Hey, I'm Elmar
You maybe heard about the story of Elmer the patchwork elephant. This small, colourful elephant paints them self grey to “blend in”.
All my life I feel connected with this elephant. I am different. Usually, I look normal on the outside. But am fundamentally different on the inside.
I am autistic.
After I got my diagnosis, I understood why I liked Elmer so much. I tried to hide my traits to “blend in” into society. This is what is called masking. And what Elmer, the patchwork elephant, did when painted himself grey.
I learned to avoid unintentionally upsetting or insulting Neurotypical people. Neurotypical is our word for people with a non-divergent brain.
You have no idea how hard I need to work to hide it this way. It is tiring. The cognitive part of my brain is constantly doing its best. This requires a significant intellectual investment.
And as in the children’s book a shower of rain can be enough to make all the effort flush away. But instead of rain, for me it could be a change of plans I cannot adjust to, to flush away the the mask I painted on myself.
I don’t like noise. Some neurotypicals try to relate with autistic people by saying “I don’t like crowded pubs either”. But that’s different. I do not doubt that this preference isn’t true. But the experience as an autist is different. You probably don’t like it, but you are not in danger. My brain can’t tune out the neighbours' lawn mower or the loud TV in the kebab shop. It’s like all senses tuned up to 11. Constantly.
My brain is busy processing all the information streaming in. If that sound exhausting and demoralising to you, I can tell you, it is. You rarely find me without my headphones. It helps me to reduce the amount of information streaming in. And it’s not uncommon. About 90% of autistic people have sensory processing differences.
When someone tells you they are autistic, please don’t respond “I would never have known!”. That is not a compliment. Autistic people are working unbelievable hard to appear normal to you - or painting themself grey - while they are under constant sensory attack. “How can I make this easier for you” or “That must take an enormous effort” is much more appreciated.
Or, better: “I have no idea what that must be like. Can you tell me more?”.
Listen to autistic people and their needs.
Written by Elmar Burke who lives and works in Amsterdam building useful things. You can follow him on Twitter