What You See Isn’t Always What You Get

Growing up, I’d always compared myself to my friends. As a child, I was painfully aware of the differences between myself and my classmates – socially, I struggled to make friends, but academically I was performing well above my age group. I preferred reading about archaeology in a quiet corner of the classroom instead of playing make-believe games in the playground. I spoke precociously, like a Radio 4 host had been shrunk down to the size of a 5-year-old girl. It almost felt as though my peers had been given a book on how to act, how to talk and how to socialise, and somehow, I’d missed out on my copy.

In secondary school, I began to put a lot of effort into masking behaviour – essentially, I was pretending to be neurotypical. I mimicked body language, facial expressions, matched my voice to the lilting tone of the other girls in my class. I began to make friends! It was tiring, but if pretending to be ‘normal’ meant I was able to fit in, I was going to use as much mental energy as it took to be part of the crowd.

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I made it through university, got my first job, and then – on the verge of burnout – my GP suggested I should be evaluated for autism.

So, there it was – I was autistic. I’d been trying – and failing – to be neurotypical. Over the past few years since my diagnosis, I’ve realised a lot of my perceptions of other people were completely and utterly wrong.

I had always seen others effortlessly navigate social situations and casual conversation, while I swung between mutism and long, one-sided garbled speeches about one of my special interests (anyone fancy a 3-hour debate about genealogy?!). Other people, normal people, could simply go into a shopping centre for a full day, buy a new wardrobe of clothes, and then have the energy afterwards to go for a meal in a busy restaurant. I’d have a panic attack in the first dressing room and then eat a bag of crisps on the remotest bench I could find.

It felt frustrating, not being able to do what other people can do. But, now I knew I was autistic, I realised it’s a totally unfair standard to hold myself to. There are a lot of things I am capable of that my friends may struggle with. Hyper focusing on projects and getting them done in half the time. Unbridled creativity, making reams of art in one evening. Performing comedy on stage with no script – using the masking behaviours I developed as a teen, channelling them into a character and making people laugh. Not many of my friends could do that without becoming a nervous wreck, like I would be if I had to do hours of clothes shopping.

We all have different abilities and flaws – and I was only able to focus on the strengths of others, and my own weaknesses. Social media is no different.

When we use Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, we’re seeing a curated set of experiences. The vast majority of posts people put online are chapters in a carefully written story. We see extravagant brunches in expensive venues. We see people on their holidays, posing in front of a culturally significant landmark in a hot country. There are photos of people with their family, smiling and hugging each other as they celebrate Grandma’s 70th birthday.

A feeling might grow inside you, maybe you feel it in your stomach. Jealousy? I don’t get to go on holiday very often. Maybe it’s guilt? That salad looks really healthy. I should eat better. Envy? I wish my family would just get on with each other, their family looks so happy!

But what aren’t we seeing? Nobody is posting photos of their cheap and hurried ramen noodle lunch. There are no photos posing in the Post Office queue in the rain on a Tuesday afternoon. Not many people would put a picture online of their family having a huge row over whether or not their teenage sibling should be allowed to skip Grandma’s birthday to go and hang out with their mates.

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Everybody, ESPECIALLY on social media, is masking to some extent. Everyone is pretending to be a better version of themselves. Your friends do it. Your family does it. I do it. If you use social media, you probably do it too. Not that we ought to be posting about the boring minutiae of our day (although if you’re interested, I’ve just switched the brand of fabric softener I use) but instead, we should view social media as an exaggeration of other people’s lives.

I’ve limited the amount of social media I use over the past few years. I’ve muted some people. For the most part, I’m happy using social media without comparing myself to the seemingly incredible lives led by those I follow.  What you see on social media isn’t always what you get.

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