“You Can’t Be Autistic”
I think you mean when you tell me this: “I can’t believe you are autistic because you seem so normal. You don’t act anything like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. You don’t rock back and forth or memorize meaningless statistics or mumble to yourself in public. You are smart, and articulate, and charming, and I really like you.” You are trying to give me a sincere compliment, and I am grateful for that.
But let me tell you how it sounds to me. When I tell you about my diagnosis and you say, “you can’t be autistic,” what I hear is: “You can’t be autistic because autistic people are disgusting and embarrassing. You can’t be autistic because I do not want to be around autistic people. You can’t be autistic because, in my mind, autism is a debilitating disease that makes people unfit for friendship or companionship. You can’t be autistic because autistic people aren’t human and you are clearly human.”
This has become one of my passions/quests for the last five years since my own diagnosis, to help neurotypical, non-autistic, allistic people see the deep humanity in autists like me. Not pity, you see. I don’t want you to feel sorry for the parents of autistic children who will never grow up to be “normal.” I don’t want you to feel sorry for all the “normal” parts of life that I will never enjoy: loud concerts with thousands of people, shopping near a perfume counter at the mall, wedding planning with all of its unspoken social rules, small talk, sarcasm, jokes, and on and on. I want you to see the full humanity in being an autist. I want you to see the different, rich life inside of the worlds you see as so much smaller and more repetitive and less interesting than your own. I want you to acknowledge that we can teach you to be better humans, because we know things about humanity that you do not.
I know that people say all the time that there are certain things that are universal about humanity, including eye contact, the ability to read and display emotions in the body, language and complexity, metaphor, art and beauty. I can’t tell you how many times other people’s definitions of “humanity” exclude me and other autists. From the Nazi’s dividing line of “useful” autists who include those with “Aspergers Syndrome” to the insistence that “speech” is what makes us human, or jokes, or non-verbal communication, or being able to guess what other (allistic)…