Faces and Masks — How I learned I’m autistic at 20, and how I maybe always knew.
I am the youngest. I am the only daughter of immigrants. I am extremely smart. I am outspoken. And I am black.
This is what I told myself, for 15+ years, to explain why I have always felt different from everyone else. I have repeated those things over and over in my head, like a mantra. And I’ve dealt with it. And it worked. But recently I had a conversation with a good friend that made me realize that how I’d described myself to her was not neurotypical, at all. And oddly enough, it made complete sense, enough to give me some sense of relief. Here’s why:
I was born in Boston, and originally lived in the Boston area for the first three-and-change years of my life. I lived with my mother, father, and three older brothers in the suburbs (courtesy of my mother’s nursing job at a Boston hospital and my father’s burgeoning law practice). Our neighborhood was somewhat white, but my brothers went to church school, and our church was Haitian. I was too young for school, and so most of my extrafamilial socialization came from involvement with other young Haitian children at church. And then we moved to New York, just before my fourth birthday.
I spent the first year of living in our NY suburb almost entirely in my house. We hadn’t found a new church to call home yet, because though there were several black migrant churches in the area, we hadn’t found one that just fit. So aside from greeting new people every weekend, I still had almost no interactions outside of my family. My parents had decided I didn’t really need preschool, partly because we were still dealing with the move and partly because I was reading completely independently by 4 and was so overtly chipper and talkative that they were confident I’d have no problem fitting in when the time came for school. In fact, by the time I was placed in kindergarten, my parents had already advocated that I be placed in 1st or 2nd grade instead, simply because of how advanced I was in early education. But it wasn’t allowed, so I was headed to kindergarten in our local public school. Interestingly enough, as part of placement for incoming students, our school required that all kids meet with the school psychologist — first with parents and then independently. The psychologist came to the same conclusions my parents did: that I was friendly, bright, and assertive, and should have no trouble integrating into the classroom dynamic. And I didn’t have trouble — mostly.
When I stepped into the halls of my elementary school on my first day, I quickly realized that I’d never seen so many white people in such proximity in my entire life. There were around 25 kids in my class, including one other black girl, (Dominican, like my dad), a newly immigrated Chinese boy, and possibly 2 or 3 other nonblack Latine kids. Everyone else was white. And every other class in the entire school was like this. It was jarring. I saw a constant barrage of white faces, every single day. I counted all the nonwhite ones, promising in my head that I would someday make friends with them, given the chance. And there it is — the counting. It’s not that I was obsessive with numbers, or that I didn’t know that people came in different colors. But until those early days of kindergarten, I genuinely didn’t know exactly how white my corner of the world was. As far as I can tell, I went through the 5-year-old version of culture shock. It wasn’t easy adjusting. But I dealt with it by counting all the people who looked a little different than the majority, and I started to feel at ease.
Eventually I made friends. It didn’t matter that I was new because everyone was new, except for the few that knew each other from preschool. I had a best friend, who we’ll call Dinah. We had the same initials, DH, and we were seated at the same table and we always stood together when we were lined up alphabetically. She was white, and that was fine. Our proximity meant other things mattered less. We were inseparable in specials and at recess, and friendship with her meant being friends with other kids in the class too. Looking back, I learned almost everything I know about ‘what girls like’ from her. Sometimes I couldn’t relate, but my parents weren’t born in the US, so I quickly assumed the differences stemmed from there, and I learned to like what she liked: Barbies, lip gloss, nail polish, Disney Channel. (Before then we were exclusively a PBS Kids household.) That was girlhood to me, and I didn’t necessarily love all of it, or even understand it, but I liked most of it, and when I didn’t, I still liked having friends.
Looking back, I can now recognize that this was masking, (AKA camouflaging,) a behavior that autistic people — typically girls — engage in where they adapt to and assume the learned behaviors of neurotypical people in order to blend in. Simply speaking — monkey see, monkey do. I’m not sure how many of my behaviors and interests I would have come to on my own had I not been masking, but I mimicked well and found I earnestly liked some of the traditionally girly things. And they weren’t the only behaviors I copied. Once, watching Disney, I observed a scene where a boy said something ridiculous to a girl, and she slapped him. The laugh track played, and other characters seemed to believe the boy deserved it. I took note. There was a boy in my class (white, for reference) that would occasionally taunt me, for whatever reason boys usually pick on girls. He’d sometimes pull my hair, sometimes swipe my goldfish at snacktime, and I never registered any of it as malicious because I’d always learned that ‘boys will be boys’. To this day I’m still not sure if I was being bullied, and if I was, I suppose autism factors into that lack of awareness. Either way, I never perceived him as mean, just stupid and annoying, and one day he asked if I was related to some random black kid we’d just seen in the hallway. To me, that was ridiculous, and so I slapped him.
