I’m not proud to be autistic.
Which, I realize, may seem like an odd way to start a piece that’s meant to celebrate Autistic Pride Day. But it’s not. Not really, anyway. It just takes some explaining.
I played competitive tennis as a teenager. Twenty-five years later, I can clearly remember parents cheering courtside, our coach quick to praise us for making a strategic shot or communicating well with a doubles partner. It was, and is, easy to get swept along with the motion of things. To feel the irritation of “unforced errors” and find ourselves trapped in the toxic thoughts tangled along their edges. By calling attention to our choices, behavior, and achievements — no matter how big or small — she forced us to pause and notice what we had done well. That is to say, she gave us the chance to be truly proud of ourselves. And it was wonderful.
Which is why it always sounded really off when, amongst all of the other voices of encouragement, someone would call out, “Way to be!” Way to be? That made zero sense to me. What did it even mean? Like, great job existing? Super just standing there?
Pride, like respect, must be earned. Actively. It is born of behavior, choice, and character. Not of happenstance.
That’s why I’m not proud to be autistic. Please don’t read in some kind of inverse logic fail. I’m not even a little bit ashamed of being autistic. My goodness, no! In conversation, I mention being on the spectrum as freely as I might mention the name of my favorite perfume (although as the years go by, I may end up mentioning the autism thing a little bit more readily than my age).
As I see it, the goal of every movement we make toward inclusiveness is a world where “normal” and “typical” aren’t used interchangeably. Collectively, the autism community is advocating that we push beyond “awareness” — and I’d argue, beyond “acceptance” — to a future where the value of a person has absolutely nothing to do with what someone is. Not with gender or sexuality or race or neurology.
I am not ashamed that I’m female. Or straight. Or white. Neither am I proud of being female or straight or white. I didn’t choose to be those things any more than I chose to be autistic. What we are is mostly genetic lottery. Unearned. The entire concept of human equality is predicated on the idea that none of us arrives more deserving or more worthy than another. We are born onto this Earth in physical bodies that vary in internal and external design. Neither good nor bad. Just vehicles for the equally-precious souls they carry.
What we are is undeserving of praise or prejudice.
How we are is everything.
Martin Luther King dreamt of a future where his children would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. Judge me not by the autistic neurology of my brain, but by the content of my character. Please. Do the same for my children.
The inspiration we take and leave, the lessons we learn, the compassion we offer, the ideas we imagine, the forgiveness we give, the bravery we show when we are most vulnerable. These are the accumulations of lifetimes. In grand gestures and private intimacies, this, the content of character — the what we do with what we are — that earns us the right to be proud.
So many of us have been excluded, abused, and misunderstood. I know I have been. And once we find our “tribe,” it’s only natural to want to celebrate that finally, finally, we can stop feeling so alone and, instead, be different — together. To, at long last, be seen for who we are — to hear our own unspoken, unrealized truths spoken by women we’ve never met, and to maybe even feel genuinely liked for the first time ever…well, to anyone who hasn’t felt it, that kind of relief is almost indescribable.
Because it does feel better — unspeakably, breathtakingly better — to be understood. To be included. To be part of an “us” instead of a “them.”
Only therein lies the trap.
The moment we take pride in being an exclusive group rather than an equally-important, valid, worthwhile, less-typical-yet-no-less-normal part of the human experience — the moment we celebrate what we are instead of how we are — we are no better than those who have been proud to not be us.
Before we are on the autism spectrum, we are all on the human spectrum. So let us differentiate what we are by how we are. Let’s celebrate the beautiful ways we, as autistic individuals and as an autistic community, uniquely and actively contribute to the human experience. Let’s take pride in the kindness we show that hasn’t been shown to us. Let’s thrill at the breadth and depth and life we add to the story of life on the human spectrum. Let’s lift one another with insight, invention, and autistic ingenuity. Let us speak our hearts plainly and look for every opportunity to broaden the scope of “us” that it might enhance and include all of “them.”
Make no mistake. We are building our daughters’ history. So, let’s help them find their voices and know their truth. Let’s love them and push them and support them and make them proud, ladies, because that kind of pride is unstoppable. That kind of pride is our legacy. And it lives forever.
I am not proud to be autistic. I am, however, damned proud to share this part of the human spectrum with you, my creative, beautiful, diverse, imperfect, vivacious, brilliant, luscious sisters.
Because you are so much more than my tribe.
You, dear ones, are my Pride.
About Jennifer O’Toole
Jennifer O’Toole is the creator of Asperkids LLC, author of the internationally-bestselling Asperkids book series (2012-15), host of the biweekly YouTube series and podcast, “Speaking Geek,” and an internationally-acclaimed motivational speaker. She was identified as an Aspie in 2011, just after her daughter and sons.
Jennifer is a graduate of Brown University, and did her masters’ work at Columbia & Queens Universities. Her six titles are ALL Amazon bestsellers, including several #1’s and the ASA’s 2014 Outstanding Literary Work of the Year. Jennifer sits on the Autism Society of America’s Panel of People on the Spectrum, a 2015 nominee for CNN’s Heroes, is recognized as one of the “World’s Top Aspie Mentors,” a regular contributor to Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls at the Party, a Kappa Alpha Theta Leading Woman, Make-A-Wish Inspiring Woman, and is the winner of the Temple Grandin Global Contribution Award. She has advised the President’s Council at the White House, addressed Her Royal Highness the Countess of Wessex in England, and was named one of the 50 Most Influential Women in NC. Jennifer is also an award-winning educator and mom of three (awesome) Asperkids.
Jennifer’s upcoming book Autism in Heels coming August 2018, has been already named a Top Feminist Read of 2018 by Goodreads, and delighted to announce that Booklist (the American authority on what books should be purchased by stores and libraries) has JUST given it the coveted “Starred Review” (deeming it “an outstanding literary work” in a genre).
Click to visit Jennifer’s profile on Wikipedia.