I posted this a few minutes ago.
Where do we draw the line between being pushed beyond endurance and reasonable resilience when the Autistic person must navigate and survive in the normative dominated world system? How many ‘normal’ things does an autistic person have to force the Self to do at the expense of mental and physical health? Survival?
It is a question I have been asking for a long time now, on behalf of myself and other autistics who are labelled “high functioning” by the neuronormative world of autism observers, and thus expected to operate just like the neuronormative, or even better (because we are so ‘brilliant’, right?).
The more we are able to ‘perform’ in the Grand Autism Circus, the nearer we get to the “nirvana of neuronormativity” (a quote from my APAC19 plenary speech), the ‘higher’ we are labelled by the narcissistic systems of the normative majority. After all, if one does not ‘appear’ or ‘look’ autistic, it is must be a compliment, because identifying as autistic is the opposite of gaining approval. This attitude weighs heavily on every autistic person’s shoulders, though reactions may vary widely.
For some autistic people – like one self-styled autistic ‘leader’ that I know – the burden of normativity has become an achievement to aspire towards, and being or appearing ‘normal’ is to them a positive trait to attain. This same ‘autistic leader’ holds the view that autistic people should not receive any concessions or accommodations, that we ought to tough it out with everyone else to prove our mettle. Our disability (to function as neurotypical) is thus not respected as a disability according to the social model of disability but rather considered an intrinsic flaw to be eliminated under the medical model. Ask the said autistic ‘leader’ about those of us deemed “low functioning” and there is deep, dark silence. It is an awkward fraction of a second, before the person just blanks it out entirely. As if those of us with complex needs do not exist in their mind, or should not, for the sake of preserving their warped rhetoric. In fact, each time I speak ‘autistic’ frankness, each time I stand for and upon my moral ground on issues important to me, this person will churn out a well-rehearsed and deeply ingrained opinion: “this will not go down well” (with the XYZ of normativity)! A sad situation, really, and I don’t blame those autistics who cling to ableist frameworks forced upon them by the neurotypical powers that be. It is a grievous thing when one is continually looking over the shoulder, fearful of how things will “go down” here or there, sacrificing not only Selfhood, but also warping and bending ethical and moral constructs which contribute to and uphold personhood and identity.
Some autistics, as a consequence, hold on to the approval of the fickle-minded normative world, trying their best to negotiate with its unstable morality, just for the remuneration of a loftier ranking in ableist functioning labels. They are proud to claim superiority over those of us with complex needs, or who dare to show our natural autistic differences. I, however, abhor functioning labels. As an autistic person labelled “high functioning” by normative forces that be (well, I have a PhD and I topped my cohort, didn’t I? I can’t be all that severely autistic, right????), I am constantly flabbergasted, befuddled, perturbed and oppressed by these labels, because they bring with them stigma and often horrifying expectations blended with ignorance, which is sometimes blatant and conveniently deliberate. This is prevalent even among the community that call themselves disability advocates, who often fail to grasp and convey the kind of crystal clear communication that the autistic person needs (in order not to fly off the precipice in a state of panicked anxiety).
For example, I have been (or at least I am led to think) supposedly working with a few others on a project about disability, access and inclusion. However, nothing has happened for months – not that I know about anyway – and yet I hear snippets of this or that connected to this project. When I ask, I get vague responses that amount to no answer at all, and I am tossing and bobbing around with the flotsam and jetsam in a sea of ambiguity. What is happening? Am I in or out? And why this or that? Yes, to the neuronormative, rejection is embarrassing to convey, so they take forever and ever to inform the autistic person, and too often it is a case of never ever. What they fail to understand is that the state of suspension, not knowing, is a kind of purgatory, a cruel condemning punishment, to the autistic person waiting to find cadential resolution for any social transaction – and work with non-autistics is a social transaction, in fact, more time is spent on social interaction than on the actual work itself. Fine. I am not so ignorant as not to know that nobody likes rejection, but to my autistic mind, the few seconds of discomfort upon being rejected (for a job, in a relationship, in answer to a query etc, whatever the case may be) is by far better than the eternal or protracted torment of never being clearly informed. Clarity is resolution. To me, it is utterly heinous and rude not to provide this in any communication. Yet, to the normative world, the opposite is true.
There lies the distinct difficulty being autistic in a neuronormative dominated world – where our disability is invisible and has to do with a different paradigm of communication, sensing and responding to stimuli, rather than a visible physiological disability. Everyone now talks a great deal about access and inclusion, especially us disability advocates, yet, from my own experience in the field, working alongside other disabled people in the advocacy arena, there is very little in the way of access and inclusion accorded to me, to my being autistic. Mostly simply because I am so “high functioning” to them. Yes. I still feel the pressure to ‘perform’ social normativity – that is, to quote an old favourite phrase of mine, “performing the unnatural as naturally as possible” – in order to not cause friction, or be crucified. Many of us do such an exquisitely great job at this elaborate impersonation that we become burned out and overwhelmed, and then, when the meltdown point occurs, everyone reacts with shock and admonishment. It is as if the normative world is challenging us – in a jealous way perhaps? – and pushing us ever to the brink, and waiting to see us crash into the abyss, just so they can say, “There! I told you! Autistic people are incapable of social communication!”
I liken it (though it is a poor analogy) to making a wheelchair user crawl around while everyone else is merrily walking along, even advocating for disabled rights, never noticing that the wheelchair user actually needs a wheelchair, and then being aghast and surprised when the wheelchair user has had enough of scraping the floor and pleading for respectful accommodations, and thus suffers a mental and emotional breakdown as a result.
The “better” the “high functioning” autistic appears, the more the normative-minded world expects that ridiculously impossible feat of denying intrinsic autistic modalities while pandering to the magnificent exercise of taking on neuronormativity.
“OK, honey, we know you are autistic. Just keep it to yourself and don’t keep telling us about it, because we are unable and unwilling to grasp invisible concepts that rub against the fabric of our established ways of being. And heaven forbid, please, don’t have a meltdown in front of us, ok? You’re tough, you’re resilient, you have a PhD, you must stop acting like a spoilt brat demanding for this and that, least of all for actual honest conveyance of meaning (!!) and just get down to business as usual, like everyone else, like every normal human being. Nobody really needs to know truth, or clarity, or even details – it is just not a mature thing, nor is it a polite way to operate. OK?????”
This is why focusing solely on behaviour is rubbish at best and torture at worst. This is why hacking at outward mannerisms has driven and continues to push autistic people to ‘achieve’ the highest suicide rates among all sectors and sub-segments of humanity.
Mind you, I do have the good fortune of knowing people who have sincere and good intentions. I don’t directly blame them for not knowing how to interact with the autistic mind. But I want them all – yes, even the ‘good guys’ – to know that having to constantly, repeatedly, incessantly educate, elucidate, enunciate, illustrate and whatever else is terrifyingly exhausting. Gyrating stark naked and screaming the tiny little lungs out in front of the campfire of normativity is not exactly the autistic preferred way of being noticed or heard.
Is this an impasse, then? I honestly do not know. I speak for myself, of course, but I have said often that my autistic brain, my innate embodiment, just wants to withdraw from the normative world and go and live with dogs. Or animals. Or trees. Or anything that has nothing to do with human (mis)communication, expectation and demand to put forth an ostentatious, vigorous theatre show that they can applaud and praise you for.
Maybe I am “more autistic” than people realise?
How neuronormative are you? What flavour? A mild curry or taste bud exploding spicy?
Only Lucy knows the answer. And she is not telling me. Or perhaps the tables are turned, and I am the one not able to grasp her unworded wisdom?