Immediately I realized the gravity of my mistake. I hadn’t hit him that hard, but instantly the classroom hushed and my teacher came over as the boy started complaining that I hit him. I can’t remember if I apologized, but I do know I got a day’s worth of good behavior points docked. It meant that at the end of the week I wouldn’t get to pick out a prize from the chest of candy and trinkets my teacher kept near his desk. When the consequences dawned on me, I cried. It wasn’t a defining experience of my first year in school, and everyone soon forgot — except for the boy I’d hit, who eventually steered clear of me. But it was the first time I can remember being overwhelmed by how lost I felt and by how badly I’d miscalculated.
I couldn’t shake the feeling. It reminded me of a game we played often in grades K-3: Seven Up. The vague awareness that I didn’t know the same social etiquette as everyone else felt like I was in the dark, with my head in my arms and on my desk, waiting for someone who’d already gotten the memo to tap me on the thumb and clue me in. Once people were tapped, they had the chance to guess who it was that tapped them. If getting tapped was being clued in, (and sometimes I never was,) then guessing who’d done it was like trying to understand the reasoning behind the etiquette, and even when I was tapped, I almost never got that right. It sucked, because every kid wants to win. So sometimes, I had to cheat. In the game, I’d peek between my arms to watch the shoes of the person who’d tapped me as they walked by. In real life, I masked. That was the cheat code to getting people to like me, and I did it well. Like many other things in my life, I did it exceptionally well.
So the rest of kindergarten was a breeze. I’d never had any academic difficulties, and I excelled at spelling, reading, and composition, and I did okay in math. I responded positively in music class and I liked art class so much I drew on everything. I had friends and I liked my teacher. As the year ended, I felt fine. But 1st grade was a rough adjustment, for a few reasons: 1) Dinah wasn’t in my 1st grade class. She’d been assigned a different teacher than I had, and while we still saw each other at recess, it wasn’t the same…and things got worse when she moved away. I was in a new environment without my closest confidant. 2) My teacher was not a nice woman. Mrs. M was in her early 60s, and was counting down the days until retirement. You could tell that after decades of teaching that she thought her way was the only way, and that if you couldn’t adapt, you were the problem, not her — and she did not take kindly to problems. 3) I was not allowed to learn at my own pace. Mrs. M had a strict policy of “No going ahead”, which meant that we were not allowed to continue to the next section of any kind of assigned reading (textbooks, class novels, etc.) unless she had okayed the entire class to do so. This was especially difficult for me because I learned quickly and bored easily from phonics, fractions, planets, and pilgrims. I frequently tried to speed her up in her lesson plans, resulting in anger from her and alienation from other kids in the class. After more than a few behavioral incidents of me begging Mrs. M not to call my mother, the year ended with me deciding that I would do whatever it took to conform the next year.
So in 2nd grade I cozied up to the teacher. And though I was still vaguely aware that they weren’t particularly fond of me, I cozied up to the clique of popular girls in my class, becoming their lackey and their homework helper at times. And it all worked. I convinced my parents to buy the dolls and stuffed animals they liked so they would play with me, and I became a hit at recess, and I got invited to every birthday party. I felt terrific. Even better — my teacher was kind and patient and lauded my attention to detail on my spelling words, fostered my love for chapter books, and appreciated even the doodles I’d draw on assignments. And my scores on standardized testing a few months into the school year meant I was placed into the school’s gifted program (though my scores were never good enough for the elite version at the district central office). For the first time in school, I was popular, and more than that — I was actually celebrated for my intelligence. It felt good, and this momentum lasted for the rest of elementary school. Sure, I still butted heads with my 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade teachers, often, (because I am god-awful at following verbal directions,) but I had a mentor who uplifted me and a consistent number of friends. I was succeeding.
Around 2nd grade was the time that I also became more social at church as well. By 1st grade we’d found a home church, and though it wasn’t the closest, it did have a thriving youth department. Before second grade, knowing I wasn’t good at it, I was reluctant to socialize with the kids my age. But around that time my mom signed me up for more activities at church, and I became a social butterfly there as well. This continued well into middle school, and I loved every minute of it. But both in school and church, (and swimming lessons and ice skating,) I still slipped up sometimes, and I knew keenly that the person that everybody liked was crafted, not authentic, and I still felt isolated. Even surrounded by people, it’s lonely to know that they wouldn’t like you if you were genuine. And it’d be dishonest to say my mental health wasn’t suffering. Between second and tenth grade I’m positive I cried at least 5 days a week. Masking isn’t always the easy solution.
