You Don't Seem Autistic
I probably don’t. I get that. It’s taken me 47 years to see my own traits, and heck, maybe I’m wrong.
But I do know this. I know that just about every Level I (aka Aspberger’s or High Functioning) person I’ve ever talked to has heard “You don’t seem autistic!” at least once. Which is interesting, and confusing, and kinda causes us (or at least me) to second guess ourselves…
I mean, what if you just told someone you were French (you don’t seem French), or had a grandpa that was dark skinned (you don’t seem black), or had a preference for the same gender (you don’t seem gay)...
The list could go on and on, but in general, when we hear “You don’t seem…” it’s a remark of judgment and not curiosity. The judgment causes us to second guess ourselves, or want to keep quiet, or even think, shit, maybe I don’t belong in that category, what the heck am I doing, I think I’ll just shut down and stop talking. Conversation over.
But, when we cultivate curiosity we open up conversation and that gives us the opportunity to learn about the person who just shared something vulnerable, which is quite possibly valuable as well.
So, when we lead with “Can you tell me more about that?,” we have a whole plethora of places to go in conversation. We might learn why that person thinks a particular way, or how they see themselves. In the process we have the opportunity to learn more about them, their autism, their heritage or their sexual orientation…
Because, really, “You don’t seem autistic” originates from systemic ignorance on the part of understanding the condition of autism.
It stems from society telling us that autism looks like Rainman and Forrest Gump, and that autism is little boys who don’t talk and nerdy scientists who do, but also only talk about the one thing they want to talk about…whatever that is. Society tells us that autism is no eye contact, no friends, difficulty with understanding any kind of social rule and probably someone who is awkward and perhaps a bit boring. Society tells us that people with autism probably don’t like loud noises, only like to eat certain foods and most certainly have some pretty serious idiosyncrasies that are FOR SURE noticeable…in which case of course they are because then you would seem autistic.
So the term “you don’t seem autistic” is really someone saying “society has taught me a limited version of autism” and hopefully the invitation to be open to learn more is there too.
And to be honest, I’m still learning as well. Even as a professional with lived experience, an advanced degree in a specialized field, a daughter with autism and more than 30 years working with the autistic population, I’m still expanding my understanding of what autism is!
Especially as it relates to myself…all these little things I have, that I always thought were my oddities, or what made me weird…well, the more Level I autistic people I talk to, the more I see we have these things in common, and the more I am secure in believing that my self-identified autism is real. Not made up, but actually a difference in the way my brain processes stimulus and information.
Societal learning is huge, and so pervasive and quiet and sneaky that we have unknowingly drunk the kool aid of what autism is (and isn’t) and learned something that isn’t quite expansive enough.
So, let’s see if we can do some collective unlearning.
At the risk of having this blog go on for days and days, I’m going to stop here and next week I’ll dive into what it means to be autistic, but not seem like it...
Over what will probably be several posts, I’ll cover the 3 levels of autism, and what categories are affected by all people that have autism. I’ll also share personal insights and narratives so you can see all the things that are behind the scenes with a “you don’t seem autistic” presentation…
Until then, if you find out someone you know has autism, and you think “No freaking way!?!” I invite you to get curious, to say “tell me more about your autism…” and see what opens up. Chances are, if the person disclosed this to you, you have someone that’s willing to tell you more…let me know how it goes.