As always when talking about autism, I want to remind everyone that autism is not a mental illness. It is a type of neurodivergency; this basically means as autistic people our brains think and process information differently to the ‘norm’ that is expected in the world. However autistic people are more likely to suffer with mental health issues, largely in part to the fact that we are living in a world that isn’t built for us. I’ve talked about an overview on autism acceptance before – which you can read here – but today I wanted to discuss the complexity of an autistic experience and how as more people get involved in autism acceptance and advocacy (which is an amazing thing that I am thrilled to see!) we must keep in mind the spectrum of experiences and therefore the complexity of the necessary solutions.
Sometimes my autism isn’t pretty. I can still fit into the world as I am expected to, but that comes with effort which often goes unseen or under-appreciated. I can do this reasonably easily compared to some, and this is in part due to other aspects of my identity (such as my race) and the supportive people who surround me. You can view this as lucky or not; I think in a way it is unfortunate. It’s unfortunate that I have to manipulate the very essence of the way I think in order to fit into systems I often have no desire to engage with in the first place. I think it’s unfortunate that we can even frame this as ‘lucky’ because that just points to how painful life is for those who can’t, and how this pain is worse than the struggle of concealing one’s true self. While I do frame my autism as my superpower sometimes, I do not believe in the rhetoric that it is a blessing – this also lends to the rhetoric that it could be a tragedy when in reality it just is what it is. I frame it as my superpower personally because that helps me cope with its challenges, and because being autistic is so central to my identity that embracing it in a society that often doesn’t is radically self loving for me. My mental health issues are not the same as me being autistic, but since autism affects how I process everything they are of course intertwined and I have no doubt that being autistic in a world that isn’t has been part of how bad my mental illness has gotten and how confusing it has been to understand. In particular I think my early experiences of mental health issues (before they developed into a clear mood disorder of their own) were heavily intertwined with my autistic experience.
So why am I telling you all this? To give you the smallest cross-section of just one person’s autistic experience, and the complexity of even trying to begin to comprehend that experience, so that you might begin to grasp how neurodivergency and the way it is approached by society is not something that can be easily defined or explained. And that is essentially the point of this post. There are more conversations happening around neurodivergency now then ever before – and that is a joyous and wonderful thing! But these conversations cannot be dulled down to a single Instagram post, or a single profile of autism – which threatens to be the most easily palatable representation of autism. Think of how mental health awareness is sometimes boiled down to self-care, bosses offering a free yoga class to their employees, and pity for the people who can’t socialise but can still just about get through a days work. This kind of awareness fails to recognise or help those suffering in ways that are uncomfortable for us to hear about, or impede how they might function in the systems they are expected to – it doesn’t help the person who has to take a year off work, nor the person who has to call an ambulance because they are convinced they’re dying, nor the person who lashes out at others with angry words because they can’t deal with their inner turmoil. I don’t want a similar pattern to happen as we see more autistic and neurodivergent awareness and representation. We can’t afford to ignore the messy parts of autism that might make some people a bit uncomfortable, or the fact that many neurodivergent people can’t (or don’t want to) participate in traditional capitalist structures that aren’t set up to support them. As there is more awareness, we must show the full array of autistic experiences – from all races, with comorbid mental health issues, different traits, physically disabled autistic people etc etc.
Autism and neurodivergency can’t become something trendy, like a new kind of personality test for CEOs to try and enhance their team and their diversity. They just need to become tolerated, known, understood. Because neurodivergency isn’t always palatable; sometimes it’s messy and it’s different and we have to make sure we don’t run the risk of autistic and adhd people who can more easily fit into the societal expectations (and who want to, because not everyone does) getting ahead and heralded as some liberal caring symbol for employers – for example, while others continue to be ignored.