Rethinking the Way We Think About Autistic People – From Problems to Possibilities
Hey everyone, NeuroRebel here, and as an adult, I had a very large shift in the way I think, and interact and experience with the world.
If you’re a little bit curious about what this shift was, please, stay tuned.
When I found out that I was Autistic, at the age of 29, fairly late in life. When I would tell people this newly discovered information, often they would have a range of reactions, from not knowing how to respond, to disbelief.
The reaction of one of my childhood, best friends growing up… “oh, okay, everything makes sense now!”
In my experience coming out, Autistic has been a lot like coming out Queer.
What I mean by this is you have to come out over and over and over again. It is an endless process with each and every new person you meet. If you choose to disclose that information. The other thing
that is very similar is when you do disclose this information to people who may have been close to you in your life, you may lose people.
That is because some people will be unable to accept this new information, in relation to the way they think of you.
In my experience, there have been a few reasons people push back and aren’t willing to accept when I try to explain to them that I am Autistic.
One reason, often, is they don’t have a clear understanding of what autism is and what Autistic people look like.
People tend to have a very narrow, preconceived, idea of what it means to be Autistic. That idea may not match the person that is standing in front of them, because representation of Autistic people has been very limited in the media and even now… I look at what we’ve got going on, it’s not great, if we’re honest.
Something else that I’ve seen happen, when an Autistic person is explaining their experience of what it is like to be Autistic, you may hear, someone’s say, “Oh, well, doesn’t everybody experience that?” or “Everybody feels that”.
One I really hate is “Isn’t everybody a little Autistic these days?”
Ooh, ouch. No. Everybody is not a little Autistic. There is no little Autistic. Autistic is a yes or no checkbox. You are, or you are not Autistic.
Years ago, many years ago, long before I was diagnosed and found out I was Autistic, I remember sitting and listening to a woman sharing about the fact that she was Autistic.
I’m glad I kept my mouth shut and didn’t share my thoughts out loud. I remember thinking, as she shared her experience of what it was like to be an Autistic person, “Well, it doesn’t everybody’s stories that?” “Well, yeah. I experienced that too? Yeah, I experienced that too. I experienced that too. I mean, everybody experiences that, right?”
I didn’t know I was Autistic.
Not everybody experiences those things, but I didn’t know that back then.
So someone else, recently, that had told me, “well, everybody experiences that or doesn’t everybody do that?” Who I know, told me this, when I came out, and tried to tell them I was Autistic.
I won’t out this person, but now they, themselves, have disclosed that they are also Autistic.
So I know two people now who have made these comments. “Well, doesn’t everybody experience that?” Who have then later identified to be Autistic. I’ll leave you to think about that for yourself.
I would say that out of all of the reactions, to my disclosing of my late autism diagnosis at the age of 29, my childhood best friend’s response was probably one of my favorites.
When she said, “Oh, suddenly everything makes sense” I didn’t have the need to now justify what I had just divulged.
Many other responses, such as “I’d never guessed”, or “you don’t look autistic” or, “but you must be so high functioning” left me needing to do further explaining, because these responses seem to portray doubt.
That is one difference. I want to notate between coming out Autistic or Neurodivergent and coming out Queer.
When I’ve come out in the past as a Queer person, people don’t typically question it – tell me that they “would never have guessed” they “don’t believe it” or “that I don’t look Queer”.
For some reason, people feel like these responses are appropriate when you disclose being Autistic. I think that has a lot to do with stigma.
We still have a lot of stigma around being Autistic. When you tell someone you are Autistic, right now, a lot of people are going to automatically assume that is a bad thing, because that’s what they’ve heard – “being Autistic is a bad thing”. They’ve heard that having Autistic child is a bad thing, because that is what the message of the mainstream media has been saying for so long.
You share “I’m Autistic” and someone says, “Oh no, you’re not, I wouldn’t have guessed”. Because they think you are saying something bad about yourself.
When we hear people self-deprecating, even though that’s not what we’re doing, when we share that we are Autistic, a lot of society’s instinct and cultural instinct is to tell the person, “Oh, there’s nothing wrong with you. You’re not broken” – assuming that Autistic people are broken.
We’re not broken. I didn’t always know that.
I didn’t always know that Autistic people are not broken. I didn’t always know that I was not broken.
My childhood best friend reminded me of this, when she shared her thoughts about why, when I disclosed the fact that I was Autistic, she said ” that made everything make sense.”
My friend said, “I remember when you were younger and you couldn’t do anything, but now I’ve seen you evolve into a totally new person. Who is able to do just about anything they set their minds to. It’s been wonderful to see you grow and evolve over the years.”
