Being autistic is being set up to fail again and again, and having your inevitable failure attributed to your disordered brain.
Being autistic is being set up to fail again and again, and succeeding anyway and having your success attributed to treatments.
Being autistic is succeeding anyway, and being told that your success doesn’t matter because you still aren’t what your parents wanted.
Being autistic is having strangers pity your parents because of you.
Being autistic is having strangers express their pity in your hearing, because you obviously can’t understand them.
Being autistic is being bullied and abused every day and being sent to therapy for it, because you’re the one whose social skills are considered lacking.
Being autistic is expressing what you think, feel, and desire, and being told that you are in denial.
Being autistic is having other people dictate how you really feel.
Being autistic is being denied the things you enjoy “for your own good.”
Being autistic is being told so many times that your pain is pleasure and your pleasure is pain that you come to believe it.
Being autistic is being driven to extreme frustration every day, and being autistic is having the frustration inflicted on you blamed on your autism.
When I thought about what to write for Autistics Speaking Day, I considered what a cruel bind autistic self-advocates are put in when we discuss our struggles. Frankly acknowledging the hardships we face is interpreted by anti-autistic factions as evidence of the inferiority of our condition, proof that autism is suffering and we would be better off cured. Emphasizing, instead, the benefits, strengths, and exceptional abilities of autism, though, brings charges that we are whitewashing the disadvantages, or that we are so minimally impaired as to be not really autistic. This conveniently absolves pro-cure neurotypicals of the role they and their pathologizing attitudes play in autistic hardship.
My father always told me that I had an exceptional mind. This was why I could read adult books and decipher arithmetic and follow his wandering lectures on various topics at barely four years old. He didn’t mind that I was unable to speak to my peers; it only reduced my vulnerability to being corrupted by them. While he undeniably overestimated my superiority, his unconditional support was a lifesaving counterbalance to the relentless messages to the contrary from teachers, therapists, relatives, peers, and strangers.
A few of my earliest memories involve being introduced at a family gathering and discussed. Why doesn’t she talk? What’s wrong with her? I’m so sorry…. School was worse, with its buzzing lights and pushing crowds and devious people my size hellbent on poking, kicking, grabbing, and beating me into submission. The teachers occasionally intervened, but mostly allowed it in the hopes that I would learn to assert myself. I didn’t.
I was sent to doctors and therapists who claimed that my idiosyncrasies were the result of emotional dysfunction, trauma, or low self-esteem. After prolonged indoctrination, I began to half-accept their premises. I didn’t start out believing that my sensory seeking and social awkwardness was based on a desire to punish myself, but after being told this so many times, I couldn’t help but doubt myself. Their propaganda became self-fulfilling as I began to believe that I was dysfunctional and deserving of punishment. In any other context, this would be called severe emotional abuse, but for neurodivergent children, it is considered necessary treatment.
As I got older and more articulate, the discrimination I faced for being autistic changed forms. Because I appeared intelligent, people could not fathom that I would have difficulty understanding basic things like figures of speech, subtext, visual-spacial perceptions, and pop culture references. I could not, in their minds, have legitimate difficulties, so I must have been rude, or lazy, or intentionally obtuse. The slightest mistake would undo my hard-earned status of hyper-competent and instantly reduce me to my childhood status of “insane.” As I as so intimidated by the prospect of being outed, I learned to nod along and feign understanding. Appearing competent became much more important than being competent, which led to some of the most devastating poor decision-making of my life.
When I became a parent, however, the illusion of normalcy was stripped away. My firstborn inherited my autism, and I had to invent my own way of helping her. Institutional support for parents of autistic children, focused on treatments and cures and the obsessive quest to make children as normal as possible, was repugnant to me, and I refused to let my daughter suffer the way I had. What we lacked was a model for support and learning that was not based on a disorder-treatment model. This is what the neurodiversity movement is trying to build through the personal stories of autistic people, in their own words. Personal stories in which the very real pain and suffering and struggles and obstacles faced by autistic people are not arguments against autism, but arguments against the oppressive model into which autistic people are painfully forced. Autistics are speaking out and will not be silenced. We do not want a cure. We do not want to be made normal. We do not want to prevent future autistic children. We want radical social restructuring such that future autistic children are accepted, nurtured, and supported, and we won’t need silence campaigns for our voices to be heard.