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Say No to Say Yes

And helped me find what I wanted to say yes to.

bottom half of a face with a large smile but in one of the teeth is eyes and hands around jail bars

Sometimes I wonder what it means to be an empowered autistic woman. Not a “genius,” not “disabled,” just empowered. Fulfilled. Happy, even.

There are so few examples of what this looks like in the public eye. The autistic community is very closeted, and very misunderstood. We don’t have flamboyant street parades celebrating our way of life, or revolutions and protests on behalf of our needs. Our sensitivities and preferences are still seen as things to cure, conceal, or change. We’re a burden until we act like other people and see things the way that they do.

Yet only through saying no to other people’s ways of doing and seeing things have I felt the taste of liberation and empowerment as an autistic woman. Prior to this, I lived in a constant state of overextension and exhaustion.

A friend once said to me that when we first met, I was like a startled ostrich. I would frantically orient myself around understanding other people and helping them to feel more at ease in my presence. And this involved more than just saying “please” and “thank you” at the right moments, utilizing particular body language, and looking them in the eye when talking to them. While all of this took work, hiding the extent of my otherness took a lot more.

Performing social niceties is nothing compared to concealing my way of thinking, feeling, and processing information. In order to fit in, I learned to say no to all of my natural instincts, desires, intuitions, and preferences, because I sensed that they were different from those of the other people around me. The toll of doing this was immense. I had an ongoing private struggle with adrenal fatigue, anxiety, depression, disordered eating patterns, obsessing, overanalyzing, irritable bowel syndrome, trying in vain to control everything, suicidal ideation, rage, resentment, frustration, and sorrow.

It seemed easier to harm, abandon, and judge myself than to allow others the chance to harm, abandon, and judge me.

Even when I wanted to say no, I didn’t. Although “no” was my first word as a baby, I quickly stopped using it. I’m a logical creature, and I worked out pretty fast that saying yes and allowing others to do as they please — regardless of my own thoughts or feelings about it — made them more relaxed around me, and my social security seemed to be guaranteed.

I rarely ever held others accountable for their actions, questioned their motivations, or asked them to change their behaviors. I took what they said and did at face value. I apologized first, and readily asked for forgiveness. I did everything that I could to like what they liked, do what they did, and say what they said, so that I wasn’t perceived as a threat — because being different is threatening. It’s seen as dissenting from the tribe, and many people don’t have the emotional, mental, and spiritual infrastructure to accommodate for differences in others. So when we embrace our differences, we may find ourselves being left out, seen as rude, or labeled as disabled. It can feel frightening and alienating.

Initially, I explored my otherness through fashion. People acted like they were comfortable with this. They even seemed to idolize my calculated displays of eccentricity, and the way I would shamelessly run around in hot pants and sequins and spill glitter dust everywhere. It wasn’t an issue, because I was still playing by the rules. I went to brunch and coffee dates, left parties arm in arm with my girlfriends, promptly replied to texts, and carefully crafted what I would share on social media.

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Yet all of my energy was still going toward abiding by the laws of what our culture calls connecting, and it was at the expense of my well-being. I had reduced myself to the status of a prop in the mise-en-scène of other people’s lives, and I felt out of alignment, resentful. I realized that if I wanted others to care for me, it was my job to become aware of — and accept — what it took to truly care for myself.

So I completely changed my relationship with communication. Because the reality is that I spend hours, days, weeks, months, and in some cases years processing the interactions that I have with people. And when I watch them eating, texting, driving, emailing, thinking about other things, getting touchy-feely, having the TV on in the background, smoking, drinking, doing drugs, checking other people out, dancing, shopping, exercising, casually scrolling social feeds, and answering phones while supposedly connecting, I feel horrified and overwhelmed.

Now I’ve essentially become a one-woman wellness center. I moved to the country with my boyfriend a few years ago, and I started putting extensive self-care rituals in place. I refuse to glaze over the energy that it takes to meet up with someone, see my family, or attend a meeting or a big event. I do tarot readings to get a sense of the occasion because it gives me an anchor that verbal communication never does. I dry-brush my body, soak in the tub, meditate, and exercise to let off steam, because being anxious about social situations builds up a lot of tension, which I need to release. And I’ve found that these anxieties have less to do with being an anxious person than they do with being an autistic person.

When I walk into a room of people, I’m in the void. I have to suspend myself in a reality that isn’t mine, and somehow find a way to feel safe in it.

A family member once regaled to me her own experiences with social anxiety. “Oh, once you get there, you always feel better,” she said, and “You’ll be glad you went afterwards.” Unfortunately, this logic doesn’t apply to me. To cope with a social situation, I have to accept that it’s not going to feel natural or easy. I’m wired differently from other people, and that’s not going to change once I sip some champagne or see a friend I didn’t expect to be there.

Now I spend a lot of time in my own space. I feel at peace there, and it enables me to look forward to being in other people’s spaces. Through taking refuge in the sanctity of an environment that I’ve created, I can build up the courage that I need to ride the waves of what I don’t understand and cannot predict in social situations.

And I no longer pressure myself to be the same as others. Certain friendships fell away when I embraced my uniqueness, yet their absences freed up time and energy for the friends who have room for me and my otherness. Which doesn’t really feel like otherness anymore — it’s just who I am.

I’ve become everything that I’ve said yes to: I’m not a montage of other people’s ideas about the best ways to live and communicate. My days and nights might not involve meeting others’ social expectations — but they do involve living the life of a happy and empowered autistic woman.

Madeleine Ryan is an Australian writer learning that her first novel will tell her when it’s finished, and not the other way around.