Autistic and Damn Proud of It! ~ Jen Elcheson

It wasn’t too long ago that I could admit to myself that I am truly damn proud to be autistic. It was a serious lesson in self-acceptance. Learning to accept being autistic meant learning to accept myself. As I have mentioned in some of my other writings, my diagnosis story differs from the narratives of the later and recently diagnosed autistic people featured nowadays. I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome in late 1998 right after I turned 17, as my school, counsellor, and mom were concerned about how I was getting on socially and wanted me assessed. This was back when very few people received an Asperger’s diagnosis, let alone girls and women.

Due to the lingering presence of long harboured guilt and shame over my differences and doing everything in my power to hide them; the last thing I wanted to be was autistic and it was not something I could entertain thoughts of being proud of. I rejected the diagnosis and refused to speak of it as soon as I learned of it. I think I knew it to be true deep down, but I did not have the emotional maturity to accept it, so I opted for denial. The name ‘Asperger’s’ was just going to result in more bullying and humiliation if anyone found out that was what the thing that made me the ‘weird’ girl was called.

Looking back on this now, I know the internalized ableism was strong with me for many years. It did not help that information about autism during that time was practically non-existent; especially considering that I reside in a remote northern region (at least remote compared to more populated areas in the south of my province), and the glaring fact that I was a teenage girl. All I knew of autism were stereotypes from movies (after all, I grew up in the days of ‘Rain Man’) and presentations of non-speaking autistic people with higher support needs than my own.

Since I did not want to accept the label put upon me, I continued to hide every ‘weird’ mannerism or stim, ‘funny sounding’ vocal patterns/inflections, and ‘odd’ obsessions that brought on bullying and shaming throughout my youth. If I wasn’t doing those things I did as a child anymore, I was okay right? Of course at the time I had no idea that autism was life long, different for every individual, and passing was not the best course of action as it greatly impacted my sense of identity and natural inclinations (and is just plain old exhausting to put it mildly). But the fact remained, no matter how well I learned to imitate the behaviour of non-autistic, it was a performance and I was not being my true self.

After a number of years of continuous self-denial, failed jobs, relationships, and other negative matters, I decided to improve my life through study. Though it was a very scary anxiety ridden transition, I enrolled at my local College. I learned a lot about myself during that time and decided I wanted to help kids who struggle in school because that was something I had firsthand experience with. During my first year of College, I ended up choosing a practicum that involved working with autistic kids. This experience was life changing and affirming, a proverbial light-bulb… AHA! … holy shit type of moment. I could not believe how much these brilliant, eccentric young people reminded me of my younger self, and I finally realized the doctors were right about me all along. It was extremely easy to bond with the kids and I think some saw that I was like them too. My mind began to make a strong shift, and I started feeling less shame for my quirks that others had so often put me down for.

Autism then became a very intense interest, and I voraciously read a variety of things on it. The only problem was much of the material was written from the non-autistic perspectives of parents of autistic kids or clinicians and much of it was not positive, accurate, and a lot focused too much on deficits and the feelings of everyone but the autistic individual. I wanted to learn more about the experiences of actually autistic people from an autistic perspective, thus I dug deeper. When I read about some of the experiences of others, the clarity I got was indescribable.

As an example, when I was in College I wrote a book report on Dr. Liane Holliday Willey, who was one of the first women with Asperger’s Syndrome to write an autobiography. The experiences she outlined in her book Pretending to be Normal were very relatable and familiar, and reading her words helped me feel less alone because I realized I was worthy, intelligent, capable, and should be proud of who I am. It was also around that time I was beginning to come out as an autistic person and exploring disclosure.

I will never forget the day I found the online autistic community.

Earlier that day I had once again experienced someone rudely invalidating me when I told them I was autistic by them telling me I couldn’t possibly be autistic because I was nothing like this other autistic person they knew (someone who obviously presented as quite visibly autistic and had different support needs than I), which I later discovered happens to pretty much every other autistic person who is able to pass as non-autistic. Frustrated and annoyed, I remember going home that day feeling a strong need to connect with others like me and finding a couple of support groups for autistic adults, one being exclusively for women that I immediately felt at home at. It was amazing how so many other women’s experiences I was reading mirrored many of my own, although we all had our differences too. I eventually joined the admin team of the group and have been a part of it since. From the books and blogs they recommended to our discussions in the group, I was beginning to feel a sense of pride instead of shame. If I belonged to a tribe, this had to be it!

So why am I proud to be an autistic person?

Because obviously being autistic is hard, and it was something I hid for a very long time, because being myself was the last thing I wanted to be. It can be very daunting having a neurodivergent brain and I still feel like giving up some days, but somehow I keep going. I deal with co-occurring mental health issues, I’m not very social, and I struggle with motor dexterity and learning disabilities. And yet, somehow, I still manage to get out of bed in the morning to go to my job in the education field I worked very hard to get. I am proud because when I look back to my younger days, I never imagined I would be where I am today. I am also proud of my autistic brothers and sisters in the greater autistic community worldwide. Many are working hard to make the world a more inclusive and understanding place for those who exist on the fringes of society. I am proud of all the strides they continually make and their compassion and dedication.

Although it took me quite some time after my diagnosis to identify as a proud autistic person, I embrace my autistic identity. In doing this, I hope to encourage other autistic people to think about what autistic pride may mean to them. Getting to know and accepting myself has taught me that I and others are not ‘broken’ or ‘bad,’ we simply perceive the world differently than others because of how our brains are wired. Different does not equal deficient. Autism also intersects with other pride movements (be it autistics who are LGBTQIA+ and those with other disabilities). For any person to accept and be themselves in the face of adversity over their differences is very powerful, and being open and honest about it is something to be more than proud of and to celebrate.

Happy Autistic Pride!