I’m ever so sorry. I really DON’T look autistic.


*DANGER- this article contains enormous doses of sarcasm, irony, and may contain nuts.*

I know we’re not supposed to judge people by their appearances. But people tend to make exceptions for autistic people. I know this because whenever you tell me I “don’t look autistic”, what you’re saying is I’m not matching your expectations of what an autistic person is supposed to look like.

Oddly enough, I don't hate Rain Man. It was the greatest thing ever to happen to autism awareness... back in 1984. Come on guys, we've learned a bit more about autism since then.

Oddly enough, I don’t hate Rain Man. It was the greatest thing ever to happen to autism awareness… back in 1988. But come on guys, we’ve learned a bit more about autism since then.

And I know I’m baffling those expectations in daring to look like a regular human (although with a slightly longer nose than the general population), but as I grew up, I found myself unable to look like the bog-standard, average, regular autistic person.

 

So I’d like to apologise to you now, and confess to you that I really don’t look autistic.

I was born without the standard autistic features such as:

  • Having four arms;
  • Wheels for feet;
  • Puzzle-piece-shaped ears;
  • And the usual extra three fingers on each hand so I can count in hexadecimal.
The picture from It's A Tink Thing, which inspired this article.

A picture from It’s A Tink Thing, which inspired this article. Trousers are “pants” if you’re American.

I was not born with nerdy thick-rimmed glasses biologically fixed to my face. I didn’t even need to be born with a calculator in my shirt pocket.

I do not have the endearing features of a 1980s Dustin Hoffman. Nor do I carry around cocktail sticks to show off my epic mad skills at parties.

I do not have “tantrums” in the supermarket to give other people practise at perfecting their judgey-faces, while ignoring the fact that the person experiencing the meltdown may be in immense mental pain. (I do a good enough job of keeping my anxieties on the inside, so the general public don’t have to be inconvenienced by them.)

 

I do not have The Rules For Everything tattooed onto my chest so I can rip off my shirt and correct people when they break them.

I do not lurk awkwardly over people then tell them they’re in my spot. (Except that guy in the blue van who keeps parking right outside my house. You actually are in my spot. And if you’re reading this, kindly remove your vehicle from outside number 29.)

 

There is no scar on my knee in the shape of a Tyrannosaurus Rex from the time I fell off my autism bike. There is no Sonic the Hedgehog-shaped birthmark on my autistic backside or any physical sign of my ‘special interests’.

And despite my greatest efforts to avoid eye contact, social training has taught me that it’s painful but necessary. (I’ve known plenty of adults who have been refused an autism diagnosis, as punishment for making eye contact with the doctor.)

This is far too many people's problem.

This is far too many people’s problem.

 

I know you probably mean it as a compliment. Because, of course, looking normal is something that all autistic people should aspire to!

But funnily enough, I don’t share that sentiment. I don’t see it as a compliment when someone comes up to me and effectively says “I’m impressed you don’t look worse than you do!”

Or when someone says “you don’t look autistic” in a dismissive voice, as a way of saying “you’re not severe enough to count… or for me to respect your hidden needs.”

(Incidentally, for a quick guide for what to say and not say to an autistic person, feel free to read this. [All links open in new windows.])

 

 

Of course, one of the other reasons I don’t match the autism stereotype is because people seem confused about what the “autism stereotype” is meant to be.

Am I supposed to have severe learning difficulties, or am I supposed to be Sheldon Cooper from the Big Bang Theory?

Am I supposed to be totally nonverbal, or am I supposed to talk annoyingly about my specialist subject for hours on end?

Am I supposed to have no understanding of danger, or am I supposed to be too anxious to leave the house?

Should I communicate through elaborate words or through signing? (And why can’t the stereotype be armpit-farting? I’d be pretty proficient at that. Heck, I can even eyeball-fart. I did it in front of an audience at a talk in Cardiff once.)

 

But regardless, I suppose there is one way in which I absolutely do look autistic. After all, I share every single physical outward-appearance-affecting trait that autism causes.

All zero of them.

 

And maybe that’s a good thing.

After all, if I had really distinctive features like those extra three fingers, people’s first thought upon seeing me would be “bloody hell, what happened to that guy’s hands?

But since I have no physical features relating to my Asperger’s, people’s reactions are closer to “wow, that guy’s beard is sexy. …His nose is a bit long though.

 

However, autism’s lack of visibility does make things tricky. The invisibility may have its advantages (beyond people noticing your sexy beard), but if the autism community truly wanted it to be 100% invisible, shirts like these wouldn’t be selling like hot cakes.

You have to admit, the irony is immense: being stared at by someone who believes they know more about social boundaries.

You have to admit, the irony is immense: being stared at by someone who believes they know more than you about social boundaries.

