When I was nineteen, I went on a date with a guy I’d met off OkCupid. We met at a coffee shop near where I was living at the time and stayed there for a couple of hours before parting ways; there was no spark and he wasn’t all that interesting to talk to. I would have shoved this experience in the bin of mediocre dates to forget if it weren’t for one thing—my complete and utter failure to make eye contact.
I just could not look this man in the eye. I didn’t know what it was. I could force myself to if I needed to—which I did out of some vague, suffocating sense of panic that he’d recognise the lack of eye contact, brand me as a weirdo, and walk out—but it made me feel tight in the chest, white noise in the head, uncomfortable. It was a familiar feeling, but it wasn’t until I started connecting the dots in regards to my autism that I realised why, exactly, that feeling was so familiar.
Glance into eyes. Look away. Look at nose. Look away. Look at lips. Look away. Repeat until a distraction arrives and you have an excuse to look away properly and breathe.
This is how I taught myself to socialise.
Boyfriend and I went into the mountains yesterday to meet up with his friends. These friends are mentally ill, disabled, queer, left, and basically copies of myself. I feel pretty damn comfortable around them and know they won’t judge me for anything I need to do in regards to my health. In fact, I was telling one of them about the chewable necklace I bought for myself to stim with, and they expressed interest—and more importantly, no judgement—in buying one themselves.
And yet I still tucked that necklace in my bag when I got out of the car at their place. I still stared at their noses and lips, glancing up at their eyes every so often just in case they thought me rude, even though I told them I’m autistic, even though I knew they wouldn’t care, even though, even though, even though.
Maybe one day I’ll have the confidence to stim in front of them, to happily not meet their eyes, to accommodate myself. But maybe not. I’ve been masking and dealing for so long that embracing my autistic traits feels like a cop-out, regression, something I am not entitled to.
Sacrificing my personal comfort for the sake of others is all I know.