Autism is often a hidden disability. There is no universally visible signifier–no mobility aid that we all use, no assistive technology or service animal or language common to all or even most autistic people. While many of us use assistive technology, many others go through our days–our lives–passing for nondisabled.
Or do we?
If you’re autistic, you can probably recognize other members of the tribe fairly easily. Maybe by their stims or their use of AAC, their noise cancelling headphones or by the body language that’s so like your own. We all have our tells.
I know mine. Atypical eye contact and body language are the most obvious. Occasionally my voice gives me away as different–it’s too loud or too mumbly or too flat or simply decides not to exist. If none of those is a tip-off, well, it’s only a matter of time before I have a social communication mishap.
Still, I go through life quite convinced that I’m passing. That my disability is oh so well hidden.
What is Passing?
The concept of passing originates in racial identity. In societies where being classified as a certain racial group leads to discrimination (or worse), some members of that group may present as members of a different racial group. For example, some people with African ancestry passed as Arab or Native American to avoid segregation in the US. Some people of Jewish ancestry passed as Aryan in Nazi Germany to save their lives.
Today, people with hidden disabilities are said to pass when they present in a way that conceals visible signs of their disability. Many autistic people make a conscious effort to pass. Not stimming visibly is a way of passing. Giving the “right” answers to the social communication questions on a job screening test is a way of passing. Going out for a beer with workmates when you’d rather go home and curl up in front of the TV is a way of passing.
Is passing bad? That’s a hard question to answer. What if passing in an interview is the only way to get hired? Getting a job is good. Keeping a job is even better. But accommodating employees who have hidden disabilities is often a challenge, even for employers who actively seek to hire disabled workers. As a consequence, employees who pass to get hired often feel pressure to continue passing.
Given the stigma that surrounds ASD, many adults choose to try to pass in most areas of their lives, disclosing only to the people who know them best. Disclosure is hard and often brings unwanted negative consequences. Passing, on the other hand, has become second nature for a lot of us. We’ve grown up learning all sorts of little tricks to pass and often we do it without thinking.
Failing at Passing
But how good are we at passing, really? How hidden is our disability? I’m guessing a lot less hidden than we think. In fact, I’d go so far as to say autistic passing is a myth.
We can pass for an hour or outing, a first date or a job interview. We can prepare and practice and hold it all together for an allotted amount of time. Some of us can even keep all of our ducks in a row for days or weeks at a time.
But passing in the long-term–in life? That’s a myth.
For every hour that we manage to pass, we spend two or three or five recovering. We pull off a great passing act at work and pay for it by needing the whole weekend to recharge. We juggle a full class load like our typical peers and end up overwhelmed to the point of illness by midterms.
Because passing is a myth. So often what we’re doing when we’re passing is simply keeping a lid on our natural tendencies. And sometimes we’re not even doing it very well.
I can’t be the only one who gets labeled cold, aloof, weird, geeky, standoffish, awkward or selfish. If I were truly passing, would I be getting slapped with unflattering labels like that? Probably not. It’s not like I’m intentionally adopting those characteristics. In fact, I’m often trying very hard to project just the opposite.
Which raises the question of what’s worse–being labeled autistic or being labeled those other things? When I think about it like that, trying to pass seems less useful. I mean, is it really better for people to think I’m intentionally cold or aloof or selfish than for them to know that I’m autistic?
Increasingly I’m finding passing less appealing. The Scientist says that since I was diagnosed, I’m much more relaxed and he’s right. I no longer have my guard up all the time. I’m no longer so conscious of putting up a front that says normal.
The pressure to pass can be intense for autistic people. It can also be debilitating. It robs us of who we are and cloaks us in disguises that are ill-fitting and unflattering, leaving us stranded halfway between a fictional ideal of normal and the truth of our real selves.