Let’s take Down’s Syndrome, for example. The advantage of your condition having visible features is that people see your needs immediately. The disadvantage is that people often see the Down’s Syndrome before seeing the person. With autism it’s the other way round: people will usually see the person before the autism (even if only in the literal sense), but their needs will often be ignored.

It’s very difficult: wanting your condition to be known and understood, without it becoming the defining thing people see about you. Autistic people don’t want to have to wear a shirt to make their needs visible, but they also don’t want it overlooked.

What we need- and what those with Down’s Syndrome need- is for people to recognise our difficulties, at the same time as seeing us as legitimate people outside of our difficulties.

(And I really can’t believe I just had to write that sentence. Shouldn’t it be a little obvious?)

 

But in the meantime, there’s no such thing as “looking autistic”.

 

There is no autistic disguise I wear when I deliver my talks. Although I do wear a suit to disguise myself as someone who thinks suits are important. And I don’t finish these talks by riding my autism unicorn into the sunset under an infinity-symbol shaped rainbow. (Seriously though, that would be an awesome way to exit the stage.)

 

150 autistic kids I know just made a book to help other autistic kids feel less alone. They don’t look autistic either. And nor do any of the 35,000 people in our Facebook community (edit [April 2017]- now 51,000!).

 

If you want to see someone who looks autistic, I can’t help you. And if you want to know how to identify a guy with Asperger’s just by looking, you may have to wait a few thousand years for us to evolve those extra fingers.

 

However, if you seek to learn about autism by listening to someone, I’m your guy.

I’m serious- engage me in conversation, and you’ll learn more about Asperger’s than in a whole day of staring at me and trying to gauge my autism levels. And I’m very happy to teach people.

 

Don’t look at our faces and expect a short-cut to understanding autism. Listen to us instead.

 

Chris Bonnello / Captain Quirk

Chris Bonnello is an autism speaker, available to lead talks and training sessions from the perspective of an autistic former teacher. For further information please click here (opens in new window).

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38 Comments

  1. YES!!!! Wonderful article!
    This is SO TRUE for me- in the time and place I grew up, autistic meant nonverbal kids who flapped and rocked in a corner. (Yes, that was a LONG time ago- let’s not mention my age). I was just the weird smart kid. And I had to muddle along and learn to survive and get along in the world by myself. I don’t make eye contact, but people don’t usually realize it- I’ve learned how to avoid eye contact while seeming to be busy or distracted. I learned to be discrete about stimming- years before I even knew the term. In short, I learned how to fit into the world.

    Post a Reply
    • (Sorry for the late reply- only just seen this comment!)

      And yes, I can absolutely empathise! The amount of times I pretend to be lost in thought or concentrating so that I don’t have to look into people’s eyes… 😉

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  2. I thought the stereotype was nearly always smiling. That’s what my 8th grade teacher said.

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    • Ha- the stereotypes seem to cover anything and everything these days. Except with the word “always”, which never helps. 😉

      (And sorry for the late reply- only just seen this comment!)

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    • Sorry for the late reply, just seen this! Thanks- I’m glad you found this inspiring, and thanks too for the shoutout on your own article! 😀
      Chris

      Post a Reply
  3. Absolutely brilliant article, humorous while being seriously honest. I’m going to show my daughter this I think it will help her immensely. Thank you ???

    Post a Reply
    • Sorry for the late reply- only just seen this comment! I hope it did help her. 🙂

      Post a Reply
  4. Frankly, you probably could guess that I was autistic by looking at me, because I am constantly talking to myself. Sometimes very loudly. Seriously, the generalization of autistic people as either total nerds, usually in the math or science fields (which I am not) or completely nonfunctional dependents can get really annoying. Your sarcastic invective is entirely warranted.

    Post a Reply
    • Yeah, it really is annoying that the two most common “understandings” of autism are both of its ‘extremes’.

      (And sorry for the late reply- only just seen this comment!)

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  5. Nice to see other autistics with a “sense of humor”. We’re not supposed to be funny. Thumbs up for your article. (I’m waving all three of my thumbs right this moment!)

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    • Genuinely laughed. 😀 Thank you.

      (And sorry for the late reply- only just seen this comment!)

      Post a Reply
  6. Autistic people can be funny, really?! I don’t think so, because Rainman never laughed and Hollywood is always right! Are you really sure you have it???

    “Have it” … … …

    Awesome article, thanx! You are brave, I am not. ? Maybe one day, I will be able to shout it out as well. Hopefully. I don’t really know what I am scared of, I guess it’s indeed the reaction and the consequences that might follow. In my country “we” hardly exist, especially not, if your ADHD diagnosis (it’s this made-up thing, lazy and unstructured people who eat too much sugar, watch too much Tv and use the wrong toothpaste use as an excuse u know) came first. And if you manage to keep a job and suffer silently, u have no chance.

