Rockville, Maryland, April 7 – I remember when my parents first told me that I was on the autism spectrum. I was in high school. They gave me a document with typical characteristics of what was then referred to as “asperger’s syndrome.” I clearly fit the bill. For example, I am passionate about a small list of things. I have trouble making friends, and I am socially awkward.
But I’m ashamed to admit that I remember not wanting to call myself autistic. I knew other autistic kids at school, and how they “acted out.” I didn’t want to be associated with them. As a 16-year-old, I was the exact type of person who might have used the phrase “differently-abled” or some other euphemism to describe myself, had I known that euphemisms were an option. I’ve previously written about how I was bullied throughout my school years, and how the harassment literally kept me in the closet. I wanted nothing more than to be “normal,” to not be different.
But more than a decade later, I’m proud to be on the autism spectrum. I’ve been exposed to the perspectives of autistic people that I follow on social media and other autistic people that I’ve befriended over the years. I’ve learned that it’s not a bad thing, it’s simply who I am. I know there are some things I’m never going to be as good at as my neurotypical peers. I can’t give an impromptu speech to save my life, and networking events are super uncomfortable for me. But there are other areas where I excel. I know everything about Apple products that any one person could reasonably know. I do a great job managing websites and precisely editing videos.
I know, and am friends with, other autistic people who aren’t proud of who they are. They’re ashamed like I was. I understand why. I get weird looks from people all the time for struggling to keep eye contact or for tripping up over my words. Society is constantly trying to “cure” autism, to push autistic people into acting like our neurotypical peers. The world would be in such a better place if everyone instead just asked autistic people what WE want. I obviously can’t speak for all autistic people, but I know that I don’t want you to try and “fix” my eye contact or my awkwardness. And I can’t stand it when people talk down to me as if I’m not their equal. Put simply, I just want people to accept me for who I am.
There is so much work left to do to ensure that autistic people like myself are treated with the respect we deserve. I’m hopeful that my work at RespectAbility can play some small part in fighting the stigmas and the shame, so that other autistic people can feel comfortable embracing their full selves.