What does it mean to be human?

What does it mean to be human? It is one of those impossible questions people have contemplated for years with no clear answer. It is a question I have considered in my life. Why? People around me appeared to be having a collective human experience from which I was strangely separate. While what you see in me might make you think of me as a well-integrated human, living almost killed me.

Due to my various abilities I am a functional human most of the time – but there are times when the functional façade collapses. I do think everyone adjusts their approach to the circumstances – for example, by acting professionally when attending work. However, for me, adjusting to be functional is difficult to reconcile with the effort it requires, whether that is at work, at home with close family, or just navigating daily life.

There is a great deal of advice which tells you to “be yourself” for success and happiness. It implies people should be liked when they are their authentic selves. I do not think these philosophies apply to me, or anyone else for that matter. In fact, I believe the philosophy is regularly interpreted in an unhealthy way, allowing people to place the onus for improvement on everyone else. The philosophy implies: “My base self is the ideal expression of me, I have no need to improve because I am perfect as I am. The fault is with you if you do not accept me – you need to change.” How is the “be yourself” philosophy workable if it depends on change in other people? Besides I would never accept surrendering the option of improvement to everyone else.

It is simply a fact of life that I have to be unnatural and inauthentic to function in the world and succeed. If I wanted a girlfriend, an education, a job, then putting effort into behaving in a typical manner has been required. I do not think of this as bad, and I have never intended to be deceitful – I just want to be involved with the world around me, but it is a lot of work. Perhaps it is unfair, but staying in my comfort zone would not have allowed me to be independent.**

There are those who do say my approach is dishonest, unethical, deceptive, just wrong. Being functional in this way is called “passing” in the autistic world and it does have negative consequences – I put myself in the position where I am acting so unnaturally that I feel I am not human, my mental health is negatively affected, life has to be carefully structured to cope, the energy required to be functional means I am constantly at risk of burnout, and my family is punished because I am always recovering.

It is hard to imagine what life would be like if I did not push myself to be functional. Perhaps it would be closer to what I call “Deep Dive Mode”?

When I was five years old I remember my parents retrieving me from the shower cubicle because they thought I had fallen asleep. However I was completely engaged with the sensation of the water – enjoying the experience of water droplets massaging my skin and the isolation from outside noise inside the shower. I was not asleep, I was just not responding to them because of my intense engagement with the water. Deep dive mode is a wondrous place to be, but it is not compatible with functioning in our world. It only requires a low energy investment. Probably because it requires low energy, I can devote extreme energy and attention to what I am doing. Especially if I am pursuing an interest. A great deal can be achieved in this mode because I am directing energy into my interest rather than engaging with others or survival.

My sense of exterior events, people and even my own body will be muted or non-existent in deep-dive mode. It is pleasant to be in this mode, however it does require effort for me to remain engaged with the exterior world. In fact eating, relationships, sleeping, responsibilities, and so on, all become extremely annoying. I can become fixated on something, like an activity, a song, a sensation, or a thought. Sometimes it will be enjoyable to repeat a simple act – rocking in a chair – other times I will be immersed in the pursuit of an interest.

Yes, deep dive mode is my sanctuary.**

It is a dilemma – what do you do when “being yourself” is not functional?


For me, the title of this book – Human – is a reminder and aspiration. I reminds me not feel inhuman because I am different…and being a functional human is not enough, there is more to the human experience than survival. I aspire to “be more”, Human is a challenge for all of us. Rather than aspiring to be functional, how do we make quality of life a higher priority in our own lives and for those around us?

** Quotes taken from the book Human: Finding myself in the autism spectrum.

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2 thoughts on “What does it mean to be human?

  1. Julie Postle

    Hi Warren, this is Julie, Hannah’s grandma. Congratulations on your book which I find explains so much about the autism spectrum. Through teaching & personal contacts I have been trying to fathom how we as a society can better allow for individual differences. The frustration I’ve felt in trying to stuff people into an expected mould of looks, behaviour & expectations leads to much ill health, both mental & physical.
    Allowing those who need it to have “me” time in essential aloneness is not acknowledged. For myself I regularly need to recharge my batteries alone. Since acknowledging that, my life has improved, as has my creativity in ways I never would have believed.
    Thank you for your lucid explanations of thoughts, behaviours & needs.

  2. Pingback: Human book launch | Warren Mayocchi

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