It was a sweet and wonderful thing to hear, but it also cut like a knife.
It was a very double-edged statement because it sent me back to that place when I was younger. And I remember feeling very powerless. When I was a small person, a little Autistic, literally, I had no idea what I was capable of.
I was very focused on all of the things I lacked. My weaknesses were magnified to me.
My mindset was very different than how it is right now, as an adult.
One of my biggest skills is being a good problem solver.
I want to talk about why I am such a good problem solver, because this is another one of those double-edged problems.
Gifts, curses, which is it? Well, it depends on how you look at it. There’s duality, like with many things in the Autistic experience.
On one hand, yes, I am an excellent problem solver, but that comes from the fact that I am unable to let things go.
When there’s a problem in my head, I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s going to be in my head until I solve it.
There is a drive to solve the problem that makes me a good problem solver, but also can be really hard when I want to put something down and it is just here and it won’t leave me alone.
The other thing that makes me a really good problem solver, that kind of can suck a little bit, from my experience as a human, is that I tend to look around and see problems that needs to be solved.
“Oh, yeah, that sounds great. You see problems that need to be solved.”
It’s great, unless you see problems everywhere you look, so you’re constantly looking around, seeing all the problems in life and focusing on all the things that need to be fixed nonstop, because you can’t stop thinking about the problems you see, and you see so many problems.
It’s easy to get in a point where problems can be all that you think about.
At the point in my life that my childhood friend was speaking of, when I was a literal little child, Autistic, I was in that place where all I could see were problems. I was completely overwhelmed and bogged down with the problems, so much so that I couldn’t see any of the possibilities. All of the problems left, no room for possibilities.
This is one of the main reasons I say it is so, incredibly, important that, when we are working with Autistic young people, or if you are someone who works with Autistic people in general, you help them focus on their strengths and what they are good at.
I, personally, know the pain and trouble that can be brought around from only focusing, or focusing too heavily, and getting stuck, thinking about everything you’re bad at.
Before I learned I was Autistic, in my mid twenties, I was going through a little bit of a… I don’t want to say midlife crisis, cause it wasn’t midlife, but a life crisis; where I realized things weren’t working for me very well and I wasn’t truly happy with a lot of things in my life.
I started searching for answers and trying to find ways to be happier.
The ways of thinking, the “I can’ts” and living in fear, being afraid to try new things, I identified as hindering my life.
I started making efforts to change the way I think. Instead of being stopped, cold in my tracks, afraid to try, stuck behind what could go wrong, I started pushing myself.
When these, “what could go wrong” or “what if this goes wrong” or “you’ll never succeed” thoughts came in, I remember starting to talk to myself and saying, “yeah, but what if I succeed?” What if it goes right?
I’ve had to learn, when I start to get worried about failure, to imagine what success could look like.
I’ve learned sometimes things do take me longer to achieve -may take me longer to learn something that it takes someone else, but eventually, I can learn most things if I really put my mind to it.
I didn’t know this when I was that little child Autistic who didn’t believe in themselves.
I’ve learned to believe in myself more through my small successes, even if many of them were long and slow to achieve. Being and growing up and entering the workforce as an undiagnosed undiscovered, Autistic adult meant I had to go through many avenues in life, in nontraditional ways, sometimes taking the long way around, but that’s okay.
My way is different. It’s not the way everyone else does things, but that doesn’t make it wrong.
We need to make a shift when talking about Autistic people, we need to empower Autistic people. We need to focus on what Autistic people can do.
We’ve already spent enough years talking about the problems, focusing on struggles.
If you would ask anyone to only focus on their struggles, eventually that would really wear them down.
This is oppressive. In fact, it’s a tactic that sometimes used in coercion, manipulation, and mind control -to make people believe they are lesser people, incapable people, people that will never be able to amount to anything.
Throughout the history and cultures and societies, these are things we’ve done to oppress people.
Whether or not it’s been done intentionally, this focus entirely on weaknesses and what Autistic people can and can’t do, how Autistic people fall short, when compared to non-Autistic people is a huge injustice.
Whether it is intentional or not, we’re putting Autistic people in mental cages. We’re putting them in boxes and telling them not to dream or hope.
But there is hope, and you can dream and you can break out of this mental box. It is a box you never should have been put in in the first place. It is a box that we must destroy and stop putting autistic young people into, forcing them to work hard, trying to find a way out.
The box is the neuro-typical box. We are Autistic. Our box should be a completely different shape, if we should be boxed in at all.
Why do we need to put people in boxes? Why can’t we just let people exist and be free, without pushing them to be something they are not?
Okay that got intense really quickly.
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