish:big pond tale of bit parts, walk-ons, clumsy full-cast dance scenes and dressing-room boredom. I was never simply “glad just to be involved”; I wanted to act, damn it.

And so music took over. After a brief spell contending with the solitary, arduous torture of beginner piano, I plumped instead for the trumpet. You couldn’t escape it. You could play it in all kinds of genres. And you could play music with other people, in actual bands, before you actually even had to be any good at it.

The loudness was the point. I loved the fact I couldn’t hide; or rather, that I could hide myself behind that brazen, brash brass instrument. I could be the centre of attention, without the audience’s attention being solely centred on me.

Performance did, however, extend way beyond theatre and music.

Every day was, and is, a performance.

I’ve rejected any early-in-my-identification-as-autistic notions that I ever “masked” my autistic traits. I wouldn’t have had a clue what on earth I was trying to mask, for starters. It was pretty apparent to a lot of people that I was a bit (well, a lot) weird.

Still, perhaps stage makeup is a mask, of sorts. I performed the role of a girl. A proper girl, like all the others. I wasn’t trying deliberately to cover up aspects of my own self; I was simply playing the same role I’d always believed others also had to consciously “act out”.

I didn’t do it with uniform, or universal, success, of course. There was so much I simply didn’t get about being a proper girl. And yet. The tone of voice. The mannerisms. The (only partially feigned) interest in beauty and fashion. The purchasing of teen girls’ magazines. Shopping. The fancying (at least romantically) of boys at school. All that I could sort of manage.

But it still felt bewildering. And never quite real.

I was far more comfortable with the mixed-gender groups of friends I knew outside of school. My gaggle of gig-going buddies. The fellow musicians in the district orchestra and concert band. People with whom I could bond over genuine shared interests, irrespective of each others’ gender.

I was never a boy. I never felt like one, nor ever wanted to be one. I was never even a tomboy.

But still I struggled to perform the role of the normal girl.

And yet, as an adult, as people wanted to call me a woman, so I wanted to continue being referred to as a girl. “Woman” felt like someone else. I disliked “Miss” but rejected “Mrs”, or my husband’s surname, when I married – again, “Mrs” didn’t sound like me. It sounded too…grown up. Old, even. It still does.

(I go by “Ms”. Part of me occasionally gets half-tempted to switch to “Mx”, in part to annoy the people who don’t even like “Ms”. But my life is complicated enough already, what with me being openly autistic and everything. I just wish people would always use first names and nothing else, really.)

I don’t have problems with being a mum, or being called one. That one fits.

But I still feel like I’m always performing a role. Playing a part. The competent adult. The consummate professional. The confident parent. I even struggle to understand how to properly be an adult child to my parents. That script can be particularly hard to read.

I don’t feel as if I “perform” the role of friend. I care too much about friends, and friendships, to be anything other than as genuine as I know how.

Everybody performs. We all switch personae according to context, situation, environment. And most of all, who we’re with.

But we autistics so rarely get to take off the costume and be fully ourselves.

So often, the very way in which I’m openly autistic is in itself a piece of performance art. I could easily dull the sensory impact of bright lights with a very discreet pair of shallow-framed tinted glasses. But no; I walk into conference plenary sessions wearing oversized vintage-look shades. I revel in doing so. I could subtly stim in work meetings by playing surreptitiously with my engagement and wedding rings, or the cuff of my sleeve. But no; the Tangle is in my hand, and my hand is on the desk. So often must I write, rehearse and memorise the scripts for my many upcoming performances in the role of the pseudoneurotypical woman, that I grab any chance I can get to “be autistic”.

And when I’m out and about, I confess it: I play up to the camera.

I flick, fidget, sing, hum or nod my head to the music on my mental jukebox more obviously in public these days in part because I don’t give a bloody hoot about who objects to my doing so, but also because, deep down, I hope another autistic person is nearby, noticing.

I’m an actually autistic impersonator of an actually autistic person, performing an exaggerated version of my true identity for dramatic effect. It’s freeing. Liberating. Fun.

But it’s merely signals and signifiers. Camping up a stereotype. It’s real, but it’s not the full story.

I’m at my most autistic, under normal circumstances, when I’m at home – either because I’m tired, stressed and meltdowny, or because I’m being a kid, with my kids, and able to play. And when my daughter and I go on makebelieve adventures, we are always ourselves, wherever we travel to.

But I’m only ever able to be truly autistic, without the added dramatic effect, or even affect, when I’m with other people like me. And that’s rare.

Performance can be enjoyable. Joyous, even. But sometimes I need to remove the layers of panstick, and just be me.

[Featured image by Arch’educ. Image features a wooden theatre stage. A deep red curtain hangs closed over the stage, touching the stage floor.]

I hate asking people for stuff.

I have a problem. I’ve had it most of my life. I’m scared of asking people for stuff.

I’ve written before about my love of Dr Martens boots. What I’ve never mentioned before is how long it took me to actually work myself up to asking my parents for my first pair. Everyone at school seemed to have some. Black, of course. And I desperately wanted a bottle green pair. 

I played through the phrases I would use to make the request. I felt sick. Short of breath. Tense. It took weeks, but eventually I asked them, and they said “yes”. Pester power of a teenage child? Perhaps. But that teenager expended so much nervous energy mustering up the courage to (mildly) pester. And besides, the boots lasted me years. They were a worthwhile investment.

What the hell was I scared of?

To this day, I have never, ever asked anyone out on a date. I don’t have to worry about that any more, of course. But whenever I “fancied” boys at school (is “fancy” the right word? Reflecting back, my crushes were almost always of a romantic rather than a sexual nature), I wanted them to know, but would never have told them. Given how “weird” I was perceived to be, I assumed I’d be rejected.

