Tuesday, April 30th, 2013, has been designated ‘Autism Positivity Flash Blog’ Day. I’ve been deliberating on what to write about for this. The good points about being autistic? Our strengths? Sure, there are plenty, but which to choose? But finally I realised the best thing about ‘Autism Positivity’ is that it can occur at all.
And the reason it’s able to occur, is the autistic community. We, who the ‘experts’ said were ‘anti-social’, could never form communities, create our own organisations, build bonds and ties with each other – or, indeed, with anyone - have done just that. Prior to the formation of this community, we were – and in many cases still are - isolated, muted, marooned in a sea of hostility and rejection, imprisoned by the rampant negativity and ‘hate autism’ messages that even now still dominate the public ‘discussion’ about autism. Raised to hate this core part of our very identity and selves, to collude with the concept of autism as a ‘tragedy’ and ourselves as a ‘burden’, to believe that we are worthless, unable to contribute anything to the world, many believed they would be better off dead – something many NTs were only too inclined to agree with. At best, we were objects of pity and ‘charity’, beneficiaries of the ‘poor thing, they can’t help it’ attitude. Even if we had no diagnosis, especially if we were around before diagnosis was possible, we were nonetheless conditioned to hate our ‘weirdness’. To devalue ourselves, and our ways. To deny our strengths, and at least attempt to conceal our ‘weaknesses’ or our ‘strange’ behaviours. To put up the pretense of ‘normality’, and to hope, vainly, that some day we would truly attain it, if we only tried hard enough. Certainly nearly all of us have been given that message - that if we’d ‘only try harder’ we could fit in, could be ‘just like anyone else’. We believed it. We didn’t believe in ourselves. What, after all, was there to believe in? A deficient, sub-standard creature, the only one (or so we often believed) like it in the world? A ‘lemon’ on the human production line? The rest of the world, we reasoned, could not be wrong and we right.
And then we started to meet. We started to build connections, friendships, even sometimes relationships, with each other. We began to look at each other, and think, hey, this person’s autistic, yet I really like them, they aren’t awful, aren’t worthless, aren’t a pathetic weakling… maybe I’m not so bad either… And so the first precious stirrings of self-esteem emerged. We began to see just how badly we had been, and still were (and are, and are!), being treated. We began to reject such treatment, to form a new and more positive way of looking at ourselves and each other. We began to openly reject the negative images of autism, and to campaign for ‘autism rights’. We began to see that they are, in fact, simply human rights – voting ourselves back into the human race, back up from the subhuman state the ‘experts’ and society had condemned (and in many cases are still condemning) us to.
It happened like this for me, and for so many others. I floundered and stumbled my way through the world, hating myself, concealing my ‘weirdness’ as best as I could, trying vainly to be normal, to be accepted. Then I finally began to realise that I had AS, and on the heels of that, found the AS community online, and then face to face, ‘in real life’. And it was …amazing. For the first time, I made real friends, with people who really seemed to like me, to value me, to value my opinions and want to spend time with me. Only then did I realize just how badly my earlier attempts at forming friendships had gone, how the usual fare there was coolness, being ‘shut out’, being told I was ‘just too strange’, asked ‘what planet did I come from’, laughed at, or even outright rejected. It had been painfully obvious that very few wanted to know me – and I’d grown used to that, resigned myself to the ‘fact’ that I was ‘just lousy at making friends’, and eventually given up trying to do so. But in the autistic community, I found understanding, support, and simple acceptance of who and what I am. The transition from ‘weird nobody’ to ‘esteemed friend’ was a treasure beyond dreams. The first time I realised this, I cried.
Several years on, it is still the case that if I want positive reinforcement of my place in the world, if I want to feel like I have something worthwhile to contribute, if I simply want to feel that I’m a likeable, okay sort of person, then the autism community is the place I go. Nowhere else do I get such reinforcement, such validation, such emotional support. The rest of the world may not value me, but my autistic friends do.
And I value them. This validation and reinforcement, this acceptance and even embracing of each other as autistics, is the single biggest gift we can give to ourselves and to every other autistic person in the world. Yes, we have our problems, our splits and feuds and divisions, our trolls and our undesirables. We’re not going to magically love every other autistic person we meet. And yes, we have ‘issues’ that need sorting out amongst us. But don’t walk away if you encounter problems – because this is it folks – this is our community, there is nowhere else for us to go, nowhere that will accept us, embrace us and understand us. It’s the foundation of our self-esteem, the place where we can be ourselves amongst our peers, the place where we learn to accept ourselves and our autism, to recast our entire self-image, and potentially our entire lives. It’s also the base from which we can go out into the world and change it, change the whole ‘discussion’ on autism, and secure better treatment for all of us, whatever our ‘functioning’ level, whatever our formal diagnosis or lack of it. In other words, it’s the pathway to freedom.
Alone, we flounder and fall. Alone, we will go on suffering, each in our own private hells, with no hope of remission, unless and until the world finds some way to exterminate us. If we don’t have community, we die, literally or in our spirits. If we don’t have community, we will sink without a trace, becoming lost, wandering souls without a ‘home’. Too many of us are still lost, still ‘out there in the wilderness’, still immersed in hating their autism, and themselves. A lot, I suspect, don’t even know the community exists, and I truly feel for them. (Who says we don’t have empathy?!)
So embrace the autism community, and the Autism Positivity it engenders. It saves lives.