I learned I was autistic in my 30s. Not long afterwards, I came across the word chameleon to describe how many autistic people change our communication, voice, interests, and actions to mirror the people we are with, or to fit in with the norms of a group.
Looking back on the way I had survived school, university, workplaces and early motherhood, I totally identified with this description of myself as chameleon. I had indeed skillfully navigated friendships and relationships by taking on the interests and communication style of others.
Having this realisation about my relationships with others was unsettling. I felt like being a chameleon meant I had lost something of myself along the way. It was as if the discovery of one part of me had made the core of me a mystery. I wondered, ‘do I even know who I am and what I like and what I believe in? What is me and what is everyone else?’
I unravelled this, trying to go back to the youngest me I could remember. There are parts of my childhood I recalled that are inalienably me – my passion for books and writing, my imagination, and the kindness I wanted to show my siblings and parents.
There are also many memories from an early age of being confused about people – my mum saying she was ‘fine’, when I could feel her anger or pain like an arrow through my heart, my teacher maintaining tight control while I could feel anxiety and frustration bubbling up, my friend seeming happy in the playground when I could sense her heart was sad. I remembered the overwhelm of being a child and feeling other people’s energy, especially the adults around me.
When searching my memories, I couldn’t recall a desperate desire to be like everyone else (It’s still not something that drives me as an adult).
The more I processed my early memories, the more I knew that being a chameleon was not about a lack of self knowledge, nor needing to compensate for social skills or mimic others to fit in. It was about absorbing other people’s energy and reflecting back what they needed at the time – fun friend in the playground, good student, helpful daughter.
How did I cope with constantly knowing other people’s pain and anger and anxiety? How did I deal with being hyper-empathic? I moulded myself in a way that helped others feel comfortable. I reflected back exactly what I sensed that they needed – confidence, sarcasm, laughter, silliness, joy, quiet. I didn’t show all of myself to them, especially if I could tell they couldn’t handle my emotions. I folded myself up all tiny and quiet to make the other person as comfortable and emotionally safe as I could. Because that is also what made me safe.
When you’re an empath, you can’t control when you feel the energy of other people. It can sometimes be very difficult to actually separate other people’s energy and emotions from my own. I can in many ways become the other person. I am a chameleon, yes. But born out of an unspoken deep connection and understanding of the other person.
I wish that more people could understand hyper-empathy and how it impacts autistic people. Just as we are more sensitive to the sensory input of the physical world around us, we are often more sensitive to the energy and the emotions of the people around us. Many autistic traits are a result of being so in tune with other people’s energy that it literally hurts. Shutting down to others emotions and taking them on without discrimination are two sides of the same coin.
Autistic people shouldn’t be shamed for how we handle our extreme sensitivity to other humans. I once took statements like this by an ‘autism expert’ onboard “Girls who have ASD can be chameleons, changing personas according to the situation and no one knowing the genuine person”
I think that this way of understanding chameleons is harmful, making those around us feel they are missing a secret version of us hidden underneath. It undermines our confidence in an actual skill that we have.
Autistics are so often criticised as lacking understanding of others and lacking social and communication skills. Why can’t it be a strength when we do this well?
What if we saw being mouldable and adaptable as a gift? What if we saw the knowing and reflecting back of others true selves as a gift?
I know that in my family relationships, friendships and my work with other people, being able to channel other people’s essence, their energy and their emotions, is more a gift than a curse. It is something that I have grown to appreciate and love about myself.
What has helped since developing an understanding of hyper-empathy as a gift rather than a curse, is honing my own sensitivity so that I can separate my own energy from other people’s energy. Regular meditation practice and daily sensory breaks have really helped with this. Choosing the people I am in relationship with carefully, and taking lots of downtime from other humans has been an important coping strategy.
These days, I am definitely less chameleon-like than I was in my teens and 20s. As my heart has stretched over the years, my empathy and responsiveness to people’s pain has intensified too. But I am also more proud of all of this as a central part of my being that’s connected to a deep sensitivity and compassion for others.
“I think I’ll stay in pieces. I can shift them, rearrange, depending on the day, depending on what I need to be. I can change on a whim and be so many different girls and none of them has to be me.”
― Katja Millay, The Sea of Tranquility