When it comes out that I’m both autistic and enjoy theater, I often get asked some variation of, “But you can’t even make a phone call without anxiety, how can you go up on stage in front of so many people and perform for them?”
My response: “It’s scripted, perfected, practiced socialization in which I can interact indirectly with people I can’t see easily due to the brightness of stage lights, and get praised for afterwards with applause. What’s not to like?”
Perhaps that’s what drew me to the stage. I was shy at first, but after singing the Star-Spangled Banner in third grade for a school talent show, I wanted more. People stood and cheered for me. I could socialize without socializing. I was accepted without needing to speak to anyone.
In middle school, I began acting rather than singing and dancing as I had been up until that point. The difference between the first two and the third is that singing and dancing are highly perfected, ideally the same for each performance. They are a person on their own or in a group doing something that, for the styles I was practicing, did not require anyone else. Acting is completely different – acting is reacting. Acting is learning how to be someone else, to be human in ways you are not. Acting is learning a script and putting on a persona, a mask, and being so in tune with that persona that if the person you’re reacting to messes up their lines, you are capable of adjusting in character as someone else without throwing off the performance. Acting is teaching yourself to think, react, speak, and move like someone you’re not.
I believe it’s likely that my six years of acting lessons attributed significantly to the delayed revelation of my autism (which no therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist suggested until I was nineteen years old and in the spiral of a shutdown). In some ways, I’m grateful for my acting ability. I can pass. I can be normal. I can be Amalena without autism if I need to be. She is a character separate from myself I can slip into. I can look you in the eye, smile and laugh at the right times, and make all the appropriate faces because I spent years studying mine meticulously in the mirror to get it to mimic normal people’s just right, without realizing that I was doing so much more than learning how to play a role on stage. For the most part, I know how to react to other people’s faces appropriately because I trained to react via a character’s reaction to another character’s reaction. There are a lot of good things in knowing how to pass as neurotypical. I can go to job interviews and act the way they expect someone to act, and no one knows I’m not ‘normal’. If I keep my mouth shut about it and don’t slip up, I will not be discriminated against due to outward signs of being autistic. Even if I decide not to keep up with it down the road, it can get me a foot in the door to start with. That’s a positive, considering the world isn’t necessarily a kind place to those who are different.
However, there is a massive negative that’s related to what my mom told me for years (out of good will and no malice, as we had no clue I wasn’t neurotypical). She would point out when I was around others that I should change my expression (“Smile more, you’ll look friendlier! You look like you want to murder someone. Don’t cross your arms, it makes other people think you don’t want to talk to them.”), and that when I was interacting with others, I should put on a persona just like in acting so that I could gain more confidence and be happier. She told me if you tell yourself something long enough, you’ll make it true. If I told myself I was a sociable, happy, confident individual for long enough, that would make it true. If I pretended. Acted. Lied to myself.
But it takes effort to maintain that persona. To be ‘Amalena’ instead of Amalena. It takes a constant emotional toll to act every day, day in and day out. Around family, friends, and acquaintances. To smile, laugh, and hug people I don’t want to. What happens if you wear a mask too long is that the mask starts to crack. Fractures form, the edges chip off, the paint peals back as if exposed to severe heat of the person burning alive inside.
And then you can’t take it anymore, and the mask shatters. And you have to learn what it is to be you without the persona, because you can’t take it anymore and the light shining in your eyes burns because you have no shield between you and the world. You forget how to be you because you’ve been trying not to be for so long. You have to relearn yourself.
I went to college and was alone for the first time while surrounded constantly by people I didn’t know. The stress of that situation and the pressure of maintaining who I was supposed to be according to everyone else caused the chronic depression from high school to deepen, and caused new debilitating anxiety. I often found myself trapped in my dorm on the eleventh floor with no motivation or too much panic to be able to leave the safety of being surrounded by my clutter and my blankets.
Then my psychologist suggested that I was Autistic, thanks to a casual mention of an apparent ‘symptom’ I hadn’t considered unusual. (Doesn’t everyone count their steps to make sure that they take an even number of them?) I read about Autism and how it presented itself – specifically how it presented itself in girls. It seemed so obvious. The terrible temper tantrums and anger management problems I’d inflicted on my parents weren’t just bad behavior. They were meltdowns. The nauseating hatred for the texture and smell of certain foods wasn’t just the sign of a picky, spoiled child – they were sensory overloads causing aversion, as was my sensitivity to loud noises in places like concerts and movie theaters. The way my brain worked wasn’t the experience everyone else had – it was autistic. And that was okay.
I don’t act as often anymore. I have the persona of ‘Amalena’ I can slip into if necessary, a metaphorical mask kept in a metaphorical case on a metaphorical shelf, but I don’t force myself to try as often as I used to. I feel free now, knowing why I am the way I am, and knowing it’s alright not to act. It might not be socially acceptable all the time, but I’ve learned not to care because it’s simply not worth the stress.
I think that acting is a good skill to learn for an Autistic individual, if they can handle the stress involved in taking some of the classes. It’s a handy thing to have in the back pocket and can be a sort of ‘foreign language’ course in tone, body language, and all those other things that elude so many of us. But it should never be used to make an Autistic person be a neurotypical person. Characters belong on stage, not in your life. Be yourself instead of pleasing people who don’t want you to be. Ultimately, I believe that is the key to being a happier, well-adjusted Autistic.