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.]