Learning I'm Autistic Was a Relief
Learning I’m autistic and realizing what that meant brought me a huge amount of relief. From a neurotypical perspective, that might not make a lot of sense. You might be thinking “How could it bring you relief to learn that you’re autistic? Wasn’t it depressing?” Just the opposite actually and I’ll explain why. However, keep in mind that I’m just one autistic person. I don’t speak for everybody else.
Before I self-diagnosed as autistic, I knew there was something different about me compared to everybody else. I couldn’t articulate exactly what it was, but there was no denying it. The feeling of being different, estranged from the rest of humanity, is a pretty universal autistic experience. If you’re interested in which ways I’m different from neurotypicals, check out my other entries on autism, specifically “Coming Out as Autistic”. The details are outside the scope of this entry.
Anyways, as someone who is different, I had so many inaccurate and incomplete labels assigned to me growing up. Some of the more negative ones were “idiot”, “weird”, “weirdo”, “retard”, “slow”, “loner”, “lazy”, “unfocused”, “lost”, “stubborn”, “disorganized”, “lacking common sense”, “jerk”, and “difficult”. The positive labels I got were “smart”, “genius”, “hard-working”, and “determined”. I also acquired neutral labels like “different” and “introvert”.
Being called both a genius and a retard who lacks common sense, lazy and hard-working, slow and smart, unfocused, lost, and determined was confusing. It wasn’t just different people calling me contradictory things. It was the same people calling me contradictory things. It was as is if everyone was just dying label me, but they couldn’t find one that fit. As soon as they thought they had me pinned as an X, I did a Y. People didn’t know what to make of me.
With people assigning contradictory labels to me all the time, I was confused about who I was and my place in the world. I knew I was different, but I didn’t have a word to call it and I definitely didn’t know others like me exist. Like a chameleon, I subconsciously assumed the least uncomfortable neurotypical identity for me in any given situation. It didn’t feel right, but being myself made others visibly uncomfortable, nervous, afraid, and hateful.
One day I found a condition which seemed to describe my life: Asperger’s Syndrome, a subtype of autism. It was the only label I found that accounted for my life experience. Through reading about Asperger’s, I learned things about myself and am still learning things about myself I never knew. It has been a long process, but I now see my life in a whole new context. One that’s more consistent than any of the labels I was given before.
Labels matter. Now that I have an accurate label, I know where to find help and resources. I know how to ask for accommodations at work, school, or wherever I find myself. I’m more aware of what my special needs are and how to communicate them to others. I know how to find others like me. I know how to stand up for myself to ignorant people who assign me harmful labels.
If I’d never learned about Asperger’s, I’d probably still be so confused about my self-concept. After all, who would I be to tell these hordes of people I’ve met throughout my life that all their labels were wrong? Knowing about autism though, I know it’s very common for autistic people like myself to be misunderstood by neurotypicals. From that reference frame, I do have the standing to tell neurotypicals their labels are wrong and my feeling that I’m not being understood is validated.
It’s amazing how far the right label gets you in neurotypical society. If I tell people “I can’t handle loud noise.”, they don’t take it seriously. See my previous entries for real examples of that. If I insist “No. You don’t understand. Loud noise causes my brain to become overloaded.” I’m dismissed. But if I say “I have Asperger’s Syndrome.”, then I’m usually met with understanding.
That’s why finally learning I’m autistic was a good thing. It didn’t make me sad. On the contrary, it was a huge relief to know there are other people out there like me with the same challenges I have, to hear their stories, what they’ve gone through and relate it back to my own experiences. It was a relief to learn that these harmful labels I got were also wrong and that I am misunderstood by society. And it was a relief to learn that there is an explanation for the way I am and resources and groups out there for people like me.
Maybe some of you out there suspect you’re autistic or have some other condition and are avoiding getting diagnosed because you’re afraid of the stigma or you’re afraid it’ll hurt your self-esteem. This is my train of thought on the subject (not medical advice):
You are the way you are. Getting a proper diagnosis doesn’t make you autistic. Being autistic makes you autistic. Getting a diagnosis just means that you have the proper label. It means no longer being confused about what’s going on in your life and, even if you don’t pursue help, you know where to find it. And you don’t have to tell anybody about your condition if you don’t want to. In my personal experience though, being in the dark makes life a lot harder. It’s better to know.