But I tried harder, and the years passed. I started to actually like some of my friends in middle school, and when I got my first phone we texted often. I still masked and threw myself into whatever my friends liked at the time, usually in regards to music — boy bands, emo bands, screamo bands, Broadway — and TV — Shake It Up, Awkward, Pretty Little Liars, Jersey Shore. Becoming well versed in the things they liked became my special interest, and as long as my grades remained stellar and I did well in piano lessons, my parents let me explore whatever interests grabbed my attention. In middle school my friend group became more diverse as more kids were funnelled in from other elementary schools, and I had two groups of friends, one mainly white/Asian, the other black/Latine. There were some outliers in both, and I was somewhere in the middle. It was here that I really learned to code switch. But my teachers tolerated me, and I had friends, and I got boobs, so I was okay.
It was the boobs, though, and all the other changes of puberty, that made things tougher at home. I’d always been an emotional kid, someone who cried just as frequently out of anger and frustration as I did sadness. Puberty turned my emotional sensitivity up to 11, and sadly, my brothers took advantage of it. They made consistent jokes about my weight gain when I gained 30 lbs in eighth grade, made jokes about my acne when it became worse than theirs or either of my parents’ in their adolescence, and made jokes about how I smelled as I insisted to my mother that her favorite natural deodorant just wasn’t strong enough anymore. In my adulthood I recognize now that this was where my depression started, because everything they hated, I hated too. I had never felt more wrong as an individual, and I didn’t know how to make myself better.
It was around this time that my dad, a lawyer and clergyman, got a promotion to a job that made me and my family hypervisible at church. I saw him less as he traveled more, and when he came home, his patience was often thin. Sometimes we all needed to be present as his family, and I got put on display in the perfect dresses (and I have one particularly unsavory anecdote about a meltdown I had when one dress became too tight around the neck after the boobs and the weight gain) and I could be the perfect daughter in public, but it came at great personal cost to my mental health in private. I didn’t have the patience to deal with my parents’ interpretation of my frayed nerves as disrespect, nor the vocabulary to explain that my worsening executive dysfunction was not rebellion. I didn’t blame my parents, and still don’t — I understood that they had their own issues (particularly keeping us out of poverty as my elder brothers started college and my mom repeatedly got laid off during the recession) and they, like me, were not equipped to identify what I was struggling with as neurodivergence. It wasn’t their fault, but I didn’t know what to do about the fact that seemingly everyone I dealt with saw a pimply, developed black girl with too much attitude. I detached more and more in the first years of high school, knowing I was drowning in the weight of other people’s perceptions of me.
Freshman year, I flocked to creative writing when I took it as an elective. I wasn’t too happy about deadlines, but I’d always liked poetry (I used to write comedic rhyming poems in elementary school, and I fell in love with Langston Hughes’ work in 6th grade) and my teacher challenged me with weekly prompts and pushed me to get beyond the surface level of artistic expression. At the end of 9th grade, when Creative Writing no longer served to help me adequately, providence saw to it that my Honors English teacher the next year was a black woman, Dr. K — the first black teacher I’d ever had.
In 10th grade, the ELA curriculum focused on literature pertaining to identity, which means that we were encouraged daily to reflect on how our own identities were shaped by our experiences. For me, this largely meant politics, and grappling in earnest with how my blackness, class, and gender made me different. Having a teacher that encouraged me to write how I felt was freeing, especially when she could also relate to my experiences as a black woman raised in the very same district. Then, as I explored my identity, I found that I gravitated toward liberal politics based on the experiences of my black female friends and my already liberal nonblack theater/music ensemble friends, many of whom were queer (did I mention we once held a “wedding” between two of our female friends in honor of the Obergefell v. Hodges decision? High school is weird.) or other people of color, or both. I became engaged in Instagram activism, quick to defend POC, LGBTQ people, neurodivergent and disabled people, and just about anybody else who was treated unfairly. I’d understood the ways in which I had always felt less than, and, out of sheer empathy and drive, determined that I’d do my part in making sure the world got a little more equitable. I also grew closer to my black and brown friends, drawn into a mutual understanding based on the disparity between the people who the world decided we might be and the people we knew we were.
