The following is an edited exclusive extract from Grace Tame's book The Ninth Life Of A Diamond Miner.
The general public knows only a relatively sanitised version of my story. Not necessarily because I have hidden it from view, but because to honestly reflect on one’s own life, especially the most painful parts of it, is incredibly confronting. And to a child, everything you live is normal until someone outside your world tells you otherwise.
Until 2022, the freight train of my entire existence had never stopped. So many of my firsts were in front of you; you just didn’t know it because I had to grow up too quickly. To have to suddenly face and swallow the true oddity of your own existence live on national television, because a reporter unwittingly framed your life in a way you’d never even considered it before, is a surreal experience.
If it weren’t for my autistic mastery of ‘masking’ and ‘mimicry’, last year might have been a hell of a lot harder than it already was.
I’d never even heard of these concepts until the end of 2021. There I was – the accidental presenter; the autistic artist who finds everyday socialising harder than calculus, but walking on stage as easy as kindergarten maths; the all-but-dead parrot who feels more comfortable addressing an audience of thousands than a private dinner function of ten — sitting opposite a psychiatrist, dumbfounded, as they put another giant piece of my life’s puzzle into place, where before there was a gaping hole. Mimicking and masking, they explained, are survival strategies particularly common among autistic women. A lot of what we see we ‘copy and paste’ – as these behaviours are sometimes described. This is part of why it can be harder to diagnose women. Our idiosyncrasies can fly under the radar because we learn very quickly to fit in, albeit at the expense of our own identity and needs.
I now know why I don’t get nervous in interviews. What many neurotypical people are terrified to do for a brief moment is what many autistic people are doing every moment of their entire lives. I am five-foot-three and weigh fifty kilos. I have to make myself big in other ways.
My best friend is an openly gay autistic man, who I met when we were seven. Dom, his name is. We don’t even have to speak to each other when we are together. We just are. Our connection swallows time and space. Neither of us knew the other was neurodiverse until we were adults. Not that it mattered to us. Our own private nonverbal world remained as perfectly imperfect as ever. I have watched others assume things about us throughout our friendship. They tell us, instead of asking us, what we must be. I can’t speak for Dom, but there is much to be said of the insidiousness of these presumptive projections. Isolation and invalidation have certainly been at the core of my experiences of autism and of life in general.
I didn’t know that Dom was autistic then. Not that that would have made a difference. I do remember seeing diagrams of faces expressing different emotions in a book on the floor at their house in Lewis Avenue once. I was too young at the time to make the connection.
The stereotype of people with autism being emotionless or unempathetic — at least in my experience — couldn’t be further from the truth. I think about those simplistic faces, and then I think about the complex and gentle individual that is Dom, and all the other giant-hearted individuals that I know with autism and it makes me sad. Sad face.
I am unfiltered, and intensely empathetic. These traits have made me especially vulnerable to predators because I’ve always had such porous boundaries. Ever since I was little, in lieu of strong attachments, I’ve sought connection from others and have often been told that I overshare without realising. While most people are good and greet this with compassion and an understanding of how to help me see what I am doing without inducing shame, there are a rare few who are more calculated and opportunistic.
I have a photographic memory. I can remember random dates out of thin air. I do sums with licence plates and house numbers without even trying. But no matter how many times people tell me to stop playing with my hair, clicking my tongue, rearranging items by colour, or that the older man I’m talking to is not my friend — I can’t seem to understand it at the time. And believe me when I say that this is as frustrating to me as I’m sure it is to you. My sudden rushes of emotion are jumbled by an inbuilt processing delay; a mix of wiring and a default for fawning that I didn’t know I was born with.
Although I present a tough exterior, my brain is always working overtime. When I am uncomfortable, I revert to mimicry. There are people who like me because I reflect them to themselves. Equally, there are people who don’t like me because I reflect them to themselves. That’s a symptom of autism, not inauthenticity. It is a symptom of fawning; a symptom of fear. I played my hardest role to an audience of one. I earned stripes in hell, through a trial by fire.
Images and text from The Ninth Life Of A Diamond Miner by Grace Tame. Macmillan Australia RRP $49.99, available in bookstores across Australia.