I Am PROUD To Be Autistic
Today is Autistic and Neurodivergent Coming Out Day. So I’m going to give you my story.
I am autistic. I have always been autistic. I did not become autistic when I got my diagnosis at 35, nor did I spend my adult life to that point not being autistic. In point of fact, I spent my first 35 years trying to pretend that I was not autistic, because I learned very quickly that the way I was was Not OK.
My regression in development happened later than the typical story of an autistic child. Instead of becoming withdrawn and less verbal around the age of 2-3, I was a hyperlexic child who had difficulties modulating my voice and coordinating my limbs but was otherwise happy and healthy until about age 6.
I had spent my preschool and kindergarten years in a Montessori school with plenty of sensory materials and room for me to develop at my own pace, but at 6 years old I moved to a more structured program with less sensory input and a more public school-like atmosphere, complete with the arbitrarily strict schedules and the social issues that elementary-aged children learn. Almost immediately, I began to lose skills: within a year, I couldn’t skate; within a few months I could no longer climb across a set of monkey bars; I had just learned to ride a bike with training wheels and I stagnated there, not taking them off until I was about 12. Math lessons in first grade somehow broke my brain and I stopped progressing there – now I’m nearing 40 and I still count on my fingers because numbers don’t make sense to me.
In second grade, I transitioned into public school. It was about a week in before my teachers and every other kid in my year knew there was something “off” about me. My math skills slipped further, my physical skills fell well behind my peers, and my social skills remained where they had been at age 5. My classmates laughed at me; my teachers seemed to take satisfaction in my every failure.
And now, in my late 30s, I am PROUD to be autistic.
I’ve learned how my brain works. And how it doesn’t, unfortunately. I’ve figured out that I have no sense of time and struggle with time management (which makes blogging surprisingly hard), and I’ve learned that I need several to-do lists, written and electronic, to keep up with my life. And where other people can use a plain black-and-white list, I need to color-code to separate the information. I know now that I have no sense of direction and easily get lost, but that’s what GPS is for. It’s true that I will never be a great housekeeper, but I know how to kick my butt into keeping my home sanitary, if not gleaming, and I’m ok with that.
I’ve coined a catchphrase for myself: “My brain is a pinball chasing shiny squirrels”. It encapsulates all the odd things about my brain: the bouncing from one idea to the next, the running off after random thoughts and going down rabbit holes until I completely forget where I was originally, and the synesthesia, the blending of perceptions that causes me to mix metaphors into something that makes perfect sense to me, even if others can’t understand it.
I love my autistic brain. I love the full-brain, all-over happiness I get when I touch a GoodFeel texture. I love the Zen-like soothing feeling of rocking at the right rhythm and wavelength. The joy of stimming cannot be overstated. I was a dancer for almost 20 years before I knew I was autistic, so the idea of using my whole body to express and embody my feelings was second nature to me – and I still use dance as a stim along with rocking, happyflapping, leg bouncing, pen clicking, and other fidgeting. I love knowing my favorite movies and shows backwards and forwards and reciting them as I watch. It may be annoying to other people, but it’s a big old dopabean for me!
I love the fact that I see things other people don’t. Little details, patterns that jump out when I let my eyes and ears unfocus, things people miss when they only look at the surface. I love the fact that music is a physical thing, a whole-being experience, for me and that different songs can make me cry, make me squeal with delight, strike me with fear, or immediately relax me. I love having my obsessions (or special interests, if you prefer). Diving headfirst into a fictional universe, a historical subject, a scientific topic, or even just a hobby is SO MUCH FUN! It’s like falling in love over and over, only there’s no painful breakup, because if you lose interest, you can just stop. And there’s always a few obsessions that hold on over time: my love of Old Hollywood and classic musicals, the Addams Family, Star Trek, Harry Potter, Douglas Adams, British comedy, dance, plants and gardening, stitching and knitting. Those are the loves I can always come back to, no matter what happens in my life; they are always the same, they are always safe, and they are always there for me.
Above all, I love my expanded empathy. Being autistic means I feel in ways other people don’t. I feel EVERYTHING. It’s hard, I won’t lie. It can be incredibly overwhelming sometimes and it can make it frightening and hard to be around crowds of people even when the rest of the sensory environment is quiet and calm. Sometimes it means that I prefer the company of animals to that of people – animals are smaller and they don’t say one thing while they mean another, they don’t try to hide their emotions. But it also means that I love with a depth and a fierceness that most people can’t even fathom. My heart is an open book, for all its walls and scars, and I love freely until I inevitably get hurt. And I know, after so many years, that I will get hurt, and I choose to love anyway, because I can. I can accept people as they are, which everybody needs, and I do it because I spent so long not being accepted because of the way I am. I love that I can feel a change in someone’s energy, that I can read the feeling of a room as I walk in, and that it gives me a way to protect myself and others. I especially love being able to *just be* with autistic children – just being in the same space and letting them know we’re both ok doing what we’re doing and being who we are. You might not think they catch that, but as a former autistic kid, I can tell you, they do. And it means so much.
While it was hard, at first, to reconcile myself to the idea of “being disabled”, my diagnosis was a great liberation for me. I spent 35 years thinking I was a failure at being human, and I hated myself for being so hopeless at the basic things everyone else did so easily. When I was diagnosed, my reaction was the same one I’ve heard over and over among autistic adults: “I’m not broken, I’m just autistic”. It was the greatest forgiveness I’ve ever known, and it enabled me to learn to love myself as much as I’ve always loved other people.
Now I understand myself and I no longer hate myself for not being “normal”. I allow myself to be just as I am and I don’t push myself to be like everyone else. I recognize, celebrate, and enjoy all the cool things about my neurology. I still have some issues I’m working on from a lifetime of masking, but I can honestly say I am happy, healthy, and terrific! (Shout out to my high school drama teacher, Anna Aslin!)
So now I can say: I am PROUD to be autistic!
Happy Autism Acceptance/Pride Month, everyone! Remember, go #RedInstead, #LightItUpGold, or show your Infinity symbols with pride! Share your Autistic Pride in the comments!