To Pass or Not to Pass…

This post is inspired by The Myth of Passing by Cynthia Kim, and The Lie of Social Skills Training by Jodie Van.

Because passing is a myth. So often what we’re doing when we’re passing is simply keeping a lid on our natural tendencies. And sometimes we’re not even doing it very well.

The Myth of Passing by Cynthia Kim of Musings of an Aspie


Cartoon blue pony with rainbow mane and tail walks a tightrope between cliffs
Image: “Tightrope Walk” by Orfearus

What does it mean to pass?

“Passing for normal” if you have a disability, means to mask your disability enough so that so called normal people don’t notice it. For example, if you are deaf but so skilled at lip-reading + hard working at getting by that people forget or don’t realise you are deaf, you’re passing.

They may instead think you are weird though, if they presume that you can hear what they can hear, and think you “ignore” information selectively or even worse, that you are playing social games with them.

Worst of all, if you tried to compete on equal terms in a hearing world as deaf you’d work hundred times harder than everyone else and still not or barely do as well as them on their terms. You’d be in a constant battle to try to piece together information from disorganised bits and hang on to the shared hearing-reality with your fingernails while your errors accumulated. And if you were to work that hard everyday to just try to meet basic expectations, you’d probably soon burn out.

With deafness, the problem is obvious and no one really expects a deaf person to compete with the hearing in a hearing world. No one expects a blind person to pretend to be able to see either.

With Aspergers/high functioning autism which is what Cynthia wrote about, the situation is complex, because many autistic adults are capable of appearing normal and social – to “pass as normal”, at least some of the time and in certain situations.

Jodie has in The Lie of Social Skills Trainin listed some of some key factors that make it difficult for aspies/autistics to socialise on normal terms:

  • sensory processing lag meaning you can’t process the conversation fast enough to keep up
  • trouble turning visual or abstract thoughts into words
  • literal-mindedness leading to misunderstandings
  • lack of executive function for keeping track of social engagements and who’s who
  • reduced amount of energy available for socialising, because so much is drained processing sensory input
  • not necessarily having the same pop-culture grounding as others, thanks to our often eccentric skills and areas of interest

Any one of those things could get in the way of socialising effectively, even for the most socially adept person. Most people on the spectrum have several of those things going on, and some of us have all of them.

The Lie of Social Skills Training by Jodie Van of Letters from Aspergia

I find Jodie’s list very accurate. Personally I struggle with most of these factors in most conversations with people I don’t know well*. This is why I can do a little bit of casual talk just fine (if the surroundings are fairly quiet), but in longer conversations (especially about random, shifting topics) I soon get social burn-out and need a quiet break by myself to recharge my energy and social motivation.

Forcing myself to keep going just lands me in mental zombie mode; neither dead nor alive, unreal; emotionally disconnected – feeling like reality isn’t real and people aren’t coherent entities, “paddling like hell underneath” while my energy and motivation quickly drains off.

“Be like a duck. Calm on the surface, but always paddling like hell underneath.”* -Michael Caine.

Often, I can preserve an appearance of communicating for a while after my mind has become numb – I can stream my responses mechanically. This can make me cling to a discussion track and feel agitated; maybe as a way to be able to keep going. Eventually though, I can’t source anymore words and responsiveness, and that’s the final social shut-down: Game Over.

I can often avoid mental shut-down by taking quiet breaks and economising with my social energy. However, taking breaks by myself may not be seen as normal behaviour in the situation (and they rarely get to be quiet). During a social occasion, it is common that everybody are expected to remain in one location; or if they go somewhere else that they go together in a group; and that everybody remain social all the time until they leave.

Many social situations end as “game over”, like: I want to pass, but none of the available choices work for me. Generally, the social strategy that seems to work best for me is avoidance of social occasions except the ones I can do well. Social situations that tend to work well for me include:

  • “Parallel play”. I work on my Thing and you work on yours
  • Small team work about Interesting Project
  • Socialising with and around animals
  • A shared study of an Interesting Subject
  • Online communication in writing
  • Class discussions or other guided communication where the purpose is clear, and only one person talks at the time
  • Drama/theatre
  • Listening to an elderly person or a kid, or someone else who is obviously very different from myself. The most difficult conversation partners tend to be women in the same age bracket as me (because they expect similarity), and young women (perhaps because I’ve never had a normal youth, and they presume I would, so they also expect similarity)

Problematic and sometimes impossible situations include:

  • Parties and dinners
  • Large crowded schools
  • Breaks where people mingle and small talk
  • Malls
  • Fairs and trades shows
  • Business networking events
  • Kindergardens
  • The Meet & Greet point on the agenda during the Sunday sermons in Church
  • Group outings (I get lost)
  • Talk therapy, but the one I’m currently in goes well, especially compared to earlier attempts at different kinds of therapy
  • 1:1 meetings that don’t have a specific purpose and agenda but are more like “Hey, let’s catch up and talk about everything since last time!”

