I had some trouble sleeping the other night, and as I was lying awake at 4 AM, I encountered a random memory from my childhood. I was at a public swimming pool with a friend, and we were watching people jump off the high diving board. The really high one, with the long ladder that took forever to climb up, and even longer to climb back down.
My friend and I had been diving off the lower diving board, or at least jumping off it; I wasn’t great at diving, and sometimes ended up with water up my nose when I dove head-first. That was very unpleasant, but I hated those pinching nose clips, which tended to come off when I hit the water anyway. In between jumps, my friend dared me to jump off the high dive, and said she would do it if I did. I told her I wasn’t interested, and swam away.
The thing is, I had already tried that once, which is how I knew that it took longer to climb back down the long ladder than it did to climb up it. I got up there once, and simply couldn’t do it. I couldn’t jump. I felt a little embarrassed at having to climb back down the ladder in front of the other kids, but also intensely relieved that I didn’t have to do it. So that day in the pool, I knew this about myself. I didn’t like heights, so just climbing up there would have been unpleasant. And I knew from a couple of roller-coaster experiences that I didn’t like that feeling of falling, the way my stomach seemed to lurch up into my throat. Throwing myself off of a high diving board was not something I cared to do, especially not to satisfy a dare from someone else.
It’s not that I didn’t care what my friend thought of me; I just didn’t care enough for it to outweigh my own preferences. And because my friend was not an asshole, she didn’t make a big deal of it, and we continued to have a good time at the pool. I think she did go off the high dive, and I watched and cheered for her. If she had been an asshole about it, we wouldn’t have remained friends for long. That’s something I knew from experience as well, having had “friends” who turned on me over petty (or nonexistent) things in the past.
I think about things like this when I read about studies related to autistic people and what is called “reputation management,” or the presentation of self in a way that is designed to enhance others’ opinion of you. Self-presentation in general is an important part of social interaction, and it’s an aspect of sociology I’m particularly interested in studying with autistic people in mind, both in terms of reputation management and also in relation to autistic “masking” and “camouflaging.” In one particular interview study, Cage, Bird, and Pellicano found that autistic adolescents did have a desire to fit in with others, but many also valued authenticity and being true to themselves; they wanted to be accepted as someone who was different, rather than simply conforming.
This rings true with my experience, as in the diving board example above. I wanted my friend to have a good opinion of me, but that concern for my reputation was not as strong as my desire to not do something I didn’t want to do. In other cases, I did my share of camouflaging in order to fit in, but there was always a line where reputation concerns lost out to personal preference and/or authenticity. They still do.
This is a balance that everyone has to strike, I think; if we only care what other people think of us, we risk becoming a doormat instead of being ourselves. But I do wonder whether autistic people reach that tipping point—where a desire for authenticity outweighs reputational concerns—sooner than non-autistic people. Or maybe some of us are already masking our autistic traits so much that we just reach a point of exhaustion and can’t add on any more self-presentation strategies. Or possibly both things are true.