In the lead up to my first ever presentation with professor Temple Grandin I chose one of my favourite Temple Grandin quotes to base this blog post on – ‘different, not less.’ This quote has resonated with me since the first time I saw it. The concept of being ‘different’ is close to many Autistic people’s hearts. I think there is a point in most of our lives where we discover that there is something called ‘normal’ and then the world we inhabit – ‘different.’ For me that moment came at age 11 when I started high school and for the first time in my life was bullied and abused and very quickly worked out that there were different groups of kids and I didn’t belong to any of them. For me this notion of ‘different’ and, more to the point, wanting not to be ‘different’, impacted hugely on my life for another 15 years. I hated my different self. If I had known how to not be different I would have jumped at the chance. Tragically I was not encouraged to be myself and to love who I am. Rather I was constantly told that my ‘different’ was weird and wrong. When I got a diagnosis of Asperger syndrome at the age of 20, I thought it confirmed my ‘different’ and I wanted nothing to do with it. The idea that there was a diagnostic label which confirmed I would never join that ‘normal’ group was like a curse. As I grew older and wiser I accepted the diagnosis and went about the business of accepting myself. Flash forward to now and I am an out loud and proud Autistic woman with a co-morbid diagnosis of atypical schizophrenia (and yes, that one took even more years of denial and angst to reach a point of acceptance).
So it worked out OK for me but what about others on the spectrum? Broader society still has this notion that there is ‘normal’ and then there is ‘different’. Sadly instead of using diagnostic labels to hep people understand themselves and access appropriate services, they often just turn that person into an ‘other’ and people end up feeling bad about themselves. Bullies can use the diagnosis as a confirmation of difference and therefore inferiority (much as I felt about my own Autism diagnosis in 1994).
‘Different’ means that there are therapies and treatments designed to make Autistic kids more ‘normal” Autistic behaviours such as stimming, flapping, different styles of play or not making eye contact as seen as aberrant and ‘weird.’ In my mind this is a very unhelpful attitude and such behaviours are natural and the only issue with them is that non-Autistic people find them confronting. I was talking to a former teacher about Autistic kids. She felt the need to tell me she had taught ‘heaps of them’ and was a really good teacher. She went on to describe how she would put her finger under an eleven year-old Autistic boy’s chin and make him look at her. I resisted the urge to do this to her and see how she liked it but I was horrified. Making eye contact isn’t even a consistent need for all non-Autistic humans. For example some Indigenous Australian cultures find eye contact invasive and it is considered rude and aggressive to make eye contact. So this former teacher was basically physically manhandling a student – which I imagine he found very unpleasant at best – in order to satisfy her need for him to look at her. And not only did she think this was appropriate behaviour but she must have been pretty confident that it was a good thing because she told it to an Autism self-advocate!
As Autistic people we are given all sorts of messaging which says our ‘different’ take on life is wrong, or weird or deficient. We are given low expectations on our capacity from all quarters, including for some people their own families. Many of us internalise these low expectations and prejudice and struggle to value ourselves. Many people will not tell work or university colleagues about their diagnosis, (sometimes correctly) assuming that they will be discriminated against or ridiculed. I hid my diagnosis for many years, In fact I was less ashamed that I had been in prison that I was that I was on the spectrum.
Thankfully I have moved on to a better place. I love my ‘different.’ It is a great part of who I am. I sometimes find myself doing something which I realise is a bit interesting from others’ reactions and I don’t get embarrassed or care particularly. We need to build the confidence of young people and kids on the spectrum so that if others give them a hard time about their ‘different’ they will brush it off, knowing that they are amazing. I am different, not less. We are all different, not less. And what is this silly ‘norm’ that we are expected to conform to?
(and for fun, some of my favourite quirky things I do):
- Name every computer I ever owned (current one is Alastair the MacBook Air)
- Talk to myself but say ‘Mr Kitty’ at the end of each statement. This works whether Mr Kitty is present or not, e.g. at work
- Eat the same meal for years at a time (currently veggie fried rice since 2013, with a short break for quesadillas earlier this years)
- Have a spreadsheet for EVERYTHING!!
- Boss my psychiatrists around
- Always do an activity differently from how it is ‘supposed’ to be done
- Listen to music whenever I am in the open air, including walking to the shops which are five minutes away
- Name my cats after historic painters *’Mr Hieronymous Bosch Kitty Purkis II’ or Mr Kitty for short) or philosophers (I had a Giles Delueze at one point)
- Give 100 per cent in everything I do. half-hearted is not in my vocabulary