I am forty-one years old. I work full-time in a professional job, I own my own home, I have a Masters degree, I am financially independent, I have written three published books. So why do you suppose that people often speak to me as if I am a little girl ? While I can’t claim to understand that I know what is gong through the minds of people who ask me if I ‘live at home with your mummy?’ or ask if I know how to order at a restaurant, I suspect it may have something to do with one of my attributes – the attribute of Autism.
I am far from the only Autistic person to experience this. I think we all get it to differing degrees. Sometimes it comes from a position of concern and care and at times from derision (like the triage nurse who had a go at me for reading Harry Potter which apparently was ‘for children’ when I was in the emergency room once in 2004. At the time Harry Potter was my passionate interest and one of the few things that gave me pleasure).
Autistic expression of identity can look different to its non-Auitstic counterpart. We are often interested in things non-Autistic people don’t care about and for some reason this seems to equate with us being seen as children. I like bright colours and sparkly things – I have visual processing issues which respond very badly to words on a screen but get excited by bright colours and sparkles. I wonder if this – and my open and honest presentation and easy laugh – maybe makes some people think I am less capable as an adult. I will say that they shouldn’t think that at all.
Autistic adults are so often seen as innocents, as children and sexless, neuter beings. If we are lucky this means only that we miss out on meeting potential partners and if we are unlucky it can translate into abuse or violence. I know probably hundreds of people on the spectrum well enough to know that we have all the sexualities and gender identities that non-Autistic people do. I have Autistic friends who are gay, bisexual, heterosexual, asexual. I have Autistic friends who identify as transgender, pansexual, sis gender and everything in between. Personally I identify as asexual but I have had sexual experiences in the past too.
I think the ‘children’ tag may come in part from our different communication styles which means that we as Autistic people are often open and honest and operate on one level whereas out non-Autistic friends have a more nuanced and multi-level communication style . Perhaps non-Autistic people are more like us as children (I don’t know, having never been a non-Autistic child myself). Perhaps this means that people see us as akin to children. I don’t know. I know it is very frustrating. I get it all the time. It also means that some people treat me like I’m an idiot who doesn’t know what’s going on. I imagine this must be even worse for Autistic people who do not speak as society does seem to attach a label of non-intelligent to non-speaking (which is often completely wrong. Many non-speaking people have exceptional intellect and sensitivity.)
I am never sure how to response to strangers who talk to me like I am a particularly unintelligent eight year-old. Sometimes I play up to it and then drop in a comment about some exceptional achievement I have had (because I am just a little bit evil!). I think this is another area which needs to be included in building Autism understanding, respect, acceptance and awareness. I say thins not only because it is frustrating for Autistic people to be treated this way and is very annoying but also because I think it may be robbing some of us of our potential. Imagine that an Autistic somebody goes to a job interview and the selection panel misinterpret their Autistic mannerisms as them begin immature or incompetent to do the job? Even if that person was the best candidate for the position they would probably not get it. This misconception of Autistic innocents and children may be robbing us of a voice in society. It may contribute to us being discriminated against as we are seen as not begin capable of managing our own destiny.
There are so many domains of life which people do -Autistic and non-Autistic alike. We ARE capable and we need to change that perception around innocence. I don’t know exactly what to do to achieve that change but I have added it to ‘the list’ of things I will try to have some impact on, with my advocate and passionate colleagues. And I will be wearing my rainbow handbag and sparkly shoes and big jewellery. That does not make me a child, it makes me my happiest and favourite manifestation of Jeanette. I have not been a child for many years and I am competent and confident as a different kind of adult.