Autistic Mermaid Makes a Splash

Daryl Hannah, 52, talks openly about her autism.


It should be no surprise that many successful actors and actresses are on the autism spectrum if you take into account that scripting is the common means of communicative speech in autistics.

I always knew that I favored movie lines and TV personalities for picking and choosing my words in conversation.  For many years I thought that was my way of being witty and entertaining among those who may not otherwise have much interest in what I had to say.  The first time I recognized that I was mimicking a real-live person was at the age of thirteen on a trip to Disney World.  I came home with a southern accent thanks to the shuttle bus driver that picked us up from the campgrounds each day to take us into The Magic Kingdom.  Months of “y’all” later, it finally drifted away and was replaced with something new.  And while it seemed odd that I would find myself mimicking the words, phrases, gestures, and facial expressions of whomever I was spending most of my time with, I simply couldn’t help it.  It just happened.  At 16, I had grown a friendship with my brother’s wife who hailed from Massachusetts.  I admired her.  She was beautiful and smart.  We had the same creative taste.  Soon my “r”s disappeared as I found myself talking like her, making her characteristic facial expressions, and repeating her personal catch phrase “ever-loving”.  As in, “You must be out of your ever-loving mind.”

And I started to think that I was.  OUT. OF. MY. EVER. LOVING. MIND.

Until the internet came along.  You know, because if it’s on the internet it has to be true.  I read that on the internet.  I had researched and discovered that imitation or mimicry was a natural human behavior, often a subconscious form of flattery.  There was my answer!  There was nothing wrong with me, I just really liked these people!

Though as I grew older and entered into adulthood and corporate life, this pattern of imitation and scripting became increasingly frustrating as I noticed that adults don’t copy each other or speak in movie lines and I was in jeopardy of appearing like a weirdo.  Not to mention it was also becoming exhausting trying to keep up with the tangled web of adult office politics and shenanigans.  As naïve as I was to the social structure of adulthood, I knew there was no sensible structure to it at all.  I was now a professional.  Professional actor and scripting superstar.  I just had no idea what role I was playing.

The downside of communicative scripting is that it requires so much more energy to carry on an effective conversation for the person with autism.  Instead of speaking off the cuff like “typical” folks, we are listening to your words, searching for context to their meaning, then fishing around in our skull for a matching script we have memorized that will work to convey our own thoughts on the subject.  All of which has to happen in nanoseconds.  Sometimes the scripting is so subtle, even we don’t realize or recognize where it came from while we are using it.  Other times, we simply go straight for the pop culture quote and hope it’s funny and our timing is on point.  Exhausting.  There have been times I have been speaking with a friend, desperately trying to control my facial expressions and body language, and reign in my words, so that I am not caught in an obvious script or mimic of the other person.  That is tiring, too.  But if I don’t monitor myself carefully, I could end up the creepy Single White Female just because it’s so easy and subconscious to copy the person I am hanging out with.

Having Aspergers and being able to “fake it ‘til you make it” in the typical social world is worthy of an Oscar for sure.  My sister, and fellow autism mom, suggested that I become an actress when I spoke with her about my own diagnosis.  She was so shocked.  “Rachel!  My god!  You walk into a room and everyone loves you!  You’re so funny and smart!  It’s so hard to believe that you are not really that person.  Look at you!”

It hurt so deeply at first to hear such a reaction.  I should be an actress???  That’s your response??? Ouch!

But my sister taught me something very important that day and I am so grateful to her.  While the initial pain I felt was betrayal, I learned from that exchange that it was my grief for spending a lifetime acting and scripting to keep up with the world around me that hurt so badly.  I was angry that after all of this time, all the effort to engage and be a good person and a good friend was achieved with the words and actions of others.  None of which was my own.  It was all an act.

Or was it? 

If communicating with speech is the act of expressing or describing thoughts, feelings, or perceptions by the articulation of words, does it matter if my library is a virtual one?  Does that change the message or the sincerity?  Does it change the origin of such speech – my thoughts, feelings, or perceptions?

Absolutely not.  My sister sees me.  I am that woman.  I am pretty great.

So I get by with a little help from my virtual friends.  So what?  Some of them are great actors and actresses, public figures, journalists, and maybe a few are Real Housewives or cast members of Saturday Night Live.  Don’t judge.

And that’s ok.  That’s me.  That’s how I communicate.  Call it acting, scripting, or mimicking.  It doesn’t change the very authentic thoughts, feelings, and perceptions within me.  It doesn’t make me less.  Just different.  And being somewhat capable of “passing” as typical doesn’t make me any less autistic.  It just means I have worked that much harder.

I’m glad that Daryl Hannah can now talk openly about her autism.  It saddens me that it took her decades before she was able to share.  Hopefully, more stories like Hannah’s will contribute to advancing the dialogue about women and autism.  Successful women and autism, too.

How ironic that one of Hannah’s most notable performances was that of a mermaid – a mystical creature of the ocean who found chaos and discomfort within the unavoidably intriguing pull of being on land.  It can be momentarily intoxicating connecting with others, being heard, or making a Splash“.  We are wired to want to exist in reality rather than just observe it.  We want the high of friendship and intimacy without the social hangover autism hands us.

Like Daryl Hannah, we all want to share ourselves and our talents with others.  We all want the opportunity to shine without marketing strategies and press junkets to explain ourselves.

I’m autistic.  Some days I win the Oscar.  Most days I just wish for a cast and crew that love me for the scripting wizard I am and appreciate my character.  The truth is, we all work off of a script one way or another.  That doesn’t invalidate the sentiment.  If I make you laugh, I’m happy.  So what if I borrowed a few lines from Hollywood to see your smile?

You can read more about Daryl Hannah here.

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About Rachel Leslie (formerly Kenyon)

Rachel Leslie (formerly Kenyon) is an Aspie, Advocate and mom of two beautiful babes - The Boy (10) and RM (8). The Boy is a Legomaniac and RM is a kick-ass diva with Autism and 4q Deletion Syndrome. View all posts by Rachel Leslie (formerly Kenyon)

2 responses to “Autistic Mermaid Makes a Splash

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