The list is not exhaustive.

Normality has blurry boundaries

Normality tends to be presented as if normal and abnormal are the only two options; as if you’re either passing or failing normality. That is a bit naive, because what’s normal and how far from the standard one is allowed to deviate varies and fluctuates wildly between cultures, subcultures, families, situations, individual persons (the same behaviour is perceived differently depending on who does it), and even just different points in time.

Once upon a time I thought that being Normal was a matter of finding the Great Rules Book, you know the one with all the Criteria for being Normal that everybody had read and then hidden. I’ve slowly realised that normality is not black and white. There is not only one set of rules; most social rules are not fixed, and they don’t apply equally to different people.

Normality is more like an ongoing negotiation, but there is of course something like a loose template that people benchmark others towards, and if they fall short of the marks then they may be deemed “off”; special cases, possibly defect; second class citizens; excluded from the normal “Us” which is obviously not a fun situation to be in. However, the standards are largely negotiable (again, depending who you are), variable, expandable, and evolving over time.

That gives some hope and space to model one’s own version of normality which others may or may not accept.

My normality

Recently, my husband video filmed our dogs playing in the yard. Watching the video afterwards, I saw myself throwing a toy for the dogs and it struck me how clumsy and young I looked. I looked like I have always looked, but not how I thought I looked, or how I thought adult me would look. Not how I thought adults automatically get to look in their 40s.

I remember, when I was (briefly) in therapy for social anxiety some years ago, how the psychologist assumed that I assumed that everybody can see my feelings, as if I’m transparent. Well, I didn’t assume that. But maybe I am actually a lot more transparent than I think.

Maybe many of my little habits that I assume are not noticeable, are totally noticeable to other people. Maybe my “invisible ear plugs” are not invisible much. Maybe the normality I’ve tried to cling to in the past without much idea of what it really took to be normal, was like The Emperor’s New Clothes. Maybe many people could totally tell that I was “off” in some way, but nobody said anything (to me) while I battled on to pretend I behaved enough like everybody else to pass.

Reflections like that makes me feel possibly naked.

However, I’m pretty sure that I’m the best I’ve ever been at passing. I’ve now have a vast solid repetoir of proven tips and coping strategies which I have accumulated and refined through many years.

Social development has a cumulatively long term effect so after starting to reach a critical mass of social learning, it becomes increasingly easier to understand social rules and see other peoples’ perspectives; it is like having collected enough of a puzzle to begin to see coherent elements of the bigger picture; then it becomes easier and easier to fit the next piece.

I’m avoiding most of the scenarios on the “problematic” list most of the time. I’m married and live in a quiet house with a yard fully enclosed behind a tall colorbond fence. I spend most of my time alone. I rarely see human friends apart from my husband, and my interactions are usually with my husband and my dogs.

I work independently with my base at home. My work interactions are with respondents I interview and then never see again. My work is flexible enough that I can usually fit in an off day if I can’t bear to see people. I don’t go to dinners or parties anymore if I can help it.

Going to Church on Sundays is the main socially outgoing activity outside work, and I enjoy singing in the worship team. That’s my main social contribution in Church and outside of that role, I feel pretty alien from most of the other Church goers and their Christian rhetoric. I dread Meet & Greet, which is a few minutes of unstructured mingling (like speed-dating, just with greetings: speed-greeting) scheduled into the sermons.

Some people may think that I’m lonely and should socialise more. Nothing could be further from the truth. I crave more solitude than I have to work on my always booming back-log of creative projects. I hate interruptions. My sense of purpose and meaning in life depends on what I make; and I need plenty of quiet solo time to carry out my ideas. I love reading, learning, creating and trying things out, and none of that requires direct people interaction. I never get bored when I have freedom to do what I want.

I guess it is somewhat illustrative that I don’t have time to watch TV (except during disasters) even though I only work part time and rarely go out. I’m not sure precisely what I spend so much time on because I’m not nearly as productive as I would like to be, but my time always flies.

Even though I’m more solitaire, absorbed in my own interests and much less attentive to people than what most people consider normal (especially for women), I’m passing much better than previously. In many ways, I’m passing better because I don’t try so hard to pass so I’m more relaxed and don’t panic; and because I live an everyday life customised to avoid overload.

