I’m Autistic and It’s Awesome
Our current world is prejudiced against autistic people in a way I never understood until I was diagnosed myself in 2017 and suddenly felt the weight of all my own feelings of disgust about autism and autistic people (unempathetic, inhuman, useless, etc) crash down on me. I’d spent so much of my life being taught that autism was such a terrible diagnosis that parents all over the country had convinced themselves that it was worth risking not vaccinating their children to avoid having them face this disability. They would rather their child got polio or died of measles than turn out like me.
Autism Speaks, the main charity that people give to if they’re concerned about autism, is an organization that is staffed almost entirely by non-autists and it’s all about finding a “cure.” Because of course all neurotypical parents and other family members want is for their autistic loved ones to be “normal.” To do normal things, to participate in normal social life. And if they can’t be normal, then at least they can teach them how to pretend to be normal, how to “mask” sufficiently that no one ever finds out they have autism. Because, as one of my family members told me after I talked about my diagnosis, you can’t tell an employer about that or they won’t hire you.
Why don’t you want a cure?
I talked to a friend of mine who struggles with schizophrenia, and when I told him I’m not interested in being cured, he was genuinely confused as to why. He would love to be cured, to not have to take medication anymore, to be the person he was before he got schizophrenia.
And there’s the difference between us. I have no memory of a person I was before I “got” autism. I have always been autistic. There was no before and after. This was how my whole life had been.
Yes, I can act normal. I can pretend to be what is convenient for the neurotypical world. But at enormous cost. I can make my way through a world of assaulting sounds and noises, faces that make no sense to me, jokes I don’t get or find cruel. And I go home with headaches and massive social anxiety and the sense that my true self isn’t welcome anywhere and that I am disgusting to everyone I meet.
But the truth is, having autism has enabled me to have an incredibly rich and successful life. I didn’t realize this until recently, as I struggled with loving myself after the devastating diagnosis that made me look at all my problems with not making proper eye contact, having overly precise language, not having reciprocal conversations and being enthusiastic about strange and arcane topics. Being autistic is the answer to the question so many people have asked me all my life: how do you do all that?
I graduated with a B.A. only two years after high school. And an M.A. only months after that. I graduated with a PhD from Princeton University at age 24.
How did I do that?
Autism, that hyper focus that makes me so strange socially, and all that linguistic precision. That’s how I did it. I made checklists and methodically moved through them. I enjoyed work more than any “play.” I obsessed about writing each sentence properly and constructing my essays well. I lived, breathed, slept and dreamed grad school.
And when I got out of grad school and had a goal to become a nationally published author? I obsessed about that. I wrote 20 novels in 4 years, and got #21 published. I figured out how to write characters empathetically in a way that neurotypical people understood because that was my goal. I think I achieved it well. I’ve since published 13 novels, many of them award-winning, critically acclaimed books. All because I have the ability to tune out the rest of the world and not hear when people are talking to me. Yes, that’s autism.
I became a nationally ranked triathlete after five years of hard work, though in high school I had been frankly mediocre. My ultra-focus was what did that for me.
I’m not saying that there are no downsides to my intensity. I deal with those every day. But I wouldn’t trade away all my accomplishments for the dubious distinction of “being normal” and I beg and plead for autistic teens to not do that, either. Please, parents and teachers of autistic teens, don’t forget that autism also has a wonderful side. Yes, there are some things that have to be required to live in a neurotypical world. But don’t make them more than they have to be. And please, please, work on the disgust reflex about autism. It’s everywhere in our world.
I’ve been working on a series of essays about autism, and one section is about “unconscious depictions of autism” in popular culture, including in the movie Galaxy Quest.
I recently re-watched this with my kids and thoughts how obviously autistic the physical portrayal of Mathesar and the other Thermians was. Think of how stiff and awkwardly they move, a common diagnostic trait of autism. Think also of the way in which the Thermians facial expressions are so exaggerated, again, as if they are trying too hard to mimic the humans who they, after all, have created holographs to communicate with (they are actually some kind of space octopus or squid-like creatures). The Thermian version of human speech has odd inflections and pauses, as many people describe autistic speech.
But the most autistic trait of the Thermians is the way they take everything literally and their inability to understand acting — or lying. They have no idea that the “historical documents” aren’t real. They have no concept of theater, and conflate it with lying like Cyrus, the villain in their world. The audience gets brought in on the joke when the captain asks them if they believed that the characters on Gilligan’s Island were real, and they weep for “those poor people.” The Thermians are stupid, but on some level are also compelling in their honor and courage. By the time you get to the end of the movie, you’ve fallen in love with them because of their authenticity. I wish that more direct depictions of autistic people could do the same thing.
Maybe you’ve also come to pity the fact that they are so alone in the universe, because their fragile way of dealing with a brutal world has led to the destruction of their home planet and all the other Thermians except those on this one ship. This loneliness is, for me, one of the main problems with being autistic. The more I speak about autism publicly, the more aware I become of how the new trend to diagnose children earlier and earlier has led to some good outcomes in that it gives a name for a cluster of things that make no sense otherwise, but it also isolates. So many young autistic people get diagnosed and are taught how to behave “correctly,” but are left without a community of other similar people. This is one of the best things about the internet, because it means that we don’t have to be as alone as the Thermians are at the end of the movie.