When some adults make the realization that they are on the autistic spectrum, instead of feeling liberated, it can plunge them into feeling even worse about themselves than they did before. Before they knew what they were, they could tell themselves they just weren’t trying hard enough, or the right way, or they were just stupid, or imagining it, or it was other people’s fault, etc, etc. They had hope, in other words, that someday they would find a way out of their difficulties, and become ‘normal’. Being told you have autism, then, destroys this hope. It can feel like being told you’ve been sentenced for life.
Some try to deny this, and adopt an attitude of ‘Okay, now I know what’s wrong with me, I can fix it’ – only to find there is no ‘cure’, no magic pill or surgery or treatment to make them ‘normal’, no ‘social skills training’ that will transform them. Or they can become depressed and self-punishing (or more so, if they were already), plunging into even lower depths of self-hatred than they already were in, because ‘now I’m really fucked!’ Some end up trying even harder to be ‘normal’, and dreading anyone finding out about their ‘terrible disease’.
All of this, of course, is connected to their low self-esteem, which in turn is connected to both the highly negative public image of autism, and also to how they have been treated by those around them – regardless of whether others know they are on the spectrum or not. When you’ve had a lifetime of being laughed at, yelled at, sneered at, scorned, scolded, ridiculed, condemned, rejected, ignored, bullied and harassed; of being told you’re useless, not good enough, a failure, a loser, stupid, weird, crazy, anti-social, cold, arrogant (to list but a few of the many insults commonly thrown at us), when it’s been made abundantly clear that who and what you are is not valued in the slightest, it’s really hard to have a good self-esteem. Then you add on top of that the images of autism and Aspergers that are common in the media and the public perception – cold beings with no emotions, no interest in other people, incapable of love or empathy or caring for others, obsessed with weird things, lost in their own private worlds, often incapable even of speech; or (if a little more ‘higher functioning’) semi-robotic geeky computer nerds with no manners or social graces, no sense of humour or imagination, again no emotions, and probably with poor personal hygiene as well. It’s not a pretty picture, and why would anyone want to identify with that, or be identified with it, in other people’s minds?
The only way out of this hell of self-hatred is to find your own kind. Only in doing so, can we ‘compare notes’, discover what strengths and weaknesses we really have, start destroying the myths and the negative stereotypes (at least in our own minds), and form a truer image of what it really means to have autism. We can find support, friendship, understanding, and acceptance. We can look at other autistics and see, hey, they’re not so bad, maybe I’m not so bad either… No, we probably won’t get along with or even like every other autistic person we meet, and we may even meet some who seem to come close to the stereotypes. But the aspie/autie communities are still the only place we have where we can be ourselves, and find others like ourselves, and even more importantly start undoing the damage a harsh, unaccepting world has done us.
Because it’s time to start undoing that damage. Time to throw off society’s negative image of us, time to start believing in ourselves, to start feeling okay about our autistic selves, to realise that while we have our problems, there is nothing wrong in itself with being autistic. This is hugely important, so I’ll repeat it – THERE IS NOTHING WRONG IN ITSELF WITH BEING AUTISTIC. I doubt I could say this enough. In the past few decades women, gays, people of colour, and all manner of groups have rejected the usual negative images of them, and, believing in themselves, formed new, positive images, that in turn changed society’s image of them, and consequently how they were treated. We can do the same. But first of all we need to start with what’s in our own heads.
I’m not saying it’s easy, I know (oh, how I know!) it isn’t. And my heart goes out to all those who still suffer from poor self-esteem because of their autism/Aspergers, especially those who haven’t yet found any others like themselves, or who have (online perhaps), but are still in their day-to-day lives socially isolated and/or stuck in negative environments where they continue to be badly treated because of their autism. I know how it can be a huge struggle just to get through each day, and emotionally limp home to recharge your batteries for another round tomorrow; and how being part of some neurodiversity movement can just feel like an added burden, or as impossible as flying to the moon. I know that feeling, only too well. But even if we can’t get ‘out there’ and be some hotshot activist, we can still change in ourselves. We can reach out to others like ourselves, we can reject other’s condemnation of ourselves, we can change the image of autism in our own heads. We can realize that’s it’s okay to be different, that ‘normal’ is over-rated, that we are okay just as we are, as our truly autistic selves. We can love ourselves, and each other.
Because if we don’t, for sure no-one else will.