In the margins, our friendship grew into a tight-knit group of girls that leaned on each other for advice, defense, and sometimes just laughter. We were often in the same honors and AP classes, which meant we exchanged support in the form of eye contact every time a student or teacher said something ranging from microaggressive to violently racist. They were there in 11th grade when I lost my white “friends” (who it turns out had been making slave jokes in a group chat) due to misogynoir, and when I got punished for fighting back online, and in senior year when I dealt with the trauma that the Angry Black Girl label had given me. Between the depression I’d had beforehand and the aftermath of junior year, I was just about as suicidal as they come. But they were instrumental in my healing and my acceptance of the person I’d become, as we affirmed each other and counted down the days ’til we could walk free. Unlike the friends I’d had in the past, I almost never felt like the stranger in a strange land, and I didn’t need to mask to like them; I genuinely did. And it was this group of friends whose yearbooks I signed, whose prom dresses I approved, whose hands I held as we walked out of graduation with the setting sun on the horizon. And none of us ever looked back.
We’re all juniors in college now, spattered across schools in the Eastern and Southern U.S. And I won’t pretend that we’re all as close now as we were then, or that I didn’t fall back into deep depression and severe anxiety once it was time to find new friends at my HBCU. But I changed for the better because I knew them, and I’d learned not to cower at the feeling that it was me against the world. Eventually I found new friends — good friends, might I add — who made me sure in my decision to start being myself in the ways I could. I’d developed an online presence of sorts, and I used it, often — making friends with similar views online had sometimes been my saving grace. By this time my political views had shifted further left, and I was sometimes too radical and frequently too blunt about it to be palatable again, something that had weighed on me greatly in high school. But I embraced it, even as it alienated me in student government and cost me sympathy in the wake of a toxic abusive relationship. Fully aware of the margins in which I operated, I held fast to my mantra. “I am the youngest. I am the only daughter of immigrants. I am extremely smart. I am outspoken. And I am black,” I’ve told myself often, even within the past six months. But within this same time span, as I dealt with the loneliness that follows in the aftermath of emotional abuse, I started to wonder. I wondered why I was still being ostracized at an HBCU if all the aforementioned reasons were the root of it. I know plenty of 1st generation Americans, plenty of very bright people, and plenty of girls who speak out at injustice. So why did it feel like no one could relate to me? Why did I still feel different?
At the beginning of this year, I came across a popular TikTokker by the name of Paige Layle. She is blonde, bubbly, Canadian, studious, and autistic. Always receptive to new information about different kinds of people, I’d watched all of her videos on autism in no time at all, and this led me to other users with similar content. For a month, this was my special interest, and I applied my love of knowledge and my continued empathy to understanding autistic people on their own terms. I’d always followed some autistic women and nonbinary people on Twitter, especially black ones, but seeing people on video solidified in me that autism in non-men does not look the same as how it’s been represented in popular culture. But I still didn’t associate what these people talked about with what I’ve always gone through, because I had the idea that everybody feels like an outsider most of the time.
As I got into the throes of the second semester of junior year, I became glad I stayed home given the chance to return to campus. I missed my friends dearly, and I spoke to them several nights a week, but I had to admit that I was thriving at home. For the first time since my first semester, my grades were stellar, I’d gotten into a regular cardio routine, I’d become more independent, and I’d even named my emotional trauma, again. I’d felt increasingly like myself every day, in ways that I almost never did before. And then, a few weeks ago, I had the conversation with a friend that brought me to the realization that led me to write this essay.
This friend revealed to me that sometimes I could be a bit of a know-it-all, and that it was affecting her ability to be vulnerable with me and deepen our friendship. Immediately, I felt like I was drowning again. It’s not that I’d never been called a know-it-all before, or that it was even remotely inaccurate. But I had never thought that me explaining medical, historical, or Hollywood trivia had been bothersome to people who actually liked me. Those were the kinds of patterns I’d always seen: cause and effect, action and reaction, shaping the world like the moon shapes the tide. And I’d always tried to be helpful, so if someone mentioned some phenomenal event, I was always quick to mention what caused it, and how you could trace back contributing factors. If knowledge is power, who wouldn’t want to know? Yet apparently, she didn’t. I burst into tears and sulked for a good 20 minutes, wondering oh my God, do even my friends think I’m a nuisance? And then I reminded myself that I was trying to help, and I told her so.
I explained to her what I said about patterns, about how I tried to relay information with care, but if it was causing the opposite effect for her, then I would stop, because I’d never meant her any harm to begin with. She mentioned that she’d had this thought before but didn’t want to bring it up lest I think she was trying to change me. I told her that I didn’t feel that way at all, but I needed her to do me a favor:
“My issue is learning that I’ve been causing repeated discomfort or harm to people I love because I didn’t know any better. Sometimes I assume what’s harmless to me is harmless to everyone, and I end up alienating people when I was really just trying to make banter and relate to others. And it really hurts when people conceal these things that bother them and end up resenting me. So I need for you to tell me if something I do hurts you, like the moment you notice a pattern. because I would absolutely hate for you to feel like you couldn’t tell me something until it drove you mad.”