    Bummer ?!

    Btw:

    I totally love the unicorn idea, you should go for it. Train a hippo. You are used to the following statement anyway: But that doesn’t look like a unicorn!

    Maybe by then they won’t even argue anymore at all?! Good luck and let me know how it works out.

    Post a Reply
    • Thanks for the comment (and sorry I’ve only just seen it now!). I am absolutely up for training a hippo to be a unicorn. 😉

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  7. Excellent article. I am not autistic but there are other things about me which are not visible and can cause me difficulties which it would be helpful for people to understand and accept, but which I am not always comfortable to share because of the inaccurate assumptions which go with them. We all need to challenge all of our assumptions about others.

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  8. Yep, there is no standard visual type for this disability. The main problem is I remember in the early 80’s s lot of magazines carried articles about Autism, but always about non verbal cases. Even though Asperger’s had been identified in the 40’s no articles were carried to inform the public that this type of autism existed. So here we are with adults who have struggled all their lives with this finally being diagnosed at 40, 50, or 60.

    Post a Reply
    • Yup. Diagnosed at 56. And it was an incredible relief.

      Post a Reply
    • I was diagnosed at 53. It’s partly a relief but also quite isolating. Now I know the problem is me, I’ve largely given up trying: what’s the point? I know I’ll get it wrong soon and until then you will not accept my diagnosis..

      Post a Reply
  9. Awesome article, but I have to say one of my favourite things about reading your articles is you specify that links will open in a separate window! I FREAKING LOVE THAT!!!! I hate having to right click open in new window for fear of losing the original, because if you don’t you get absorbed click, move on, repeat a couple times and then eventually can’t get back!! So thank you massively for removing that area of concern for me!

    Post a Reply
    • Haha, thanks a lot! 😀 It really really annoys me too, so I’m glad my workaround has been noticed!

      Post a Reply
  10. Hilarious and so true. I’m not eccentric enough apparently! Maybe I should start wearing my socks on my ears? ?

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    • Just try wearing a different sock on each foot. That always gets a rise out of NTs.

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  11. I was told that I couldn’t be autistic because I used the word “sometimes” :’)

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    • I have been told that I couldn’t be autistic because I’m so “normal”. This coming from some of the same people who said I was weird. :-S

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      • People can be so contradictory… That’s very confusing for me. Most of the time, they don’t actually notice it themselves.

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        • I agree. Sometimes I swear I go through the entire day with my eyebrow lifted just listening to the things people say. One of these days it’s just going to get stuck up there permanently, I think.

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  12. “you cannot be autistic because you are too clever” told by many consultant Drs” prior to actual diagnosis at 58. “Try these tablets as well as all the others”

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    • Ha, my parents were told something similar when I was four. It was 1989, so autism HAD to mean you also had learning difficulties.

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  13. Thanks for your articles. It’s great to listen to someone that sounds a lot like myself. It’s not even straight forward for me to accept it. I always thought of Autism as a disability, whilst I’ve been so much more able than most people in many respects – just not socially. I know a lot about social things, but doing them is different: a bit like being a great football coach, but only a mediocre player 🙂
    I have ADD too and, overall, I wouldn’t switch to being ‘normal’ 😀
    I was wondering if any others have times of extreme emotion that they allow themselves to indulge in when in private.

    Post a Reply
    • Hi John,
      I like the football coach analogy- it’s accurate in my experience too! 🙂
      And yes, others absolutely have those times of extreme emotion! If you would like people to offer examples, I could share your question with Autistic Not Weird’s Facebook page?

      Post a Reply
  14. Thank you so much for sharing your blog and for being an advocate. It is people like you and Becca Lory that inspire me to be better.

    Post a Reply
  15. None of my three Autistic children have extra fingers either. Or wheels for feet or four arms. The other Autistic child in my eldest’s year doesn’t have these either. The Autistic girl who came to Rainbows is also visible symptom free, as are the Autistic twins we know (and their mum edits an amazing mag called AuKids).

    Post a Reply
  16. One of your other articles mentioned taking things too literally… I just realized that when you say ‘[All links open in new windows.])’ you are not informing the audience that you yourself have all of your website articles open at once in individual browser windows on your own computer. It makes much more sense now that I understand what you actually meant.

    Also, I appreciate what you wrote.

    Post a Reply
  17. As a high-functioning autistic, I fully understand both the autism and neurotypical sides of it, and I’ve finally grown so tired of the misunderstandings on both sides that I’ve created two books about it: one for the autistic and one for the neurotypical. My goal was to make the social rules abundantly simple for the autistic and understanding the complexities of autism simple for everyone else. They can be read here: https://buff.ly/2hwOY4W

    Post a Reply

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