It recently came to my attention that Friday, April 2nd, is “Autism Awareness Day”. As an autistic person, I find this name a bit ludicrous. Not only does it have the general vibe of a B-movie from the 1970s (“beware the autism! It is among us”), but the very message makes little sense. We aren’t autistic for just one day or one month a year, so people shouldn’t be aware of autism for just one day a year. Instead, I’d like to propose an alternate title for this Friday: “Autism Celebration Day”.
Within the world of popular media, autism is often depicted as something negative. The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper is implied to be autistic: “ I do regret not following up with that specialist in Houston,” his mother says at one point, regarding the ambiguous disorder which causes his fussiness and penchant for rude comments. Some organisations go a mile further, putting out doomsday ads which paint autism as an amorphous sentient evil bent on destroying the world (a character trope which the 90s kids movie Ferngully already used way better).
Actually autistic people, though, have a different perspective. Autism isn’t a disease, the way the media so frequently portrays it. It’s merely a different type of brain wiring, a different set of skills, and a different perspective on the world. Yes, I’ve certainly experienced many moments when I’ve felt out of my depth or struggled with experiences which are relatively stress-free for non-autistic folks — I have to wear noise-cancelling headphones in movie theatres thanks to sensory processing disorder, and my tenth grade dance class video is a testament to just how embarrassing dyspraxia can get. But despite those imperfections, I can’t imagine a version of myself who isn’t autistic. As one anti-autism ad put it, I am autism: except I say that as an expression of happiness and self-love.
On this Autism Celebration Day, Hilary Holz and I, the resident autistic software developers at Lob.com, would like to share a few of the things about which we want non-autistic (neurotypical) people to understand:
- When you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person. Just like neurotypical people are unique, so are we! None of us has exactly the same set of traits, quirks, and special interests as others.
- Being autistic is like speaking a different language by nature — in order to move through this largely neurotypical world, we have to learn how to communicate using neurotypical body language and inflection from scratch. If an autistic person “doesn’t seem autistic” because they’re not visibly “different” in the way they speak, chances are they’ve spent a lot of time studying and mimicking interaction patterns.
- I may come across as awkward, but I am also resourceful and deeply attuned to the little details inherent in problems I tackle at work. Hilary and I both have tendencies to ask unusual questions and to be as thorough as possible when it comes to mapping out solutions to large ambiguous questions. The journeys we’ve gone through in order to learn how to navigate neurotypical society have been extremely difficult, but have also taught us a lot about the importance of considering and understanding different perspectives.
- One of the hardest things about being openly autistic, especially if you aren’t a cisgender man, is that so many people think they know what autism is, and make assumptions based on media-generated generalisations which more often than not don’t apply to us. As Hilary said, “In some ways work was easier before I was diagnosed, because the label of ‘autistic’ carries a number of stereotypes which many people take at face value, instead of asking me about. Nobody knows an autistic person better than the autistic person themself.”
There are many more things both of us — and other autistic people in general — could talk about, but the bottom line, we both agreed, is that a label of “autism” doesn’t set us apart as inferior by nature. It isn’t a licence to presume we function in specific ways simply because that’s how Sheldon on TV acts. Internalising that message, and seeing the beauty inherent in a diversity of thought patterns and brain wirings, is the truest form of autism “awareness” — and of autism celebration.