“You don’t look like you have autism.”

“You don’t sound like you have autism.”

“I wouldn’t know you had autism if you didn’t tell me.”

People have told me things like this many times over the years. As someone well adjusted to his autism, my behavior does not often match the autistic stereotype. Others often comment on this fact. While I know that people mean well, their words carry implications that can be hurtful.

When someone says that I “don’t look like I have autism,” I like to think that they are implying that I seem unperturbed by the difficulties faced by other autistic individuals. I do not noticeably rock in my seat, I do not reflexively vocalize at high volume and I do not flap my arms or find great difficulty in communicating with my peers. In other words, I appear “normal” to them—whatever that word may mean. It is true that I have learned to adapt to being autistic over the years: learning coping strategies that help me navigate social situations and other situations that I might otherwise find overwhelming, but saying something like “you don’t seem autistic” ignores a very real fact about me—I am autistic.

In my daily life, I maintain a constant stream of consciousness, tasked with keeping me adapted to the world around me. In order to maintain an air of ease in social situations, I practice conversations and “what if” scenarios in my head—sometimes a dozen at a time—just in case those situations might arise. I go to the dining halls as they open, so as not to be overwhelmed by the roar of a crowd I am certain to find at 9 a.m. or 6 p.m. The degree to which I make contact with others, the places I frequent and the people I spend my time with, even the music I listen to and the foods that I eat, are dictated by the fact that I am autistic. Most of the time, this is not an issue: not because it has never been an issue, but because I have adapted to being a certain way in a society designed for people who are different from me. 

When people tell me that they would not know I was autistic if I had not told them, what I’d like to think they are commenting on is my success at adjusting to society.

What they are actually often trying to say is “you don’t seem to have anything wrong with you.” I resent that. There is not anything wrong with being autistic. Being autistic can be difficult, yes, but that does not equate to being defective. While I understand that people are trying to be kind when they separate me from my autism—and I appreciate the attempt—their implication is a little hurtful. I wish others would, as I have said often (and in jest) when presenting on the topic: “watch your language.”