When I was little, I liked to spin in circles. I would spin in circles until I was too dizzy to stand, and then I would start spinning the other way instead. I could do this for hours, and I loved every minute of it. When I was a little older, I learned that it wasn’t ok to do that anymore. Big girls didn’t spin. We didn’t flap our hands. We didn’t obsessively read everything we could find. We didn’t squeal with joy when we did something we loved. We didn’t run away and hide under the chair when there were people around. We ate what was on the plate in front of us, even if it was so awful that we couldn’t chew and swallow it. We wore clothes that hurt us, and we had to look at people in the eyes, even though it made us completely unable to concentrate on the words they were saying or what we wanted to say. I learned that if I said anything or put up any fight to anything that hurt me, I would be punished. I learned that if I didn’t look at someone properly, I would be punished. I learned that if I talked wrong, said the wrong words, or at the wrong time, or said too much, or said too little, that people would get mad. I learned that no matter what I did, I was going to have done it wrong. When I a little older, I didn’t know that autism existed, but I did know that I wasn’t like the other children. And I knew that whatever made me different, made me wrong. And it was my sworn duty as a member of the human race, to hide any trace of it, so that I didn’t appear wrong. If I messed up, I knew, there were dire consequences.
It wasn’t until college that I found out what made me different had a name. By that time, I knew autism existed. I thought I knew what it was, in a vague sense. I hadn’t ever seen Rainman, but I had heard a bit abut autism, and I knew it was bad. There was a girl who was mainstreamed just for homeroom in my middle school, who everyone said had autism. That was all I knew about it, and I knew it was bad. So when I was first asked if I was autistic, my immediate answer was “no way!” For you see, I had spent the past 19 years of my life working with every ounce of my being, to hide it, with only marginal success. In a way, when I really learned about autism, I started to realize that it made sense as it applied to me. After all, autism was wrong, and so was I, so that was ok.
It took me a long time to realize that being autistic, it wasn’t all about being “wrong” and having a name for it. I thought “ok, now that I have a name, I can fix all the wrongs” – not that I hadn’t tried to fix everything for my entire life already. I started reading perspectives written by autistic people, and seeing how they viewed themselves and the world. I realized that the framework to interface with the world that I was forced to work within growing up just didn’t fit with the way that my brain processed information. It’s like trying to interact with a computer by writing in a programming language that doesn’t have a compiler. You can write all the code you want, but without the proper compiler, it is never going to run, and all you get is gibberish and frustration. Reading other autistic people’s writing helped me to realize that my fabled “fix”, wasn’t what I thought it was. I wasn’t buggy code, it was much different from that. I began building a new framework for interfacing with the world. I learned that I wasn’t wrong, just different, and I needed to learn a new programming language that worked better with my built in compiler. I started to accept that my quirks, my sensory issues, my passions, and my fears, they were just a part of me that needed to be respected and worked with.
In the 5 years that have passed since I learned that my quirks had a name, I have learned to accept myself. And I think, in all honesty, that the reason I am surrounded by such wonderful people, who accept me the way I am, is because I accept myself. If I lead, others will follow. Sure, I spend most of my day in my office not talking to people. I wear the same type of clothes every day. I eat very specific food. I jump at the slightest noises. I flap my hands and tap my feet and wring my fingers when I’m stressed. I curl up into a ball and rock when I need to. I have a great job, doing research that I love. I have wonderful friends who accept me with open arms. And I still love to spin in endless circles. That is me, autistic and happy, and on this journey of life just like everyone else. And that is what autism acceptance is.