It’s Autism Acceptance/Pride month and, surprise, I’m #ActuallyAutistic!
Loved ones reading this will probably be genuinely surprised by this.
How do I know that? Because I took a risk and told a friend, despite the stigma I might face, and she was genuinely shocked. “Really? I never would have guessed that.” she told me.
The obvious explanation for this is because the vast majority of people have one image in their mind of what autism looks like. This is despite the saying that if you’ve met one autistic person you’ve met one autistic person because we all sit uniquely on a spectrum. There’s the common misconception that because I’m autistic I don’t feel empathy. The truth is I feel and express empathy in a different way to you. Because of this misconception I often stress that I’m not expressing enough empathy or expressing it in a way that others will understand. For the purpose of this blog and proving that my case of autism that is unique to me includes feeling and expressing empathy I asked 12 friends if they believe I express empathy. They all said yes, even going as far as to say “yes absolutely- more so than most I would say.” (Thank you for reassuring me and warming my heart Lauren.) So now I ask one thing of you, before you continue any further with this blog post or even just with your day, please be open minded and challenge the way you look at autism.
I want to explain the less obvious explanation though. The explanation you most likely would only already understand because you’re autistic or know somebody close to you who you’re aware is autistic. It’s something many autistic people do and the reason why it’s harder to diagnose woman.
Side note: to believe autism is a male dominant condition is to believe old disproven studies. Women have autism they’re just harder to diagnose.
Why is that side note relevant? Because it all comes back to a trait called masking.
In the most simple way to explain it “masking” is basically a technique of masking your autistic traits so you can pass as “normal”. It’s something that you learn, it’s not natural, it’s not intuitive and we often mess it up which causes stress. But understand that my messing up with masking doesn’t mean I don’t care about the situation in the moment or that I lack empathy or am a bad person. It means that I’ve failed at attempting to override my default behaviours while attempting to keep you comfortbale.
Loved ones don’t pick that I’m autistic not because I don’t have the symptoms but because I hide them so well that you think I’m “normal” and don’t fit into your idea of autistic.
I’ve spent 20 years trying to balance masking and just being me. The more I mask the less of me you see because I’m not being myself. I’m, instead, being the image of normality that makes you most comfortable.
But why does your comfort mean more than mine simply because you’re “normal” and I’m “different”.
Masking can be so damaging in so many ways. I’m constantly telling myself that others comfort comes before my own. I tell myself daily that I’m different and that’s weird. I tell myself that I can’t be myself because that’s not okay, that my existence is wrong, that I can’t be free to be me like everyone else can. Masking increases my anxiety because I’m constantly anxious and on edge about passing as “normal”. Did I respond to that correctly? Are the emotions I’m feeling right now valid? Should I be feeling something different? Am I talking the way I should be rather than the way I want to? Did I just let an autistic trait slip? Am I making this person I’m interacting with uncomfortable because of that slip up? On and on and on it goes. Living your life forcing yourself to ignore your own emotions, wants and needs because of how the world will see you if you stop masking. Not being able to trust yourself on anything.
How do you think that makes one feel?
The answer: horrible.
It causes internalised hate towards yourself for being human. I’m just a human and I don’t deserve to hate myself just to keep others comfortable. We talk about loving and accepting our loved ones as they are or at least that’s a note of morality that I’ve picked up from others along the way. But I’ve also picked up that that doesn’t seem to apply to autistic people. We’re too busy trying to change them to fit society’s image of normal instead. There’s no need to change us though. Just like any other human we have our flaws and highlights but ours seem to differ to the “norm” a little. Instead of trying to change what you see as a flaw, try focusing on encouraging the highlights.
Don’t force me to look you in the eye because it makes you more comfortable when I’m reading your face in a way you wouldn’t be able to do because you get all of your information from eyes. I’m not looking into your eyes but I can see the information I need from your facial expressions related to your feelings.
Don’t force me to stop self-stimming unless it’s harmful which most of the time it’s not. Does it actually even affect you in the slightest if I smack my lips, shake my hand about or fiddle? All it does is help me feel comfortable and express happiness. Why is that so wrong? It’s not hurting you.
Don’t force me to stop interacting with and investing in my specialised interests. I really do know that the amount of plushies on my bed, the amount of instruments I want to learn or the amount of toy trains I play with does not affect anybody but me. How could that possibly have any effect on you unless you are closed minded and think that people should have limits in what they enjoy and how much they are allowed to enjoy that thing? When I put it like that I bet it sounds quite absurd. That’s because that’s the truth without the masking sugar coating of a situation to make “normal” people comfortable and it truly is an absurd way of looking at things.
Twitter user @mykola said “It just means that as long as we put forward sustained effort every day for our entire lives we can feel more or less normal. And we learn to hate our real selves.” When he said “we learn to hate our real selves” the familiar feeling I still struggle with came creeping to the surface and it genuinely hurt. He went on to say that masking can lead to not knowing who you are because you’re so caught up in being someone else, someone accepted, instead of being ourselves. When he brought that up I was sad that I couldn’t deny my own experience with that.
By all this lack of acceptance and forcing people to fit into a bubble that doesn’t truly exist you are stripping people of who they are and teaching them to hate themselves without any justifiable reason. You just don’t like differences despite those differences making me the amazing person my loved ones love.
And that’s why autistic people call April Autism Acceptance/Pride Month instead of awareness month. The problem with the world and autism isn’t awareness it’s acceptance and not allowing autistic people to take pride in who they are.
This April I will stop hiding my diagnosis.
This April I will begin the journey to stop masking so much.
This April I will start to let the real me shine rather than the masked me.
This April I take pride in who I am.
This April and every month after I am Renée, I am autistic and I am proud of who I am.