I read a neat post by SeventhVoice today positing that one characteristic that all autistic women seem to share is this innate feeling of being “different” from everyone around them. I have to say, I related quite a bit to this. As an autistic person (heck, as a person), I’ve never really felt “in sync” with the people around me. I’ve always been just a bit (or a lot) different.
That feeling of difference sometimes gets less, sometimes it increases, but it never really goes away. When I was first discovering that I was autistic, I felt that “different” feeling beginning to lift. I thought that I’d finally found “my people”. I read thousands of blog posts, dozens of books and personal narratives, describing experiences of being autistic, and it was like reading a story from my life. I’d never felt that sort of connection with anyone before, and I was fascinated. I knew that this was where I belonged. But the more that I read, the more I realized how different from most of these people I really was, not in vocation, but in ultimate goals. The more I became part of the autism online community, the more blogs I read, the more people I met, the more different I felt from most of the autistic online community.
I’m a young woman. I’m 25 now, and I started blogging nearly 3 years ago, at 22. During that time, I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with dozens of other young autistic women. They write compellingly, about important topics. But I’m not like them. I’m not an activist. I don’t feel compelled to write posts spewing rhetoric, to preach about politics and right and wrong. I don’t take offense and pounce when someone uses the wrong word around me (though sometimes I will take someone aside after and talk to them). My existence and worth isn’t defined from one crisis to another, trying to find a “them” to go up against. I’m not saying that my “peer group” is doing anything wrong. I simply don’t have that sort of disposition to be a part of them, and therefore, I’m different from them. I don’t feel community with older autistic women either – they’ve lived so much more life than I have, and our experiences don’t match up. I don’t have children (though not all of the older autistic women do either), and I’ve been incredibly lucky in my life to not have ever been sexually abused, homeless, or really unemployed (thus far). My experiences in life just don’t match up with those of other autistic women, and so I feel very different from that too. Plus, I’m just a lot younger, I haven’t really lived life yet.
And it’s not just the autism community online. When I was an undergraduate, I spent a good portion of my time with the LGBT community at my university. At first, we bonded over having “always felt a bit different” from everyone else. But then they found their “same” and I was left on the outside, still different. When I was in high school, I joined science team, to be with the people who also felt a bit different. They found their same, and I was still just different. Even in graduate school, my colleagues have found their “same” and I’m still on the outskirts. I’ve hung out with theater people for much of my life, self-proclaimed “weirdos” – and even there, I’m the weird one among the weird. I think in some ways, I just don’t know how to feel that “same” feeling. I think this is part of my existence, perhaps even attributable to my being autistic all my life. I’ve never found a real community that I didn’t feel that I was still different from. Even communities of people who have always felt different don’t have room for me.
Sometimes I wonder if the problem is me. That I just have no idea how to be a part of the “we”, and that I’ll never fit in. That maybe I go looking for differences because that’s what is comfortable, that is what I know. I know I’m different, so even among people who know they’re different, I’ll always find a way to stick out, to stay separate. In a sense, though, that’s what makes me who I am. I go about living my life, interacting with the world, knowing that I’m different from everyone I interact with. That means we’ll have different opinions, different wants, needs, desires. And that also means that by accepting that I have my own (different) set of needs, I also accept that someone else’s needs are different from mine, and that is ok.
In a lot of ways, I think that autistic people in particular can fall into this “different” trap. We have trouble with change, and we’ve been different all our lives. What happens when we find people who are the same? We different-ize them, because we can’t handle the idea that there are people with whom we have some sameness. In a lot of ways, this is what is wrong with the greater autism community. There’s always an “us” and a “them”. It doesn’t matter really, who the players are. Sometimes it’s men versus women. Sometimes it’s older Autistics versus younger Autistics. Sometimes it’s parents versus autistics. Sometimes it’s autistics against the charities and anyone who happens to support them. We seem to spend an inordinate amount of effort focusing on how we are all different. We look for differences because that’s all we know how to do. And we assume that unless someone is exactly the same as us, that they are 100% evil. I can think of very few people who are genuinely 100% evil. That’s not the point. Really, most people are generally good. They might not have the background or the knowledgebase that I have or that someone else has, in order to make a decision the same way I would. But that doesn’t make them evil. It means that we have less common ground. It means that we might have to work harder, dig a little deeper, to find where we agree.
A big part of the autistic existence is feeling different from those around us. I know I’ll always be just a bit different. In a way, it is very isolating. But in another way, it means that I know myself. I know what I need to be me. In accepting that I am almost always different from those around me, I have also recognized that I often have some “same” as well, even if that “same” is only a very tiny portion. I go about life with the assumption that difference is ok, and that the best thing I can do is to interact with kindness and the best intentions I can, hoping to find that tiny bit of “same”, the common ground, to foster communication and understanding.
And if that makes me different, then I am happy to be.