Playing Roles

I have always been a pretty big nerd. Looking back over my life, I’ve got Star Wars: check, Anime: check, Comic Books: check check check. This year, I decided to add another scoop of geek cred to my pile by doing something I’ve always wanted to try. Enter Dungeons and Dragons. It worked out that some friends of mine had been wanting to start a new game, and what better way to learn than with friends? I spent hours making my character. Seriously, his backstory is pages long. Since the best way I know how to do something new is to absorb all the information I can find on it, whir it up in my brain blender, and then make it my own by reassembling it, I took advantage of the almost 45 years worth of character building literature out there. I know his alignment (true neutral), I know his race (Tengu), I know about his family, I know how fast he is, I know his motivations. I also know that his name translates into ‘Garbage’ (his parents were clearly very cruel). I know so many things about him that I’m starting to feel really comfortable playing him. But I had a thought recently and I’m still mulling over it. If I’m playing Taaka, does that mean he’s autistic too?

 

One of the great things about Role Playing Games is that you get to be someone who is entirely unlike you. And I’ve found that to be really freeing. In real life, I’m definitely a rule follower. Granted the rules I follow are my own, and not always those accepted by society, but still, I usually follow rules regardless of what I want to do personally. This character is not like that. His short life has been hard, and he has no qualms about doing whatever is necessary to survive. So in that way, I can reconcile him being different from me; we have totally different backgrounds. I can imagine his past well enough to guess what he would do in a given situation. But what I’m not sure I can do is imagine what a neurotypical person would do. Life experience has proven that I’m not very good at predicting what a non-autistic person will think or do or say. So does that mean that my autism is coloring how my character experiences the world?

 

I think it comes down to the issue that often comes up when neurotypical writers try to write autistic characters: that even if they get past the stereotypes, they are still trying to understand the world in a way that is entirely foreign to them. It’s hard to teach someone to think in a different way. It’s why ABA doesn’t actually work. People can be taught to imitate the thoughts of others, but it’s sort of like learning a second language as an adult, you may get fluent, but you’ll never be a native speaker. So can I treat neurotypical as a second language of sorts? I spend most of my life scripting, and people learning languages rely heavily on that as well. I fake nonverbal communication, and language-learners fake accents.  In the beginning, they can probably only order coffee, find a train station, and count to twenty, and on bad days, that’s about all I can do too. So the major question is, are my neurotypical ‘skills’ enough to let my character be neurotypical? If I’m faking it, is he faking it? Is his big picture colored by my autistic lens?

 

I’m asking a lot of questions because this is the sort of philosophical thing that really gets stuck in my head. Mostly because I’ve spent such a large chunk of my life trying to observe and imitate other people. I’ve gotten good enough that sometimes, I can pass. Sometimes I can even understand the thought process behind what I’m doing (which let me tell you is so cool!). But neither of these things makes my brain any less autistic. It’s just like a native language, I think in autism, I dream in autism, and I communicate most organically in autism. Which has led me to the following conclusion: I can never truly play a neurotypical character because I’ve never lived a neurotypical life. I can research it, I can understand it, but in the end, my character will never be able to interact with his world in a truly neurotypical was because I can’t. It’s easy to play a character with a different alignment than you, with a different temperament than you, with a different religion than you. People play dragons and elves and gargoyles all the time. Hell, my character is a giant bird-man, and I manage that ok. I can pretend to have feathers and a beak, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to pretend that the way my brain interprets the world can be anything less than autistic. So Taaka will have a small trace of my autism, and I think he’ll be better for it. Maybe my next character will actually be autistic. Or whatever they call autistic in Golarian. There are things about me that I can stop from translating to my fictional role, but I think it’s ok that autism isn’t one of them. I’m playing him as an Autistic Tengu Magus, and all three of those parts of him are important. Maybe not as important as him getting his hands on a bag of holding, but we all have priorities.

A Cloak of Many Layers

A Cloak of Many Layers

Everyone wears a cloak. It is a necessary skill to survive in our society. ‘What do you mean I’m cloaked?’ you say. ‘I’m the most genuine person I know!’ I’m sure that’s true, but tell me honestly, last week at the grocery store, when the cashier asked how you were doing, did you tell her that you were running on 3 hours on sleep and had run out of coffee, or did you say you were fine? I understand why people do this sort of thing. They say they’re just being polite, but the real answer is that they’re more concerned about society running smoothly than they are about making connections. I have very little patience for this. If someone asks how I’m doing, I tell them. I have to pee. I’m too hot. I’m exhausted, thank you for asking. This is partially because my brain compels me to take words at face value, instead of how they’re intended. The other part of it is that cloaking myself requires huge amounts of energy, so I only do if for things that I deem important. And trying to figure out if the receptionist at my doctor’s office ACTUALLY wants to know how I am, or if they’re just being polite, is not important.

