For a long time I didn’t really understand what the big deal was about being with other people. Yes, they could be funny, kind and interesting. But frankly, as far as I was concerned, I was already all of those things for myself. The other people bit, especially when there was more than one, just felt like a chore, something that was just part of being alive, something I had to get through so that I could be alone again. That might sound very sad to some people, they might think I’m describing a pretty lonely life, but to be lonely you have to feel like your missing something, and for a long time I didn’t. I had nature, knowledge and creativity and that was good.
As I got older things did start to change a little, I did start to want company, not all the time and I don’t think I needed it in the way a lot of my peers seemed to, but I did want it, want something. I had friendships throughout my childhood and adolescence, and these were really important and valuable to me but, especially as an older child and teenager, they often didn’t feel like they were mine.
Growing up autistic in a primarily non-autistic world means constant compromise. There’s the more surface level compromise; just doing things you don’t want to do or understand the point of, but don’t really hurt you in any way (in my case putting down a book or a project from time to time and looking at a person). Then there are the deeper compromises, the ones that aren’t always told to you, but you somehow learn. Suppressing the way your body wants to move, talking differently, learning how to answer people’s questions in the way they want you to and not the way that makes sense to you. Not looking too closely, not being too weird not being annoying or boring or repetitive. Compromises that, feel pretty one directional and ultimately just mean ‘be a different person’, don’t be autistic.
When you do this for long enough you lose the memory, the feeling of who you even are. It seems to be quite common for people like me, who get diagnosed or get an understanding of themselves as being autistic when they’re an adult, to go through a pretty significant change in how they behave. This can be in very fundamental ways like how they express themselves and how they relate to others. To the people around that person it may feel like the persons changing into someone else, but to the person themselves it feels like becoming. It’s just figuring out what’s your instinct, what inherent to who you are and what is the result of so much time and energy going into trying to be someone else.
I went through this, it was exhausting, and I’m probably not quite done yet. It’s been profound, confusing, overwhelming, sad and joyful. Often all at once. There are many things that have surprised me but perhaps the most significant of these was what was figuring out what was at the core of my lifelong confusion and difficulty with company, friendships and community. And it wasn’t that there was something just deeply wrong with me as I’d always feared. It’s actually very simple:
You can’t make meaningful connections with other people when you’re not being yourself.
Of course in practice it’s not simple at all. In the context of our culture and society it’s very difficult because the ways of being that are valued and held up as proper and even truly human tend to be very neurotypical ways of being (they also intersect with race, gender and class*). The way we’re meant to talk to each other, the way spoken language is held up as the truest way of communicating, the way we’re meant to sit and look each other in the eye, the things we’re meant to enjoy, how we should sit back and be entertained, respect a social hierarchy and value different kinds of relationships over others. And most poignant to me, the way we’re meant to play and experience art.
Access to communal space and experience is a matter of inclusion in the broadest sense. In my life I repeatedly see people who genuinely want to be inclusive, in their playgrounds, their classrooms, their community group, their theatres or art’s events. But they just miss the mark, they tick all the boxes for making spaces accessible but they’re not truly inclusive. And I’ve begun to recognise that part of that is they’re missing something from their understanding of what a shared or communal space or experience is. It’s can’t simply be a space to be with others, but…
A true communal space or experience is one where people can be themselves, together.
This means we need to acknowledge that for a lot of people in society that ‘being themselves’ isn’t something that comes easy. It’s also often not something they can do alone. In talk about how disabled or autistic people need to be ‘part of the community’ people fail to acknowledge that ‘the community’ isn’t a neutral thing. It didn’t form of its own accord with fixed rules and expectations. We all create and maintain them. And some people have more power and ability to influence this then others.
A true communal space is life changing. It’s motivating, it’s energising, it makes you feel valued. I feel it most when I spend time with other autistic people and feel free of needing to censor myself or change who I am. But I should be able to do this in the wider world too. I meet children who’ve maybe never even been able to do this, being with other people is still just something difficult, painful and suffocating. They are constantly compromising and it exhausts them. But it doesn’t have to be this way and i don’t think they should have to wait until their an adult to figure that out. We can work to create these spaces for them as well as ourselves. For me this is about my role as a playworker and artist in helping create these spaces with and for others. It’s also about giving myself permission to seek out those spaces for myself. For you it might be in your role as an educator, manager, arts programmer or maybe your role as a parent, carer, friend or neighbour. I hope reading this has reminded you or the value of that work and perhaps given you another way of thinking about it.
Connecting with people meaningfully means being able to do so as yourself. Creating a communal space means allowing people to be themselves together. How can you do this for yourself and others today?