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.

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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

24 thoughts on “Don’t shame us for being chameleon

  1. I identify with a lot of this,I too was diagnosed with being on the spectrum in my 30s and also struggled all my life with feeling that I didn’t belong anywhere and I felt different from other people,I am also extremely empathetic and been accused of being too sensitive numerous of times,I wish I knew all this when I was growing up then maybe I find ways of coping better due to knowing that I’m not weird I’m just wired differently.

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    1. I wish I had known too. I think I did know on some level, but there was no name for it. Another reason why I think it’s great to give children words to describe themselves and their experiences.

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  2. Hi Briannon. I have not been diagnosed though have done the tests & found frequently I come out on the autistic side (personal traits especially when alone are familiar actions seen in people I know are severely autistic) & the chameleon is me to a tee. It is the first time I ever associated this trait with autism. And no I am not a hypercondriac. Really appreciated you sharing this. Thank you.

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  3. Love it 😍. I’m also in my 30’s, learned 3 years ago that I was autistic and have adhd and my hyper-empathetic experience hyper-mirrors yours. I’ve been sharing my experience with others and feels great to hear it echoed out there. Very validating 🙂

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  4. Wonderful article. Echoes my experience. I wonder why these qualities are “disallowed”?
    Meditation (and Gestalt therapy) also helped me learn to “guard my sense doors” and maintain my boundaries more clearly.
    I suspect this skill develops as an adaptive response in early attachment situations. Our survival as infants depends as much on our attunement to our parents’ needs as theirs to ours.
    I’ve seen it referred to as the “fawn” response – a fourth alternative to fight/flight/freeze – although that makes it sound like a problem rather than a skill. Sensitivity to the emotional needs of others is definitely a valuable skill!

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    1. Thank you, I haven’t heard of ‘fawn’ before, but I’m going to take a look and learn some more. I wish I understood why strengths that neurodivergent people have are so often seen in the negative; like many things about how humans behave towards other humans, it’s a mystery!

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  5. I enjoyed reading this post. Thank you. I’m a very empathetic person but people see me as cold and uncaring. I decided many years ago to shut off the empathy portion of myself because it did get overwhelming (I can still empathize but, once it starts, I push it back). I would like to allow some of the empathy to come back but I’m afraid it will “drown” me. Do you have any suggestions? Thank you.

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    1. I’m sad that people haven’t understood you or seen who you are. I have respect for people who have the ability to push back on other’s energy, and I honour that skill that you have.

      I’ll explain a little more what helps for me, and some more general ideas for you.

      I treat my hyper-empathy as a sensory difference. So I take care of that part of myself the way I am learning to do so with my other sensory needs. I live in an environment with as little sound, electonic-noise, visual clutter and artificial scents as possible given that I live with three small children and my wife. I try to clear/cleanse my mind and my body each day with meditation and a loooong shower. I take as many periods of hyperfocus on my favourite things as I can manage. I intentionally have sensory downtime before and after seeing people – in my perfect world that would be lying in a dark room or taking a shower, but with young children I often sit on the floor and read something on my phone or hyperfocus on a task that is not giving-to-others-related. I do better when I have slept well, and eaten, and don’t have a high executive function burden.

      When I am with people I really can’t stop their energy from infusing mine, just as I can’t block out other sensory input like an overwhelming perfume, or a truck driving past, or a fan blowing on me. So it really is about having my nervous system and my body and mind calm before and afterwards.

      Because I can’t block other people’s energy, I don’t do group activities or any activity where I can’t be in control of who is there. I choose who I am in relationship with carefully.

      So that’s about me! but it might not be right for you.

      Some general thoughts:
      If you’ve been really great at blocking people’s energy out, maybe you’ve also blocked yours out? Starting with showing yourself empathy is a start. Opening the door in tiny amounts to your own emotions, through a non-cognitive body activity might help – walking, swimming, meditating, martial arts, breathwork, running etc Being kind to your own energy and emotions and knowing them and saying ‘hello’ to them is the best start for letting other people’s energy in, and also being able to separate your own energy from theirs.

      If you are wanting to feel others a little more, then I would think back on a time when you’ve been able to do that safely without drowning in the past? Was it with a human, animal or other thing living or object? What was unique about that situation? What happened before or after? What was the sensory environment like? Who were you with? What were you doing? What happened after? Would you like to recreate that kind of experience?

      It might be that you already have all the skills you need to do this, and have done so in the past, so finding a way to get there again might be helpful for you…

      Feel free to contact me via the webform to talk more. Bri

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  6. Oh yes, it all sounds so familiar. I remember feeling like a raw nerve when I was surrounded by all the emotions of other people. The trouble I had was that I was always being scolded for “not minding my own business” or for reacting in inappropriate ways. It was all very confusing and painful

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    1. Hi Ute, I am sad to hear that you also felt confusion and pain. It’s hard to be so raw in the world. But in many ways I am learning that it is a gift as I age and feel less need to care about being appropriate or responding to people on the surface level when I know who they are below. I don’t know if you feel the same pain now, but I’m reaching back to your childhood self and giving you an awkward-Bri-hug.

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