Keeping Up Appearances

I’ve read that autistics tend to not care about their appearance. I did. In a certain sense. In elementary school, I always made sure my hair was perfect. I would wake up–on my own–at 5:30 to take a shower every morning. I had to wear dress shoes because only those were all-leather and fitted with a Thomas heel, which was necessary because of my feet and hip problems, but I did not have to wear the dress slacks and button-down shirts I wore literally every day everywhere, including to school. That’s why I said, “In a certain sense.” After all, as you can perhaps well imagine, my classmates all thought I dressed ridiculously, and they made fun of me over it. Even my closest friend encouraged me quite often to wear jeans.

When I started high school in the mid-80s, I started wearing jeans. Acid-washed jeans, but not regular jeans, and certainly not any with holes in them (as was the other trend of the time). I did not change that look until I started trying to dress in a sort of “grunge fashion,” which I got all kinds of wrong by wearing regular button-down shirts (as opposed to flannels) unbuttoned over t-shirts. Now I mostly just try to be comfortable, wearing shorts when I can and t-shirts. I avoid long-sleeve shirts because I cannot stand for anything to touch my wrists.

I wonder to what degree autistics “don’t care” about their appearance vs. caring but being unaware of how their appearance looks to others. Perhaps people mean autistics are less likely to brush their hair or perhaps even their teeth. But has it occurred to anyone that someone who is sensitive to touch may find brushing their hair to be an activity that actually causes pain? Has it occurred to anyone that mint might be such an overwhelming flavor and feeling to someone who is autistic that they would avoid brushing their teeth? Given there are few non-mint toothpaste flavors out there (almost all for children, especially after the lemon and orange flavors disappeared from the shelves), and given the “hot” flavor of cinnamon toothpaste likely being a turnoff for many autistics, is it surprising there are autistics who avoid brushing their teeth?

So this issue is a more complex one than neurotypicals realize. As with many things, “not caring” is perhaps a neurotypical projection of neurotypical motivations onto autistic behaviors. That is, they look at an autistic person who is dressed a certain way or doesn’t brush their hair or doesn’t brush their teeth or doesn’t wear deodorant, and thinks, “Well, if I did/didn’t do those things, it would be because I didn’t care.” But that’s simply not true. It’s no more true than if an autistic were to say, “That person has nothing they are completely and totally obsessed about? Why, they must not care about anything at all!” (But that is what we autistics secretly think about all you neurotypicals! 😉 )



7 thoughts on “Keeping Up Appearances

  1. Ohhh man… in Year 7 of high school, I dressed up to go to an Inter-School Christian Fellowship BBQ at a teacher’s home. It was summer.

    I’d dressed up to impress Kristie. I was wearing navy blue trousers, black shoes, a black belt, a blue skinny leather tie, a long-sleeved shirt and a woolen vest.

    Everyone else was wearing T-shirt and jeans.

    Kristie was not impressed.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I need to show this great piece of yours to my mother. Since learning about sensory processing disorder and realizing that my daughter has some of that, I can’t stop but wonder if SPD might be the reason why she doesn’t want to do or like doing certain things. I don’t push her much. I try to give her options when she clearly resists something. For instance, there is one particular sweatshirt she fights and resists wearing. I cannot find the reason. I have checked for tags, seams, a loosen thread somewhere, rubbed it against my face to see of it scratches… whatever it is, it is a mystery to me and, with her being non-verbal, I don’t know the reason. But if I pull another sweatshirt, she puts her arm out so I can help her put it on. My mother keeps insisting to get her to wear that sweatshirt as it is still new (she might have worn it twice.) I tell my mother to consider that maybe my daughter feels something that we can’t and we should respect her because we do not know what she feels. But she clearly dislikes it and goes into a frenzy when she sees that sweatshirt coming out if the closet.

    I have noticed what you said about toothpaste. She is in a phase where she wants to brush her teeth all the time (she’s 3 years old.) But this also started to happen once I got a different toothpaste, tutti fruttu flavoured. Before this one, forget about teaching her to brush her teeth. Now she wants to do it all the time.

    I am learning a lot through observing her. The biggest lesson so far, that not everything that is the norm is right and could be done differently, getting to the same results. And that my norm may not be her norm. And that doesn’t mean that her way is wrong. Her way may not only be the right way for her, but it might also be a better way for me.

    Just because I see the forest as a group of trees, it doesn’t mean that individual trees don’t form a forest. Like a lady I know who has Asperger’s once said to me, “You see the forest diet and then you see the tree with its leaves; I see a leaf, then I see more leaves, and then a branch, and then a crown, and a trunk, and another leave that does not belong to that tree but another tree and the same happens with branches, crown, and trunk, but I eventually see the forest, same way you eventually see the tree. You go from general to detail and I go from details to general. But we both see the forest one way or another.”

    I try to let my daughter show me her leaves and forest and life us happier for both of us.

    Thank you for yet another insightful post. 😊

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Your post brought back memories… I am not autistic but I have rarely felt like I had much affinities with the majority, and I remember when, all of a sudden, if you didn’t wear jeans in elementary school, you were an idiot (what’s funny is that I started wearing jeans and then never stopped – I’m wearing some now – because I find them so versatile and comfortable, so I probably passed for a social idiot later on when jeans were considered as “not bold enough”). I also agree that many times, “not caring” might mean “not understanding what is expected”. That was a difficult task back then. You know the worst part is that no one knew how to act in elementary and highschool, including the ones that did the teasing. Many of them told me years later when I saw them again that they were pretty much as terrified as anyone else to be judged at the time. Their method, I guess, was taking the offensive? Good grief, talk about useless stress, as if things weren’t stressful enough already!

    My son is autistic and I remember that sometimes, he was hesitant to brush his teeth. We hadn’t thought of the strong taste problem at the beginning because he didn’t explain himself. Eventually, my young daughter made the same exact face that my son was making and said that it was too “spicy” or something like that. Their dad didn’t connect the dots and was insisting, understandly getting irritated because we had to leave for work, but I understood right at that moment that the taste was just too strong – it was even unanimous among the kids! Temple Grandin always talks about the importance of studying sensory problems and distinguishing them from “behavioral problems”. There was no need to get angry, they weren’t being difficult : a different toothpaste and you’ve got a couple of motivated kids (most of the time 🙂 )

    Liked by 2 people

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