I’m not sure what it is about asking people for things. I think it’s a combination of factors. I’m less petrified at the thought of making requests by email, so presumably verbal communication is one of the issues.  I’m scared of people saying “no”, and I’m scared of my own reaction when I’m there in front of someone. Oh so often, receiving bad news reduces me to crying meltdowns that seem woefully, hugely disproportionate to the situation at hand. I’m terrified that if I get the wrong response, I won’t be able to control my reaction. I’m worried that I’ll get into an argument, and that I’ll be unable to respond quick enough, and rationally enough, in a real-time, verbal one-on-one duel.

Making requests in writing, and processing any responses given in the same medium, offers me distance. Time to consider. And privacy. I am not exposed and open to the scrutiny of others when I give my reaction.

I fear rejection, a “no”, or the “wrong” answer because I so often take it personally. I worry that if I make a request that is turned down, it’s because I was at fault. Be it as it may that there’s a perfectly valid reason for the other person to turn me down, I’m still at fault. And I worry that that other person will judge me negatively for making that request.

It’s crap, really.

I procrastinate over asking my husband if he can manage the kids’ bedtimes one night so I can meet some friends in the pub. Very often, I’ve had that invitation long before I work up the courage to mention it to him. Even though we’ve been married for years, and I know it’s very likely he’ll be completely fine about it, I still dread making the request.

I procrastinate over mentioning family visits. Even though my husband, though allistic, tends to like at least some prior warning of things, I leave it longer and longer and longer before telling him. It’s caused arguments in the past. He’s been embarrassed in front of friends and family because I haven’t kept him informed, and information, events and activities have been sprung on him when everyone else has known for ages.

Nowadays, I often add events, especially social activities, visits from the grandparents, kids’ birthday parties or work trips that will take me away from home, to the wall calendar in our kitchen – sometimes months before I actually speak about them. I can quite comfortably write things down well in advance.  But mentioning them verbally requires feats of bravery that take time to summon.

I’m better at asking people for stuff at work than I used to be. I’ve had years of practice, and whilst I still do procrastinate, the pressure of knowing it’s part of a job I’m paid to do does eventually kick me up the arse and make me act. But I still worry about it.

Anxiety is debilitating.

It does prevent me getting on with daily life sometimes. It prevents me having fun, God damn it, because I’m too wound up to get to the point where I can just give myself permission to get permission, to have fun.

And even when I’m happy, and life is good, I still hate asking people for stuff.

[Featured image: cartoon me. White person with mid-length brown hair clipped to one side, wearing a striped sleeveless top, fidgeting with my hands. A thought bubble reads “Please, may I…? Um…can I…? Do you mind if…? So, I’m thinking of…”.]

Small ways to be creative

Very recently, I published a post grieving over the demise of a great love affair of mine, with drawing and with art. But even as I did so, elsewhere in my life I’ve been subtly, in small ways, bringing drawing, and creativity back into my life.

I lament my lack of formally-developed skills and techniques. My work is, I feel, rather slapdash. It still grates with me that one of my early posts on this site, about autism and fashion, includes a featured image that, to me, is an utterly abysmal example of what I can do with pens and pencils. It was a quick doodle, on a scrap of paper, and the cartoon likeness of me is woefully inaccurate.

But I still like to play around with pens. I’ve recently started incorporating hand-drawn cartoons into PowerPoint slides at work. I have a near-pathological hatred of looking for suitable, copyright-free images online (for some reason, this task makes me unreasonable angry. I can’t really explain why, because I haven’t really worked that one out). It’s far more fun to spend my time drawing something that conveys my point than to waste valuable hours in an unsatisfying, unfruitful Internet search.

Last week, I was at an international conference for specialists working in my field. I contributed two sessions (one of which was on neurodiversity. I’ll probably write more about that at some point. It was good). Both featured slides with some of my cartoons. And however scrappy the artwork, the images provided a distinctive talking-point, and a hook upon which delegates could hang their own impressions and memories of my sessions. I like to stand out – I’ve suffered from low self-confidence all my life, and I’m gradually finding the means to remind myself, and others, that there are certain ways in which I’m kind of awesome.

And rather than sit and read on the train rides to and from the conference, I took my Moleskine sketchbook, and a box of coloured fineliner pens, and I doodled. Rarely in recent times have I enjoyed such therapeutic focus.

A paper Moleskine sketchpad, opened out to show a colourful pen-drawn scene, landscape orientation, featuring flowers of various shapes, colours and sizes, foliage, and a honeybee. The sun shines in the background, in the top-right corner of the drawing.
One of the railroad doodles. Semi-imaginary flowers.

I’m now thinking I’d like to do more. Reclaim that stolen passion for myself. And actually practise. Hone techniques. Use pencils more. Study real-life scenes. Practise accurate replication of objects, animals and people so that I can more readily and automatically incorporate them into my cartoons without getting flummoxed by my own sloppy execution. Maybe even properly learn to use the drawing apps I have installed on my iPad, so I’m not always resorting to scanning paper-based artwork all the time.

Get good at it, again.

But, hey, baby steps.

I don’t want to set myself up for a fall by setting my sights too high.

I’ll doodle, I’ll sketch, and I’ll scribble. And I’ll see where it take me.

[Featured image: a panel showing six doodles, cartoons and sketches. Clockwise from top left: the flower scene also included in body in this blog post; a cartoon depiction of a very happy me in love with details; a collection of colourful robots;  a stylised tree; a collection of colourful butterflies; a cartoon depiction of overwhelmed me experiencing sensory overload.]