I also think that we all have different levels of cloaking. The difference between telling someone you’re fine when you’re not, telling your neighbor how much you loved his cookies, even though they were burned, these are minor level cloaking. They may fall under what people call a white lie. Doing this doesn’t take much energy for most people, and there’s very little chance anyone is going to get hurt. Then you move up to mid-level cloaking, pretending you know how to do something at work when you don’t. You forgot a baggie and you dog poops in the neighbor’s yard, and you ignore it even though you’re a good person. These sorts of cloaks could get you in some trouble, but people do them every day anyway. They hide parts of their personalities to make their day smoother, even if they might be consequences. These things are common, and potentially harmful, but they’re nothing like the ultimate cloak. These are the blackout curtains of cloaks. Pretending your drink is a rum and coke instead of just a coke because none of your work friends know you’re sober. Convincing a friend to go with you as your ‘date’ to the family Thanksgiving with you so Aunt Susan won’t tease you about being a lesbian, especially because she doesn’t know that you are one. This sort of cloak is incredibly harmful. It damages your relationships and it makes your life a lie. There are reasons for these cloaks. We wouldn’t use them if they weren’t helpful. But helpful doesn’t mean healthy.

I’m not claiming that I don’t use cloaks. Scripting is a cloak, I’m saying what I’ve memorized instead of what I mean. So is mirroring. Instead of using my own flappy, rocky, twirly body language, I just mimic someone else’s. I look at the bridge of someone’s nose approximately once every 12 seconds, so they think I’m making eye contact. And I follow their topic of conversation, even though I’ve been bored since the first minute. Once someone goes from acquaintance to friend, I drop off a layer of cloaks. There are benefits and disadvantages for both of us. I get harder for them to read, because my body language and facial expressions and eye contacts aren’t natural for them anymore. But they gain my enthusiasm when we talk about things that interest me. I get more energy since I’m not busy cloaking, and I actually get to connect with people that I like. Downside for me is since they’re having trouble reading me, their responses are less predictable. Which is an acceptable consequence. I think at least parts of this experience are universal, just like cloaks. People act differently with their family than their friends, their friends from their coworkers, their coworkers from strangers. And I’m not trying to convince anyone that cloaks are bad. They’re necessary. But what I do think is that being aware of the cloaks that you wear, and maybe being willing to step outside of your comfort cloaks, may lead you to experiences and connects that positively affect your life. Why not, right?

5 Things I Wish I Knew Were Autism Things

So I’ve been getting the urge to branch out from my twice a week posting schedule. Not that I don’t enjoy writing essay or putting together my 6 Word Stories from the week, but I guess I’ve been wanted something a little more…fun. I always enjoy when people make lists. It’s kind of a cool way to get to know them. And I think I’m going to give it a try. So going forward, I declare Wednesdays List Days! I’m aiming for a mix of Autism and non Autism stuff, although to be honest, most of the things I write end up with a tinge of Autism anyway. I plan on opening the comments up so people can add their own stuff to the list. It seems like it’ll be more fun if it’s not just me talking out into the void. But please don’t feel any pressure! Also, if you have ideas for topics, bring ’em! I figure I’ll run out of topics eventually anyway. So here they are:

5 Things I Wish I Knew Were Autism Things

-Getting Lost: I am terrible with directions. I once managed to get myself lost in the monkey house at the zoo for 45 minutes. Not even GPS can help me. My first semester of college, I had to drop a class because I couldn’t reliably find it. From what I can tell, no one’s really sure why Autistic people have a tendency to get lost, but it’s very common in our community.

-Not Being Able to Make Lists: My wife has a super power. She can take any situation, any task, any problem, and make a plan to solve it. No matter how big, no matter how steps it takes, give her a pen, paper, and 10 minutes, and she’s ready to approach it. I however, cannot figure out how to make cereal. The process of breaking a task down into steps is so foreign, that I don’t even know where to start. This is a common experience with Executive Dysfunction, and for me it involves post-it notes all of the place in hopes that one day they’ll be useful.

-Being a Picky Eater: I fought this for a very long time. ‘I love Indian food!’ I thought. ‘But I put hot sauce on everything!’, I can’t be a picky eater! But looking deep into my heart, I know that I’m incredibly texture sensitive, I make other people taste new dishes so they can describe them to me, and I will argue to the death that real Cheerios are NOT the same as the store brand ones. There is a word for this: ARFID. It’s listed as a type of eating disorder. And my therapist is ok with not pushing me as long as my diet stays varied and healthy.

-Touching EVERYTHING: I am very slow when shopping. It’s partially because of medical issues, partially because I’m slightly overwhelmed, and partially because I have to touch all the new and exciting things. I love walking through the towel section at Target, and the yarn aisle at Michael’s. This makes sense, as I am hypo-sensitive to touch. I crave spiky pine cones and microfiber cloths and pulling dried glue off my fingers.

-Repeating Things: I am not the best communicator. If I don’t have a script for it, I’m usually anxious about what to say. I am also a pop culture junkie. This totally works for me, because between movies and tv shows, I have a wealth of scripts! On bad communication days, I can go hours only reciting lines from various sources of media. Besides using these things as scripts, it’s also a form of echolalia. So not only is the repeating satisfying, it also helps me connect. I’d call that a win win!

So that’s it! I’d love to here if anyone else has any of these too!