This is a day for autistic pride. We have so many reasons to be proud. Yet it remains difficult to be as proud as we should. Because for all the awareness we raise, we still feel like aliens on this planet. We do not fit in. It is hard to be proud, when many of us carry with us a sense of shame. If you are a neurotypical (NT), I would like you to understand where this shame comes from. Because every day, however unintentionally or implicitly, you expect us to behave as neurotypicals do. This is an expectation we cannot meet.
I have been told, throughout my life, I have so much potential. I could do so much more. If only I would learn to be more outgoing. I heard it as a child, before anyone knew I was autistic. I still hear it as an adult, from people who know I am an Aspie.
In school, I was an A student. I had “outstanding” math ability, “far exceeded my peers” in grammar, and was “a prepared and excellent test-taker.” In art class, my teacher said of my talent, “Such expressions of beauty and acute perception reveal a mind and soul of rare sensitivity.”
I was a good student. Good, but not good enough.
I would not take part in class discussions, they said, because I “found the contradiction or assent of others too risky.”
I had made “a decision to not communicate orally,” which “stifled my development.”
I was “unmotivated” to discuss class material, “refused to get involved,” and “had no debating skills other than with pen in hand.”
I was disruptive, disrespectful, and a discipline problem.
Consider the effect of such criticism on a middle school age child who was also a victim of bullying by his peers. It was for my own good, they said. These flaws would hold me back in life, and what a shame that would be.
“I can’t do what you ask,” I told them.
“Not can’t,” they said. “Won’t.”
They were so sure. Scornful, even. As if my choice was obvious. As if I was sitting on a treasure chest full of potential, and chose not to unlock it to see what was inside.
But at the time, I could not help but develop a sense of self-doubt. A sense I would never be good enough. A sense of shame.
As an adult, learning about the autism spectrum lessened this burden somewhat, but not completely. Our world is an NT world. It will always be an NT yardstick we are measured by. Our world values smiles, phone conversations, small talk, and fitting in with the group. It values extroverts.
As an adult, I continue to receive constructive criticism, well-intentioned, to help me reach my potential. I’m not enough of a leader. I’m not assertive enough. Not engaging or friendly enough. It still hits like a punch in the gut.
I can explain now, that I am autistic, and I may not meet these expectations. I am glad to say people are more understanding, when they know. It still bothers me though, to fall short. It hurts to have to say, “I’m sorry, I can’t do what you ask.” Not because I am defiant, or think I am special, or know better than you, or am not trying. I am differently abled, though I may not look it. “Different, not less,” is still a long way from being reality.
I’m reminded in indirect ways, too, that I fall short of the NT ideal. I’m reminded, every time your conversation swirls around me, and I’m not a part. I’m reminded, when you can’t read my mood by my expression. I’m reminded, in your moment of surprise that I didn’t anticipate what you were thinking. I look like you, but I do the unexpected. I can confuse you, and I feel guilty for that.
I also must allow for the possibility that in fact, I can, and should, be working to improve my social weaknesses. Everyone is capable of self-improvement. I don’t believe being an Aspie should give me a "free pass" against anything I find too hard. Could I be a leader if I tried? Could I have better phone skills? I don’t know. I’m not sure where the line is between “can’t” and “won’t.”
On this Autistics Speaking Day, my hope is that by sharing my point of view, NT’s may understand why I will not always meet your expectations. As one of my readers recently put it, “Too many people are not aware of how far out of our ‘skin’ we go to do things sometimes. Some of them don't realize how it is to push yourself on things that come easy for them.”
It will always be an NT world. Despite the progress we have made in autism awareness and education, I still feel that I am “chasing typical,” looking for something more that will “complete” me. Is there more of my potential inside that locked chest? Or is there nothing but an empty box? Maybe all that potential is already here, outside the box. Maybe I am squandering what I already do best, in chasing after something more that might be inside.
My hope is that a day will come when I no longer have to compare myself to the NT ideal. When I can stop chasing after what I can’t do, and start going full speed ahead at what I can do well. When I am truly free to be different, not less.
To read more posts from participants in Autistics Speaking Day, please visit the AS Day blog or Facebook page.