Disability Behind The Curtain by Gabrielle Hailstone

Standing in B+ behind a draped curtain was my most anticipated experience as an autistic dancer.

“5, 6, 7, 8…and pirouette! That’s great, now again.” I loved that part. The “again” part. Until I was twenty years old, ballet was my special interest. It’s what I wanted to be when I grew up: A prima ballerina. A dream that would ultimately end in failure when I couldn’t “take it” any longer.

But what was “it” that I couldn’t “take” exactly? Rhetorical Question (RQ), I thought it was the “dance world”. I thought it was a number of different things other than what it actually was: masking ASD.

Only diagnosed two years ago, my go to emotion lately has been rage. Rage because it didn’t always have to be this way. Rage because I could’ve reached all of my goals. Rage because ignorance is the reason for both my professional & personal failures.

The popular view in the neurodiversity movement that autism is solely a neurotype – is flawed in my opinion. While I do appreciate my neurodivergent brain, the reality is, most of the world is either ableist and/or uneducated. Which still = autism as a disability.

Hell, I’m still working on my ableism! And even if every person on planet earth was perfectly keen to accommodate, there would still be things I struggle more with as an autistic person. Example: sometimes it takes me longer to begin a task. And writing this was no different.

Oh yeah, step number one: get out the computer!

Intellectually, I can visualize my experiences because they’ve already happened. But how do I translate them into words exactly?

RQ: Maybe it’s a number of different unidentified emotions keeping me stuck, or maybe it’s time. Like, I’m simultaneously experiencing everything at once – past, present & even a projected future.

As I sit here by some fluffy pillows, I find myself looking at a blank screen and… nothing. Eventually it does come to me, how to say it and all. What a relief! Give me letters. Give me words. It doesn’t matter how, why, or where they are – just that they are. And then you can’t stop me, once I’ve started of course.

Disability doesn’t mean I can’t achieve success or greatness, it just means I may take a bit longer to get there. Disability doesn’t mean I can’t learn new skills or grow, it just means I may need more support along the way.

Interestingly enough, some disabilities like mine are invisible. Which basically means they aren’t immediately apparent. Boy, sure wish I had known earlier! RQ: Is it strange to wish I was more visibly autistic?

Thirty plus years of a nightmare later, what inevitably calms my rage is gratitude. I am so grateful to finally understand some of my weaker links.

I do want to mention that being an autistic dancer definitely had its advantages. Like being able to hyper focus on stretching. But since I’m talking about disability, I want to get into some of the disadvantages. Those of which inevitably took over.

As much as I looked forward to performing, class was an altogether different story. This was because my poor short-term memory made it almost impossible to retain new combinations. As a result, I usually ended up positioning myself behind a more capable dancer.

Strategies like this one helped me to cope with my short-term memory issues, and so inevitably, I began to improve. But dance isn’t just about technique or even getting the steps right the first time. It’s about the human experience, or rather, a certain kind of human experience. Yup, you guessed it: the allistic (non autistic) experience. 

You mean I’m supposed to conjure up a feeling out of nowhere even if I have no idea what it feels like? You mean I’m supposed to focus on facial expressions, technique, and choreography all at the same time? Ha-ha. Forget it. Most of the time I’d end up accomplishing either, or.

Dancing with another person or “partner dancing” was also challenging. And quite frankly, I despised it. Moving on my own felt so much better! When I was alone, I didn’t have to match up with anyone. I didn’t have to deal with the sensory aspect of another physical body.

And then, there was the social side to class.

You see, before I quit, I actually got pretty good. Maybe even really good. And because I worked ten times harder than anyone else, I caught up to my dance peers who were once more advanced. I was at the top of my game and suddenly I was “too good”. Ewe. I didn’t know how to confront their icky statements; so I kept to myself.

But eventually, I couldn’t mask anymore. This was the first autistic burnout of my life. And suddenly, I blamed my suffering on things I didn’t have. So, I quit ballet because I wanted a “normal” life. I wanted friends, romance even. Little did I know I would never be, or have, “normal”.

Maybe, if I had the correct support, I wouldn’t have quit dancing. Maybe, if I had known about my invisible disability, I wouldn’t have turned to alcohol. But I did both of those things. And unfortunately, binge drinking on the weekends became a part of my usual routine. Those were dangerous times indeed. Times that left behind some pretty nasty physical and emotional scars.

Today, my neurodivergent brain wants to look at all that could have been and play those different scenarios on repeat. Sure, it seems like some sort of self-sabotaging torture technique, but actually, it’s what I need. It’s how I process.

Of course, I wish I could say I’m over it. Of course, I wish I could say I’ve come out of this experience with a greater sense of purpose. And perhaps there is some of that. But really, all I feel on a daily basis is defeat for what I’ve lost.

About Gabrielle Hailstone @r3llie

About Gabrielle is a late-diagnosed #actuallyautistic recording artist currently residing in Portland, OR USA. With experience in fields such as: art, dance, fashion modeling and cosmetology, she is passionate about bringing autism advocacy into the Pacific Northwest artist community.