The small band of adventurers are embroiled in combat. One of the monsters they are battling almost flies up a set of stairs. The elf asks how the monster moved so fast. The dungeon master (DM) responds with reference to the map. The elf points out that the DM's description does not match the map. The DM testily replies that the map is wrong and the elf should remember that he wasn't supposed to believe his eyes. The furrow in the elf's brow deepens. The DM takes this as insolence and begins spraying the elf with poison words. The DM is tired of the elf's "situation". The DM demands that the elf suspend his autism for the duration of the game. The DM has fallen into a pitfall trap and is impaled on his own anger.
I am the elf. I have to quit my Dungeons and Dragons group. It’s a sad day. What started out as a relaxing and fun thing to do with friends has become both a source of pain, and an opportunity to teach.
The problem isn’t really about the game. It’s about autism. I am only welcome if I refrain from being myself. This is deeply hurtful. I resent being told that I must either ‘mask’ my autism to meet someone else’s expectations, or be cast out. This is very much the wrong sort of roleplaying. Since the DM clearly views my being autistic as a problem, I will relieve him of this burden. The DM isn’t a bad guy, we’ve been friends for years. Part of what makes this whole episode so painful is that it reminds me of how many challenges us autistics face. Even our friends who really want to be welcoming and inclusive might hurt us without meaning to do so. The pain that is unintentionally inflicted by a friend cuts deeper than the hurt caused by strangers. I know that he feels bad about this, and I hope that we will find a way past it, but for now I need some distance.
Be Yourself, Just Not Like That
Asking me, or any autistic person, to mask is a really mean thing to do. You are clearly stating that who I really am is not okay; and that you expect me to meet your idea of acceptable behaviour. This is not something a friend would knowingly do. Being encouraged to mask is so common that there are memes in the autistic community about “be yourself, but don’t be like that.”
We don’t have a choice. It’s either be ourselves, or be masking. There aren’t other choices. Why is masking bad? First off, it’s exhausting. Imagine having to give a presentation. You master a large set of information, and prepare to synthesise new interpretations of that information while responding to questions. Sounds exhausting, right? Now imagine that every conversation you have requires this level of mental recall and cognition for everything you say. Autistic people are expected to somehow be masters of communication, both verbal and non-verbal. For non-autistic people this is largely an automatic behaviour. For autistic people it is purely cognition.
Do not ask autistic people to be who you want them to be. Appreciate them for who they are. If you are autistic, try to surround yourself with people who appreciate the way your brain works. These people will keep you strong, and help you to hone your wit. The better to slay dragons.