18th June is Autistic Pride Day. The day was conceived by advocacy organisation ‘Aspies for Freedom’. Pride in who you are and which ‘culture’ or demographic you belong to is not a new concept. There has been gay, lesbian, bisexual, intersex, trans, asexual, Queer pride for many years. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have a bunch of great events to celebrate their achievements and cultures, like NAIDOC Week and the Deadly Awards. Owning your difference and celebrating it seems a good thing to do. I am happy to state ‘I am Jeanette. A proud Autistic woman with a lived experience of mental illness.’ I value myself and my experiences. I don’t shy away from telling people my diagnosis or explaining my experiences and why they are ‘different, not less’.
This was not always the case. As a high school student, people hated me and judged me for my difference and for things that were integral parts of what made me ‘me’. I wanted to change. I wanted to fit in and belong and spent many years joining any peer group that would have me. I remember changing the spelling of my name, losing my English accent and becoming obsessed with fashion in a series of vain attempts to fit in with the popular girls at school. Many adults saw my positive qualities: my sharp intellect, my talents at anything remotely creative, my gentle, kind nature and my easy, rather dry sense of humour. But to me their words were meaningless, for I wanted to be like the ‘in group’ at school.
I left school and entered the adult world – not really as an adult but as a naive and anxious 17 year old. I moved out of home and found work but I struggled with relating to the other people in the world. I saw my difference everywhere, how I didn’t belong, even in the peer group I had chosen for myself. To rectify this I became an accomplished social chameleon. I became so adept at acting that I all but lost my sense of self-identity. I couldn’t discern helpful people from the dangerous ones and found myself trying to please an older man who was a criminal and a psychopath. This resulted in crimes and prison – a new world and a new peer group to be accepted by. As soon as I entered the justice system I realised that I needed to fit in and belong at any cost. I stood back and observed my fellow prisoners – what made them happy, how they speak, what made them angry. Within a few weeks I was one of them and happy not to be the ‘nerd’ Jeanette from high school who I hated so much and wanted desperately to distance myself from.
In prison something which should have been life-changing happened – I gained a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome. Many people relate that their diagnosis is a moment of acceptance and catharsis. A time to understand who they are and where they fit. Not for young Jeanette. My 20 year old, prisoner self associated the Asperger diagnosis with being a nerd. I felt if I had this diagnosis I would be doomed to be my high school student self forever. Nobody would like me and everyone would pick on me. This wasn’t going to happen. I was tough, I was a prisoner, I was ‘cool’. I hated the diagnosis as much as I hated myself.
It took me seven years to get to a point where I could accept my Aspieness. I was 27 years old, a university student and more importantly, I had started to like and value myself for the first time in what seemed forever. Opening the door to self-acceptance helped me to accept true and challenging things about myself, albeit gradually. I started very tentatively joining the Autism world. At the start I still found it hard to tell anyone I was on the spectrum but I gradually gained confidence in doing so. In 2005 an event happened that thrust me into the world of Autism advocacy almost unintentionally. I wrote my autobiography Finding a Different Kind of Normal: misadventures with Asperger Syndrome. And so there I was, an inadvertent advocate.
Of course I never looked back. Before long I was giving talks about Autism, writing blogs and articles on Autism-related subjects. And here I am, proud as proud of the Autistic woman I have become. I am blessed with self-acceptance, with self-esteem and with an amazing peer group of Autistic people and fellow travellers. So I am celebrating on 18 June for myself and all my Autistic compatriots. We have a lot to celebrate.