by Melody Tan  |  21 April 2019  |

Jessica has always appeared to be a normal child. Sure, she didn’t have a large circle of friends at school—only one or two at a time—but that could easily be explained away by the fact she was shy and an introvert.

She had set routines and didn’t like unexpected change, but had an enormous capacity to show kindness to those who were suffering.

While articulate and intelligent, she did face some academic difficulties with writing. But she persevered, and eventually received qualifications in design from what would be the American equivalent of a community college.

It took living away from home and recovering from a highly damaging relationship for the truth about her to surface.

“She could be hostile one minute and heartbreakingly despairing the next,” her mom, Tracey Stewart, told ABC News.

Jessica was initially diagnosed as suffering from borderline personality disorder before they finally discovered—at 23 years of age—that she was actually on the autism spectrum. (Autism tends to be diagnosed in children from as young as two).

In recent times, there’s been a growing worry in the medical community that girls and women are going through life with undiagnosed autism, thanks in part due to the male bias of autism diagnostic tools, but also because of a girl’s innate talent to “fit in” and appear “normal.”

Social Masking

“Social masking” is the term Dr Ritu Campbell, a psychologist who specializes in the diagnosis of autism, uses.

This means that these girls have in effect learned how to behave in social situations from copying others and from memorizing the different types of common social scenarios and playing their part extremely well.

Social masking is a phrase I am all too familiar with, even if I have never named it as such. To me, it was simply “fitting in” and “being normal.”

My confession may come as a surprise to some. After all, much of my career has been spent being in the limelight, so to speak. When I first started as a journalist, I had to approach strangers in order to interview them. I also have no trouble writing about my personal experiences and struggles, which have been published in various publications.

Today, I am on a show that airs on national TV, I edit both a print magazine and a website, I speak and present in front of crowds, I have to do promotions and marketing to the public, and I continue to write, although maybe not as extensively. People who “know” me from all of my endeavors would often class me as an extrovert.

Let me set the record straight: I am a very strong introvert.

While I won’t go so far as to profess to be even remotely on the autism spectrum, I have always felt what would most commonly be referred to as “socially awkwardness.” Small talk baffles and frustrates me, approaching strangers or having them approach me frightens me, and big crowds and noise disorientate me.

How I’ve managed to get through life is thanks to what I now know to be called social masking. My behavior in public has been very much learned and memorized. I’ve spent a long time—and continue to spend it—observing what “normal” people say and do in order to mimic them. I manage to (I think) successfully do what I do for a living because I tell myself I need to get a job done.

So I get by. I survive. I even thrive. It looks like I belong. I have a family that I love and adore, a career with meaning and purpose, and a church community where I hold positions, volunteer and participate actively.

On the Fringes

But as they say, looks can be deceiving, because while I know wholeheartedly that I unequivocally belong with and to God, when it comes to being part of the church family, I hover on the fringes.

It’s a strange dichotomy: Our spirituality is a personal journey that we have with God, and yet what impacts our spirituality can sometimes hinge so much on community. We are called to worship together, to pray together, to study the Bible together, to serve together, to experience life together. Find a church family, and they will support you. End of story.

But what if you just don’t quite fit in? What if you feel like you’re standing in the middle of a crowded church but there’s a thin sheet of glass that surrounds you? So, while it looks like you’re in the group, you’re actually just an observer?

As Pastor Erin Wathen writes in Christian website Patheos, “The programs and ministries and rhythms of communal life all require a great deal of outward work for those . . . participating. Congregations, then, become creatures of external drive . . . created by extroverts, for extroverts. Or at least, by introverts who are performing extroverted functions in at least part of their role.”

Even forming relationships—this so-called communal life—requires some form of extroverted function. You need to be able to make the small talk and find the connection. And that’s why I’ve never completely felt like I belong: I have that innate awkwardness within me. I can’t form connections quickly because I don’t know how to, often because I don’t have the right things to say.

The Church for Those Who Are Different

Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a cry for help. I’m just trying to do is point out that sometimes, things aren’t quite what they seem on the surface, and that there are often those who feel like outsiders among us.

I’m OK with not quite feeling like I belong, because I have a husband who understands me, a child who adores me, an extended family who will always be there for me, and a small handful of loyal friends who ignore my sometimes—often—awkward behavior.

Most of all, I find my identity and worth in a God who knows me, who created me and who I know unequivocally will make my paths straight (see Proverbs 3:5, 6).

So I’m OK. I’m happy. I’m fulfilled. I’m functioning. And also made keenly aware of those in our church, in our communities who don’t feel like they belong, but who may not necessarily have an alternate support network as I do.

Where are we, as a church community, for those who are just that little bit different from us (emotionally, mentally, physically or chronologically), who don’t quite fit in and who hover on the fringes?

I am a strong believer that Christianity can’t be done alone, no matter how strong of an introvert you are. You need a community around you, to encourage you and more importantly, to balance you. Too many fanatical ideas have been born from isolation (of course, it can be argued that too many fanatical ideas have also been stoked by community, but that’s another argument for another day).

So it’s of vital importance that church is a church for those who are different, who don’t fit in and who hover on the fringes. But where do we go from here? I have no answers, only a plea: That we look at the way we do church, the way we do community and find one that doesn’t simply accept, but actually cater to all types.

Otherwise, too soon, we’ll find that church is a place only for those who know how to play the correct parts and say the correct words.

Melody Tan is a magazine editor, features writer and television presenter. When she’s not at a computer typing her life away, she enjoys snowboarding, traveling, beach activities and the not-so-grandmotherly activity of knitting. She lives in Sydney with her husband and son.

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