As I typed out that text, I became increasingly aware that the words I was writing sounded familiar somehow. Once I pressed send, it dawned on me: this is autism. In an instant, a montage of memories ran through my mind, all related to problems that stemmed from miscommunication. I remembered how emotional I was as a kid, how I used to throw mushy food on the floor, how I’ve always cut every tag and sticker out of my shirts the first time I wear them. I remembered how clumsy I’ve always been, how I’ve always been unaware of my loud speaking volume, and the dread I’ve always felt in leaving the house, even when I like where I’m going. I thought about the music I listen to on loop for hours, and all the noises that bother me, and I wondered how I’d forgotten how much I hated them, until I realized something:
I’m black, and the youngest, and the only daughter of immigrants, and I have spent my whole life accommodating. Sometime between age 5 and now, I realized how much trouble my problems could cause for everyone else. I got used to consequences of my actions (even though I wasn’t doing any of it to be bad or hurtful or disrespectful or whatever) and I realized that I’d bother everyone a whole lot less if I’d just pretend like there wasn’t anything wrong. This was always at my expense and didn’t always work, but I’d convinced myself that it’d still be worth it if I could reduce the stress I caused everybody else. No wonder I’d dealt with depression for so long — I was constantly uncomfortable and constantly in denial about it. This realization made everything click so suddenly that I wasn’t upset about it at all. Instead, I’d found the words to name what I’d been feeling all these years, and with it came the tools to help me improve my quality of life. So I delved into research, finding articles and personal essays much like this one and reading tweets in the #ActuallyAutistic hashtag on Twitter, and every single account I read from an autistic person confirmed my hunch even more.
Growing up, the picture I had of autism looked exclusively like people who were (usually) nonverbal, white, mostly male, who had meltdowns about schedule changes and obsessed about math, model trains and specific dates in WWII. And there are plenty of autistic people who fit that description, and there is nothing wrong with that. But they are just one part of the equation, and hyperfocusing on them causes underdiagnosis in people who look like me. Because I am not white, or male, or a child, I do not like math, or obsess over dates, and I do not fit a good 50% of the criteria in the Autism Quotient test. I know that because of these things, it is unlikely that a therapist would diagnose me. But I also know that neurotypical people do not feel like I do, and I know, from listening to autistic women and nonbinary people, that we are the same. So I am writing this for them as much as I am for me. And for any other black girl or femme who comes across this, if you:
- feel regularly overwhelmed by your emotions, or other people’s
- imitate characters from shows, books, or movies
- imitate girls and women you know in real life
- are drawn to self-expression (or sometimes escape) through art, writing, or music
- are fascinated by patterns and relationships between concepts
- twirl your hair, bite your nails, rub your hands, pick your skin
- rock, shake, or pace when you think/speak
- feel like you can’t hear videos without captions/transcripts
- often only understand the end of a sentence despite having heard the whole thing
- feign eye contact by looking at someone’s nose or mouth
- bond with people by exchanging experiences (and sometimes overshare)
- practice interactions by yourself before they happen
- dread events/obligations for days and weeks before they happen
- have difficulty following verbal directions
- have difficulty managing time or sticking to schedules and routines
- feel anxiety around leaving the house or having visitors in your home
- need several hours to decompress after social interaction, especially at night
- hear every creak in your home or the frequency of every electronic appliance
- have a strong aversion to foods with specific textures
- have difficulty with listening to your bodily needs (i.e., eating when hungry or getting up when you need to pee)
- had an especially difficult time adjusting to puberty
- misstep in social interactions but don’t understand what you did wrong until later
- have difficulty reading people’s thoughts/emotions from facial expression
- have difficulty reading aloud despite reading well in your head or have difficulty forming words with your mouth
- are well-versed in certain movies, books, tv shows, or celebrities
- replay the same music, reread the same books, or rewatch the same movies/shows repeatedly when you are sad or stressed
- are clumsy or uncoordinated
- constantly misplace your phone, keys, wallet, glasses, or other everyday belongings multiple times a day
- completely lose focus on all else when someone touches you
- choose clothing specifically for comfort/lack of itchiness
- feel fatigued after making day-to-day decisions
- feel like you are different from most/all of your peers
- feel like you are constantly misunderstood but have good intentions
- wonder often if everyone feels as alien as you do
…then there’s a solid chance you may be autistic too. If that is you, welcome. I’ll be here, waiting for you like other women were for me. There is nothing wrong with you. You are not some ill-fitting puzzle piece or unsolvable enigma. You are whole, and I am whole, and we are sisters. Welcome.