Autism Acceptance Month: My Story: How Autism Is Making Me Brave

I've slowly been coming out of the autistic "closet" for some months now. This is a real thing, if you didn't know, and it highlights one of the major issues of being autistic, particularly, as it turns out, for women.

Talking about my diagnosis has been difficult, due to various amounts of backlash in my life. But I passed my 5-year anniversary last year, and, while I didn't think I'd put a time limit on getting loud and proud (if that's what you can call it) about my Autism, the timing just feels right.

Maybe that's part of the problem, you know? Because I've been able to "pass" for so long, to hide under a guise of quirky neurotypicality, and many of my fellow Autistics haven't. I get to choose when the world "knows" about me, at a time when Autistics are speaking out for themselves louder than ever. I get to ride on that tide of "we're not going to take this shit anymore" activism, without necessarily having put in the hardcore work they have. And I feel guilty about that.

I feel guilty about a lot of things. It's kinda my go-to. Guilt has become my holy war. But that's a post for another time.

I feel guilty because I've felt for a number of years that I stole my diagnosis. Because I presented as, what was thought of at the time to be, atypically. Let's think about that for a moment, since really, how does one present as atypically autistic? But that's how it was essentially described to me. I had been diagnosed as having Asperger's, except that as of a few months after my diagnosis, Asperger's wouldn't exist anymore, so I'd be "high-functioning", except I didn't feel high-functioning, but I didn't "look" "low-functioning". At some point, what did any of it mean? I felt like I'd boarded a train I didn't belong on. I felt like a fraud.

So, I described diagnosis as an atypical presentation. That's how I would explain myself to others...and while I doubted myself and my diagnosis, I mostly used this descriptor to make others feel less uncomfortable.

Let me be clear: not more comfortable, but less uncomfortable. Because the moment you tell them, they look at you that way, the look that says that whether they believe you or not, you now have the "crazy" label. Saying I was an atypical, high-functioning autistic became a defense mechanism. "Don't worry, the reason why you never noticed is because I'm only a little autistic. I'm not going to get my crazy all over you or anything. It's cool." To be fair, not everyone reacted that way. But enough did that it made me timid.

Worse, I had people close to me telling me that I shouldn't talk about my diagnosis, that it would create those very problems, that people would think I was making excuses, or they'd discriminate, or whatever. Just as I was finding a fundamental aspect of myself, I was being told to suppress it, as if that was possible, since being unable to suppress it is exactly what led me to diagnosis in the first place. Suddenly, my diagnosis became a source of shame. I found it ironic, too, as many of these were people who preach "positivity". Here they were wanting me to see the bright side of everything, the best of myself, and they were telling me not to acknowledge an aspect of myself that made me feel happy, free, and understood (by myself, at any rate) for the first time in years. Possibly ever.

It was easy to see why people wouldn't believe me to be autistic, based on the criteria of the time. I made eye contact, was articulate (unless you got me up in front of people), have a pretty decent grasp on empathy and tact, and had found ways to use my pattern recognition, special interests, and organization skills, to be mildly successful in my school and career paths.

What people didn't see was the amount of work I'd put into masking various aspects of myself. They didn't see that, thanks to my mom, I am a good little anthropologist, and I watched people to ascertain socially-accepted behavior. I created systems of understanding and parameters for conduct. Despite these parameters being in continuous flux, I found myself having to adhere to them, regardless of my personal comfort level.

So people didn't see how I learned to curb instincts and behaviors based on others' reactions to me. Maybe they didn't notice that I was making less eye contact if I felt uncomfortable or attacked by them. They didn't see that I worked so hard to do basic tasks which seemed effortless to everyone else, that I spent more time on those things than on things that would actually get me ahead in life. They didn't see how it exhausted me, that I was on the verge of more than a nervous breakdown. I was headed for full-blown life burn out.

I certainly didn't see it.

So, when I got my diagnosis and did my early research, I had no idea what I was in for, how much I would discover about myself that is linked to autism. 

It would take years of reading and processing to get where I am today. It would take researching and finding out that the reason I presented "atypically" was because I was looking at it through the lens that many mental health professionals were: a decidedly male presentation perspective. It would take seeking out works written by female Autistics who, like me, were often dismissed for lack of those male characteristics, to understand how I really was and am autistic...a discovery that hundreds, thousands, maybe even millions of women and girls were having at the exact same time.

It would take societal and philosophical analysis (something I'm disturbingly good at) to unpack and eschew the "high-functioning" label, along with so many others describing what it means to have disability, to be "disabled", to be "normal"  (something I would later discover would put me right on par with my peers).

I would begin to feel pride in understanding where a number of my favorite personal traits and talents came from. I would have literal "ah-ha" moments upon understanding why I had meltdowns over seemingly trivial things. I would stand up for myself when those closest to me denied my diagnosis and began to pull away... Sometimes perhaps a touch too vehemently, but there it is. I would begin to recognize my sensitivities because I finally started listening to my body, the impulses and signals of which I had squashed down for years. I would do my best to (gently) educate allistic people when they inadvertently said something offensive, or simply had questions (I love questions!). And, finally, I would begin to accept my diagnosis, to own it: the good, the bad, and oh, yes, the ugly.

It's frankly been awesome.

I have an "invisible" disability, which means I have different challenges than those with more "obvious" disabilities. On the outside, I looked "normal". But what happens in the brain of an Autistic marks us as different to allistic people, and those aspects are harder and harder to hide as I get older...partly because I'm just sick and tired of doing it. And yet, my pain and challenges are no less real.

So you see, I was doing the work. I was fighting the good fight, the way anyone fights such battles... Alone. ...and yet, I wasn't so very. If you believe in a world or universal consciousness, then we were all there for each other, connected even more through the web, where physical proximity might have hindered us in our growth process.

So, as I write this blog, for Autism Acceptance Month and the many months to come, a part of me does this to show solidarity with my fellow Autistics, because they shouldn't have to do all the work of educating others and standing up for themselves - for all of us - alone.

Really, though, I do this for myself. Even as I write this, I feel an enormous sense of relief. I have hidden who I am my whole life, even - ironically - from myself. For 36 years, I struggled without being aware of it...of why. I'm tired, y'all, and I don't want to hide anymore.


There's nothing "wrong" with me. I'm normal, because there's really no such thing as "normal". It's a social construct. We all have gifts. We all have challenges. And those are unique to other aspects of ourselves. I'm a Woman, and Black, and Cherokee, Irish, a Pisces with Capricorn rising, an atheist, a pagan witch and a Taoist shaman, and a whole bunch of other things I have no reason to feel shame over.

And I am Autistic. And I love that about me.

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