Quirk Monster #23: Reflections on Autistic Pride Day 2020
Yesterday, Thursday 18 June 2020, was Autistic Pride Day.
I am autistic and I am very proud of it.
‘Autistic’ is still a word that makes people cringe. It still has so much stigma and so many negative connotations that my use of it sometimes stops people in their tracks. Like I’ve just made an ableist slur or said an otherwise offensive word. I still watch people gasp, turn it over in their heads and immediately come back with a tentative response that uses person-first language instead. They ask me about my life ‘as a person with autism’.
That makes me cringe.
Like it lives in my purse or is a hat that I can take on and off at will — or would even want to! I find it strange that a word that has brought me so much comfort, validation and freedom, still makes people squirm. They can’t always see it as a positive. They don’t understand how I can so proudly identify with something that scares the shit out of them.
The tragedy narratives are still very much alive and well and it’s really quite sad.
Functioning labels inevitably come out next, like “Oh but you’re not like those people —you’re so high functioning”. Rude. That’s an ableist slur — two of them actually. Functioning labels are useless and damaging. People often try to reconcile how they see autism with how they see me. I don’t always match what’s in their head and instead of questioning and evolving their thinking, they try to make me fit into a neat little box that simply doesn’t exist. Don’t seek to rationalise my existence, just learn from it.
And then they ask me “Why do you have to put a label on everything?” In short, for me label equals belonging. I have a community and a shared understanding with people whose brains work in similar ways. I have a space that’s mine and it is valid and beautiful and safe. I have 3 decades of abuse and bullying behind me where I was a ‘broken’ person who was always doing the wrong thing and was only good for making other people feel angry and/or uncomfortable.
That diagnosis changed my life. Yes it was hard, but it also taught me that there isn’t and never has been anything wrong with me. Different isn’t wrong.
Immediately after my diagnosis I used terms and phrases like ‘Asperger’s’ or ‘I have autism’ until I found identity-first language. Being able to say “I’m autistic” was like coming home. I’d found my place. My feet finally touched solid ground and I felt like a person who belonged somewhere for the first time in my entire life.
I’m proud to know why I am the way I am and I’m proud to own a brain that does some incredibly cool things. I’m smart, I’m good at puzzles and I have a real knack for technical skill building across professional skills, art, music, non-team sports, language and more. I can’t drive a car, but I also can’t count the number of musical instruments I’ve played in my life on one hand either.
I’m proud to experience the world at a heightened level of intensity. Going to the mall might be my idea of torture with all those lights, sounds and crowds, but a trip to an art gallery, an hour in a squat rack, front row seats at a musical like Wicked (where I most definitely identify with Elphaba) or a behind the scenes tour of an aquarium in a glass-bottom boat is nothing short of transcendent. It’s an intense emotional high that takes me out of my body. I don’t know how else to describe it. I could get lost in a painting for several hours or come out of my powerlifting gym or a theatre feeling like I’ve never felt before.
I’m proud to be hyper-empathetic. Animals love me, the right people value and respect me and I connect so deeply with other people that I feel the things they feel. I might not be able to explain it or say the right thing when you’re hurting, but I promise you, I’m hurting too.
I could go on all day like this. I’m grateful, happy and so damn proud to be autistic.
This short article is a lived experience example shared from my life to help you understand a little bit more about what it’s like to be autistic. I am just one autistic person in a really big world. No two of us are exactly alike. I can only speak for myself and to my own experiences. If you want to know what other autistic people think — and you should — look them up, talk to them and read their work too. We all have our own voices and this is only mine. Also, please don’t be the person who feels the need to comment that what I’m describing here is applicable to ‘everyone’ autistic or not. It’s not the inclusive comment you think it is. It’s marginalising, disrespectful and dismissive of genuine support needs. If it wasn’t an issue, I wouldn’t have to write about it. Instead of shifting the focus away from a marginalised group, try listening and reflecting upon how you can do better. This article is part of a mini content series I publish to LinkedIn when I can. You can view the other articles in this series via my LinkedIn profile.