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.