Thinking of how it is to try too hard to pass reminds me of a story about a monkey trap**, which is often used by motivational speakers. Apparently some native people somewhere trapped monkeys by filling nuts into a hollow tree, where they had made a hole big enough so that a monkey could get a stretched hand through the hole reaching for the nuts, but not a fistful of nuts out. The monkeys would trappe themselves because once a monkey had grabbed a handful of nuts then it wouldn’t let go of the nuts and therefore couldn’t get its hand out.

Trying too hard to pass can be like such a monkey trap when you can’t get it and you can’t let go, and as a result, remain trapped rather than move on to find real available resources vital to your survival and wellbeing.

Artwork black-white drawing of crowd with a lone silhouette tightrope walking high above them

Image: “Tightrope Walker at the Neptun Fountain” by Erik Berndt


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*The quote is obviously rubbish as far as ducks are concerned, because they don’t paddle like hell, but the metaphor works well to describe the idea of working very hard to convey an image of calm ease.

** No proper references for this one, only rumours. It may be a myth but it is still a good metaphor.



7 thoughts on “To Pass or Not to Pass…

  1. Petra

    Yes, very recognizable, all of it. Just yes, ditto and also on just about everything you wrote.
    I do not have a partner, though, and notice that there’s a difference in wanting to socialise between the autistics that do and the ones who don’t have a partner. I don’t really need/want a romantic involvement, but it would be nice if there was someone like a partner, someone in my life who knows me well and who I can rely on, hang out with, etc.
    I generally try to keep in touch with people I know, and there are some autistic people I meet with regularly. Also to keep me busy, as I’m underemployed.
    So in terms of how many people I see and want to see, there’s a difference, but what you describe in terms of the whys and hows, definitely. The list of “Social situations that tend to work well” is very useful.


    1. Mados

      I think it is an accurate (and interesting) observation that the social needs differ between those who have a partner and those who don’t – a partner who is also one’s best friend (and the partner/bf combi appears to be the case for all the relationships of autistics that I have heard of) can satisfy most social needs and therefore reduces or eliminates the need to try to be socially outgoing and make/keep in touch with friends. I am happy about that because a socially outgoing strategy never worked for me, I generally failed at my attempts and eventually just got used to living in isolation.

      I can see the problem with not wanting a romantic partner while wanting/needing the bf aspect… in some ways that is the case for me too, my partner is my bf first and foremost, and I just accept the romantic aspects because they are part of the package. I am not really the romantic type.

      Thanks for your comment:-)


  2. Amanda Wynn

    This post is from quite awhile ago, but I just wanted to say thanks for sharing. I can relate to so much of this. It’s such a relief to read the stories of so many people with similar experiences. After “passing” for 30 years or so and (finally) getting the dx a few years back, it’s been disorienting–some of the people who know me well are skeptical of the diagnosis, which I think just speaks to how hard I worked at passing all those years. It’s easy to fall back into thinking it’s all just me, that the diagnosis is an excuse I accept instead of struggling harder to do all the “normal” things that “normal” people make look easy. But in my heart of hearts, I’ve always known that wasn’t true.


  3. Anna Post author

    You are welcome, and that you for commenting (and I like getting replies to old posts – especially those posts I like most, like this one).

    I can understand the insecurity caused by scepticism to your diagnosis from people who know you well and are used to categorise you as Normal, and from the ability to pass well in itself…

    I get in doubt too sometimes. It happens whenever I have done really well in a social situation, e.g. conducted an interview (or several) that went really well, where I demonstrated great social receptiveness and timing, and got very positive reactions. Then I think “I can’t possibly be autistic, because these people would definitely not believe it if they knew”. However, the interviews* are highly scripted situations with a clear, specific purpose and a predictable time frame. My social challenges are, and have always been, mainly with unstructured social situations. Then I remember that I recently had a chat with a neighbour that went very well. Sure, I was constantly scripting what to say and when, how to stand, when to make pauses, how to balance the expectation of face to face contact with my need to not feel invaded, when and how to end the conversation et.c… it was hard work and left me tired. However, it went well, and my neighbour seemed pleased to take with me (and I like him too, that is why I go through the effort). That was SMALL TALK, I tell myself – If I’m good at small talk (even if only now and then, with specific situations and people and with intense real-time self-monitoring), then I can’t possibly have Asperger’s. Doubts like these set into motion a huge loop of neverending speculation where I relentlessly categorise my behaviour as either normal-like, or autistic-like, to “calculate” what the “bottom line” is, one or the other. The whole process is very counterproductive and the result always fluctuate… it is a massive and stressful waste of energy. It was very bad in the last half year before my official diagnosis/confirmation by my therapist (which I got promptly and firmly as soon as I asked), where I was constantly speculating whether I actually met all the diagnostic criteria and changed my conclusion back and forth. It was settled by the diagnosis, but still sometimes starts up again.

