Regardless of neurotype, showing up as your authentic self is an immeasurable gift. It takes personal and social resources that are staggering if you really think about it. In the two years since my autism diagnosis, I've read everything I can about this topic from neurokin of every stripe. At the end of this study spree, I realized that all these writers had at least one opinion in common: to be your authentic neurodivergent self is not just a gift, it's the fucking Holy Grail.
Why? Why is it so damn hard? I can feel an Animaniacs cartoon queue up in my head as I write this rhetorical question — in it, floppy-eared Yakko prepares to sing the countries of the world. There's racism, sexism, broken healthcare, a history of neurotype stigma, misdiagnosis, educational inequities, capitalistic atrocities, and navigating parenting while neurodivergent (his version of the song admittedly rhymes better than mine). These interacting social failures make authenticity confusing and dangerous for people who are not really wired to understand the world even on its best day.
It's often easier to disappear ourselves. Maybe that's why a lot of us start way behind the starting line when it comes to self-care. I know I did. I was an undiagnosed autistic for 42 years. Thirty-five of those years, I was heavily dissociated from my body. Twenty-five of those 35 were spent jumping on every ship I thought was big enough to save me: religion, education, relationships. I was determined someone had to have the answer and that getting the answer would constitute care. All of these years were grown in the fields of 'medium t' trauma, which for us was a step up from the 'big T' trauma that my parents grew up in. But no matter how hard it is to reach, without this habit of care, authenticity becomes a lot more challenging.
Now that I've really depressed y'all, you're hoping I'll give you solutions — right? Sorry to burst your bubbles, dear readers. I don't have any more answers to the big stuff than any other guy out there. But, as an autistic elder in training, here is what I want to suggest: we need to tell more stories of those times when true authenticity became possible when caring for ourselves did not seem like a minefield, and when there was space for both ourselves and those around us. Maybe it happened for just a nanosecond. Maybe you've found it possible for years now. Maybe you haven't yet experienced it and don't quite believe it can happen.
Your stories, told in so many different ways, have already given me immense courage to embrace and experiment in the last two years. My latest and longest unmasking happened during the last weekend of April this year. Though there are dozens of parts to these two days, moments where I was SO ME and cared for myself so well, I'm going to tell it in three parts. It's simpler that way and more romantic, which is how it felt weirdly.
Part I: Mr. Chelsea's Magic Headphones
I have been involved in conscious dance for almost 10 years. Conscious dance is a wide umbrella term covering several different families of movement theory and practice. For those who have never heard the term before, skip over the part where you imagine hippies and orgies and review my most basic equation: dance + learning about yourself and others = conscious dance. On the morning of April 29th, I was once again getting my groove on at the beginning of a two-day retreat. It was my first multi-day dance retreat in four years, my first ever post-diagnosis, and only the third time I'd danced with people since the pandemic. Though I was full of nervous excitement and questions, dancing with people again felt good.
Until. It. Didn't. As the physical and emotional temperature in the room started to rise and the music started to speed up, I could suddenly hear everything. Every person breathing, every pair of feet moving over the floor, and the kicker, every conceivable sound that clothing can make on every single body. It hit me like a razor-blade tsunami. I love the feeling of loud, clear sound, but I find ambient jumbles to be hell. In previous years of dance, I didn't even realize how much or how often this was happening. Fortunately, the solitude of the pandemic gave me a chance to do a full factory reset on my sensory settings. I now operate on the ones I was born with, not the ones I forced myself to accept for so many years.
With all this new knowledge, I knew I had a choice (which in and of itself is a fantastic sentence to write). I had brought my headphones, not knowing if I would or could use them. I'd love to be able to get away with discrete earplugs, but I can't handle having things squished in my weirdly shaped ear canals. My mega headphones were in my backpack just steps from the dance floor. If I didn't use them now, my nerve would likely disappear for the rest of the weekend. I went to get them with only the slightest hesitation. As I put them on, it was strangely undramatic. I wondered for a moment or two if someone would be offended or worried about me. The weird paradox of autistic accommodation: to stop being traumatized by the sensory world, you often have to put a neon sign above your brand of sensory trauma. But my worries passed as quickly as they surfaced, and I returned to presence and community in a matter of minutes. I don't know if I can adequately describe what it felt like to dance with my magic buffers AND with people. I do know that I used them with abandon for the rest of the weekend, that unnameable feeling growing each time.
Part II: I Know We Don't Talk About Bruno, but Let's Talk About Him Anyway
That evening, in a whole-class discussion about all the things families don't talk about, people started calling out examples around the room: sex, divorce, politics, religion. If you've ever had a family, you can imagine the rest of the answers. In my head, the scene from Encanto was playing, and I was watching all the Madrigals sing about Bruno. It seems that even Disney has started to acknowledge the presence of the 'pot-stirrer' in every family — the one who calls it like they see it and won't let shit rest. In what I thought was under my breath, I said out loud, "We don't talk about Bruno." I was sure no one heard me until one of the teachers said, "Chelsea, did you say something?" Crap. People are going to think I'm being childish again or looking for attention. My brain scrambled to find a lie that didn't make me feel gross, one that rectified my lack of filter, but I wasn't that fast. Fine. "Ummm, I just said, 'We don't talk about Bruno.' It's a line from a musical." A few people laughed genuinely who got the reference, and a few chuckled in sympathy or confusion. My whole body flushed with embarrassment.
