By Lucy Wallace
A year ago, a doctor told me she thought I was autistic. I laughed in her face. I had friends. I understood sarcasm. I didn’t like trains. How on Earth could I be autistic?
“Take the screening anyway,” she told me. “What’s the worst that can happen?”
I don’t think I’ll ever find out the answer to this question, because the best possible thing happened instead: I was diagnosed with autism, and it changed my life. Although I initially rejected the label, the more I learned, the more I realized how unconsciously I had absorbed the ubiquitous, harmful stereotypes: that autistics are all math geniuses, that we never like to socialize, that we can’t express our feelings, that we don’t have friends and that we’re basically carbon copies of Sheldon Cooper. And while some of these descriptors contain small grains of truth, collectively, they come nowhere close to painting a full picture of autism. Using only these stereotypes to understand autism is like drawing a rainbow with three crayons out of a box of 300, and then declaring that, unless they use those exact same three colors in the same configuration, the rainbows everyone else draws are not actually rainbows and should not be treated as such.
Allow me to pile on some more metaphors here. Being autistic is like playing a video game where you decided to skip the tutorial. Or being a rabbit trapped in a pond of ducks. Or living in a country where no one speaks your language. In fact, during my diagnostic interview, before I even knew I was autistic, I explained to the doctor that “social,” the language that everyone else speaks, isn’t my native language. My native language is cerebral. I operate in rules and systems and details and structures and categories. Logic over intuition. If/then statements are the closest I’ll come to flexibility. Over the years, I’ve gotten good at translating. Someone says something in social. I decode, think, devise a response, translate, deliver — all in a matter of seconds. But whatever proficiency I attained doesn’t make speaking social any more comfortable. Doesn’t make me feel any less alone.
The division between me and my non-autistic surroundings is cultural as well as linguistic. I’ve had to learn the delicate art of reciprocity: that when someone gives you a hug, you’re supposed to hug them back; that conversation goes better when I break up my typical monologues with the occasional “What do you think?”; that discussion sections are not good venues for monologues. I’ve had to finesse certain skills that most people seem to master without conscious thought. Like when you ask someone, “How are you?” — where do you put the emphasis? If it goes on “how,” then the next two words sag, and they don’t even sound like a sentence, let alone a question. I caught onto that part quickly, so I went with “how are you” and “how are you,” even though neither of those felt particularly natural, either, until I realized that people usually only emphasized the “you” only after they had already been asked and were reciprocating the question.
And that’s just the beginning, because once you ask someone how they are, then they tell you, except they don’t really tell you, because the only correct options are “good” and/or “busy” and/or “tired,” and from there, the conversation could go anywhere. Even if I manage to get all the words right, there are a million other things to do, like modulating the volume of my own voice while also trying to make out the other person’s over the background noise that always seems to bother me more than it does everyone else and trying to nod and smile and laugh and frown at all the right moments and dragging my gaze back up to their face every time it slips away.
Even ending the conversation isn’t easy, because rarely do people say, “I need to leave now” — instead, it’s an intricate, baffling choreography of jangling their keys or looking at their watch or starting to face away or reaching for their bag or saying, “I should let you go now” — meaning they were holding me hostage? Then finally, finally they’re gone and I am exhausted and the whole interaction lasted less than 10 minutes.
This is why “mild autism” is a misleading term. As has been written elsewhere on the internet, “mild autism” means that my autism affects you mildly. It means that I’ve gotten good at hiding: that I know how to stuff my hands in the pockets to keep my fingers from fluttering and inject my voice with just the right intonation and fix my eyes somewhere on the lower half of your forehead and laugh at jokes that aren’t funny. But I’m autistic whether or not you can see it, and as I learned more about autism and began to identify more strongly with that word — autistic — I realized that I don’t have to hide my socially awkward, profoundly obsessive and ridiculously introverted self. The world won’t come to an end if I don’t make eye contact. I can rock back and forth in lecture and flap my hands wildly when the professor says something cool. I can eat alone in the dining hall every single day and call it solitude, not loneliness. I can ask my friends to talk more quietly when my ears hurt. I don’t always have to prioritize other people’s comfort over my own.
Over the past six months, I have found a home in the autism community, where we indulge shamelessly in our special interests. We stim with fervor. We info-dump with pride. We value compassion over compliance. At the same time, I got used to being a Stanford student, and the more comfortable I felt with both my autistic and my Stanford communities, the more exhausting it became to switch between them. I began to wonder if it was really worth keeping these two aspects of my life separate. If each was so important to me, surely each could accommodate the other.
Could it, though? As I prepared for April, which, as Autism Acceptance Month, seemed like a good time to unite these worlds, I wondered how my advocacy efforts would be received. On campus, I’ve observed that disability rights don’t get the same airtime as certain other social justice campaigns. Only a handful of the hundreds of publicly listed student organizations are disability-specific (no mention of autism or neurodiversity). A cursory search of the course catalogue reveals just 44 results for “disability,” compared to 813 for “gender,” 287 for “sexuality,” 847 for “race” and 295 for “religion.” And while I’ve counted at least a few water bottle and laptop stickers affirming support for disabled communities, I have yet to see a single one related directly to autistic rights.
I’d spent most of my life unconsciously masking my own disability. The act of not just unmasking, but drawing people’s attention to autism, seemed dramatic, intrusive, even unnecessary. But over the past four weeks, as I’ve launched my blog, become active on Tumblr, started a YouTube channel and flooded my dorm mates’ inboxes with gif-laden emails, I’ve been met with nothing but kindness and support. In retrospect, this is hardly surprising. We might not talk about autism enough, but we are all plenty familiar with the principles in which autism acceptance is grounded: kindness, justice, diversity and respect. We are more than capable of taking these fundamental values and translating them to a less familiar context, of embracing autism as a valid and beautiful way of being.
April is over. Acceptance isn’t. Let’s make this the beginning, not the end, of the journey towards radical inclusion. And let’s not limit autism acceptance to me, or to those whose autism seems more “palatable.” Remember that autism comes in many different flavors, and all autistics are valid and worthy of respect, including, but not limited to autistics with intellectual disabilities; autistics who are unable to live independently; autistics who don’t speak; autistics who can’t hold down a job; and anyone who falls outside our society’s absurdly narrow range of acceptable ways to be. Amplify autistic voices. Learn from us, listen to what we have to say and support us in our advocacy. Feel free to contact me if you have comments or questions — I’m not exaggerating when I say that this is my favorite thing in the entire world to talk about. Read my blog, check out my YouTube channel, like and subscribe. And when we’re back on campus, carve out some space on your laptops and water bottles, because I have got so many stickers for you.
Contact Lucy Wallace at lucyw00 ‘at’ stanford.edu.
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