The Invisible Sign

For a long time I was conviced that I was simply rubbish at life.

Throw me into a social situation with a whole bunch of humans and I didn't have the first idea how to even begin to attempt to join in. People would seem to collapse into these stable little groups of two or three leaving me floating around like a stray electron.

Warning sign reading "hard work"

Against my best instincts I often tried attaching myself to these groups but joining in with the conversation was impossible. Besides, I really felt like I was interrupting. It was rude. Even if I did dare to say something I'd get odd looks.

I still consider my crowning achievement in this Biggest Outsider Challenge to be when I ended up spending time standing around on my own at the very bash being held for me leaving a job I'd been in for 16 years...

Now that was impressive.

Of course well-intentioned people kept telling me to try harder, giving me tips and tricks, but nothing really seemed to work.

I'd hear variations of "We all feel awkward and uncomfortable some times, you just need to make an effort!" many times. Believe me I was trying very hard indeed but it seemed I had to consciously think about everything that was coming naturally to most people.

Of course a lot of this was explained when I received my autism diagnosis. This didn't necessarily solve the problem but the very knowledge that it wasn't because I was rubbish, just diversely wired, made a huge difference to my confidence. If I ended up standing on my own that was fine – and if I wanted to try to join in that was also fine as if it didn't work it wasn't a failure. My masking (camouflaging my natural personality and behaviour by imitating an imagined average social performance) got better.


It still didn't quite work. The clumping together of people into stable molecules with a valency of two or three continued and it would often feel like these little groups were snapping shut as I walked through the room.

No social vacancies.

Before my diagnosis I'd often mused about the existence of an invisible sign above my head which read "Don't talk to them, they're hard work!" but had dismissed this as far fetched and paranoid.

But now I began to wonder.

People are very good at picking up subconscious signals, recognising patterns and spotting anomalies – it's part of what the human brain is all about. It's what has helped us survive and thrive over the past million years or so. However it means that when someone isn't giving out neurotypical signals – from the tilt of the head and the set of the shoulders to the small talk tidbits thrown into a conversation – subconsciously they're flagged as an inconsistency. Possibly a threatening one.

Danger, keep clear.

All of this happening below the threshold of consciousness. The invisible sign was real and being observed with invisible eyes, the outcome of which was all too visible behaviour. And this would have a cumulative effect - people further away would see others avoiding the person with the invisible sign, they'd tune into this signal and it would sweep through the room in a chain reaction.

I'm not sure what the solution to this is or if there even is one. I've spoken to other autistic people and they've noticed it too so it's not just my own overactive imagination. One obvious fix would be to get even better at masking, but that stuff's exhausting; even more so as I've got older.

Maybe a fix just isn't needed Ultimately I know that I just prefer spending time with people in groups of two or three with no masking required, and that's fine.

I can simply be me and there's no need for any invisible signage. 


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