    * background info: I do quantitative survey interviews, highly scripted, undertaken in peoples’ homes.


  4. Amanda Wynn

    Thank goodness for scripted situations. Funny, though, that job interviews are one of the absolute worst lock up situations I have; the “tell me about yourself” question paralyzes me every time. Even if I have a memorized answer, I’m sure my delivery is clunky and obviously strained, and I’m so terrible at generating obvious enthusiasm that I can only imagine how odd it must seem from an interviewer’s perspective. And yes, I can definitely relate to the wavering back and forth based on different situations. Some days and situations are great, but other times it seems so blatant that I can’t imagine that someone “neurotypical” could possibly feel this way so often. It’s like on really “good” social days, I find myself becoming skeptical and frustrated with myself for trying to analyze so much of my behavior through an Asperger’s lens, and then on “bad” social days, then everything is such a struggle I find myself beating myself up because I can’t do simple things like drop my kid off at preschool without a struggle. (An invisible struggle, for the most part, because my self monitoring never really stops unless I’m alone or with my still-too-young-to-judge-me kid.) I guess the fact that I use so much mental energy worrying about it is pretty confirming in and of itself. It’s also problematic because the person who gave me the official diagnosis seemed less than perfectly professional–despite her good reputation in the AS community, she barely seemed to take notice of me as an individual (though she made sure to get permission to quote anything interesting I might say anonymously in her forthcoming book) and even her letter of diagnosis was more like a form letter. It’s unfortunate that my lack of faith in her has provided more ammunition for me to pick apart my dx.


  5. Anna Post author

    Funny, though, that job interviews are one of the absolute worst lock up situations I have; the “tell me about yourself” question paralyzes me every time. Even if I have a memorized answer, I’m sure my delivery is clunky and obviously strained, and I’m so terrible at generating obvious enthusiasm that I can only imagine how odd it must seem from an interviewer’s perspective.

    Aw yes, when I said scripted situation I didn’t refer to job interviews, they are extremely tricky… and the “tell me about yourself” question is one of the worst because it is so open, and it is such an obviously fake question. It might as well have a sign with “WELCOME TO THE TRAP QUESTION!” written over it in colourful neonlights.

    I guess the fact that I use so much mental energy worrying about it is pretty confirming in and of itself.

    I think you are right about that… It has to do with black & white thinking I think: You either have to be 100% one or the other all the time, no greyzones accepted.

    It’s also problematic because the person who gave me the official diagnosis seemed less than perfectly professional–despite her good reputation in the AS community, she barely seemed to take notice of me as an individual (though she made sure to get permission to quote anything interesting I might say anonymously in her forthcoming book) and even her letter of diagnosis was more like a form letter. It’s unfortunate that my lack of faith in her has provided more ammunition for me to pick apart my dx.

    I can very much understand that… and it is interesting. I’m also curious as to who that is, but realise that’s a bit too private information to share. (Also, I’m only curious if it is in Australia, since I don’t know of any names in the US anyway)

    I started therapy with a very young psychologist, who said at some point “Do you even have a diagnosis yet?” (we hadn’t talked about Asperger’s, but the clinic specialised in it) and when I said no, “Let’s get you diagnosed!” I didn’t want a diagnosis from her, I would never have trusted it. Then when I got to see the more senior psychologist whom eventually diagnosed me, he did an Adult ASD screening test with me in one of the first sessions, and next time showed me my score, which was well over the threshold. When he asked what I thought about the result, I didn’t confirm that I thought I had Asperger’s, because I was still in doubt – and had been in doubt about how to understand some of the questions – and when I asked him what he thought, he said that I was the only one who could really confirm it (he used some other words). That didn’t sound definite enough for me, and I didn’t think he knew me at all as a person yet, so I avoided the topic for the next year or so while he proceeded “as if” I was diagnosed, talking about things like executive function and sensory overload, but barely mentioning the word asperger’s ever… Until eventually it was so much on my mind that I just had to get a “professional answer”. Even though I got that, a blow to the trust in the therapist’s professionalism – even now a while afterwards – would probably hurt my confidence in the diagnosis.

    In terms of my “mental history”, I started out not taking labels seriously at all. With my first (actually second… but anyway) mental diagnosis, I wasn’t sure what it meant but never bothered to read anything about it, I thought it was just a formality anyway, that they had to put people in one box or the other, so I was not interested. It is quite a U-turn for me to have a personal relation with a diagnosis, and feel that it has strong relevance in relation to my personality and identity. A bit scary too.



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