So, you better believe that song was still stuck in my head the morning of the 30th, and I decided to listen to the soundtrack on the drive from my Airbnb to the retreat center. As I listened to song after song, I blurted out loud to the empty car, "Shit. This is actually the perfect musical for a weekend where we're talking about formative influences in our lives." So why did I judge myself as childish? Why am I always worried about my verbal diarrhea? I have always acknowledged the presence of an invisible, singing biographer, pointing things out to me that I might otherwise miss. My year studying expressive arts therapy at Tamalpa — the musical Wicked became my textbook and my anthem. In the years before I left teaching, Les Misérables and Rent started to wake me up subtly to the "nevers and maybes" I was accumulating and the "little fall of rain" I was longing for. Pulling a Disney movie reference last night was not random, I realized. It was my brain learning how it learns.
And in that exact second of understanding, I stopped judging myself as childish for good. Unless you have ever felt the difference between stopping something for the moment and stopping for good, I'm not sure I can explain this well either. It was a simple but profound feeling. I learn how I learn. I relate how I relate. I'm done wasting my energy on whether someone else thinks it's adult enough or not. Sitting in the parking lot, I wrote in my journal: "Dear brain, you are fucking awesome. Your powers of synthesis, your nimble little brain fingers, blow me away. Forgive me for doubting your powers for even one second, let alone how many times I've probably done it in 40 years. If you are childish, may I be childish forever? Ahhhh-meeeeeen."
Part III: When Facing the Wall Isn't a Punishment
By lunchtime on Sunday, I was spent. I had zero spoons left with which to interact with people after the morning's investigations. Even after an hour of sitting by myself for lunch and staring into the distance (my go-to recovery activity), I was still ready to get in the car and just go home. Then we convened our last session of the day in a new location: strike one. This locale was even smaller than our last location: strike two. I could smell everyone, and it wasn't great: strike three. I felt like the front of my body was being rubbed with steel wool. If I had bolted at that point, it would have been the right choice, and I would have supported myself in getting the fuck out of Dodge. AND... I didn't want to leave. In fact, I desperately wanted to be in the room, so I started to experiment.
Experiment 1: Dance outside the room on the deck
Conclusion: Nope, the deck is weird, and there are oak leaves all over it, and now all I can think about is getting stickers in my feet.
Experiment 2: Get your headphones.
Conclusion: Nope, it's the proximity that's bothering me more than the noise this time.
Experiment 3: Close your eyes and dance.
Conclusion: Double nope. Now I'm not only feeling claustrophobic, but I have no forewarning about what smell is coming around the room next.
I was starting to panic. I was planning my exit when, for no conscious reason, I turned around to face the wall. Except it wasn't a wall but rather a door full of glass window panes. In it, I could see the whole room in the reflection behind me. For a moment, I just appreciated the lines and curves of bodies spinning through the late afternoon sunlight. Humans are strikingly gorgeous when we don't ruin things with words. But as the song progressed, my intrigue went from general to specific. How would I dance with that person there? Why am I so attracted to how the hips in the center of the room are moving? And before I knew it, I was dancing, using the back of my body to connect with my partners, unaware.
My energy started to return, and my panic slowly subsided as my movements picked up steam. It might be tempting to wonder if it felt like a pathetic facsimile of a dance, a disappointing compromise. But let me tell you from the bottom of my stupidly honest heart: I felt like a fucking genius! I have spent years operating on the principle that only one person at a time can take up space in any given moment--after all, taking turns is a rule, even if I'm not exactly sure how it works. But here I was, all me and having the moment I needed to have, while everyone else was getting to be all them and have their dances as well. My mind reeled at the implications.
I had to talk myself out of running around the room and pulling every single person to the windowed door, but even that impulse added to the sweetness of the moment. Neuroexceptional humans love big and pure and flappily and with excess adjectives and clauses and a permanent wow face. We don't hoard the good. My dance continued to flow from this gratitude, and this is something more than gratitude that I still can't quite name. When I started conscious dance almost 10 years ago, there were parts of my body I could not feel unless I was looking at them and/or touching them. Now here I was, not steamrolled by ecstasy as I have been in the past, but having the most profound dance of my life nonetheless. It was like seeing the full moon on a night when you weren't looking for it.
It took me 44 years to realize that I know how to take care of myself so that I can attempt to show up as myself. That doesn't mean I do it fabulously, 24/7, and in every domain--I consider 'microwaved' the sixth food group, and I have no idea what the hell money is about. But realizing that I CAN do it has shifted something subtle and monumental in me. So there's my latest story, friends. Please keep telling yours. Let's tempt (not shame) more folks into unmasking practice when and where it's safe for them to do so. Tell your stories with your strengths as the main character. Tell them so that your deficits can feel the kindness you hold towards them. Tell your stories on social media for those who live where support is hard to come by and those who feel trapped by their own neurology. Tell them even if they feel "not that important." And remember, reeeeeeememmmmmber…some of the most compelling stories happen without a word.