(CN: descriptions of ableism, ableist language, abuse, addiction, grunge culture, and a lot of navel gazing)
Well, this post is a long time coming. Those few people (if any) who read this blog without following me on social media have probably noticed something strange in my last few posts: I started identifying as autistic all of the sudden. I’m not in one of those bipolar states where I start thinking I’m an ancient, reincarnated deity, a really great painter, or someone who could make a good living as a televangelist. I really am autistic.
This diagnosis was a long time in coming. I’m not sure if I would have been better or worse off if diagnosed earlier. All I know, is I’ve suffered a great deal because of my neurodiversity, in ways I’m only now beginning to realize. Before, I blamed myself for the raw treatment I received. Ableism is a horrible thing, especially when internalized.
I was born in 1977, which is old enough to put me in the other army of the ageism battle than a lot of you. Autism wasn’t even a diagnosis until like 1984 or something, and it was well into the ‘90s before I’d ever heard of it.
When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time alone, nerding out on special interests: writing Lord of the Rings fanfic, cataloguing every species of plant that grew around my home, and trying to form telepathic bonds with my cats. I was so in my own head that I rarely had the “correct” reaction to social stimuli. I would often become overloaded in social situations and explode, or do strange things (like rubbing blankets on my face or licking someone’s silk shirt) to calm down. I didn’t care about wearing fashionable (or even presentable) clothing or brushing my hair. When my daily routine was interrupted, or if my environment were too noisy/frenetic, I’d have embarrassing meltdowns. I had very few friends, as you might imagine.
Anyway, if I’d been born in 2001, I would have been in all sorts of horrible programs and special ed classes. I dodged a bullet, I think (even though I was skipped a grade, which was a nasty idea because of my lack of mainstream social skills). Back when I was a kid, autistic people weren’t called autistic; they were “nerds” and “weirdos” (or worse, depending). We suffered horrid ableism—the same way we do now—but most of us were left more or less to our own devices. I didn’t have any formal brainwashing, but I was punished for my “bad behavior” and exiled for my social oddness. I hated myself for that behavior, but could never manage to control it.
I’ve spoken before about the physical/emotional/sexual abuse I suffered as a young teenager. Neurodiverse people are A LOT more likely to suffer abuse of all kinds, and I fell into that category. That was partly because of my lack of neurotypical social skills, and the scars ableism had put on me: I was a flashing target for abusers. I just wanted someone to pay attention to me, and figured I deserved whatever abuse I got, because I was such a disgusting, annoying loser who couldn’t act right.
I’ve discussed my other diagnoses ad nauseum, so I won’t go into it further here. At any rate, I was a psychological hot mess by the end of high school (not because I’m autistic or bipolar, but because of ABLEISM, to be clear). By the time I was in college, I was doing heroin to control the psychosis, depression, and anxiety.
I think a word about college here, because grandma Liz is in a sentimental mood.
I went to The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, during the height of the grunge era (so yeah, Nirvana, Beck, Built to Spill, Sleater-Kinney and I all hung out in the same damp coffee shops, wiping our snuffy noses on each other’s alpaca wool hats). A lot of people have just recently heard about Evergreen, because of the protests there. That sort of thing is nothing new at Evergreen.
Evergreen was (probably still is) a great college for certain types of neurodiverse people, comparatively. No tests. No grades (just evaluations). And back then, you didn’t even have to declare a major. Also, you could do independent study courses, where you would propose an area of research to a professor, and if they approved it you could go on your merry way, researching dogs’ emotional responses to music in New Orleans as opposed to Austin, or whatever, and write a report at the end of the semester for your sixteen credits.
I thought I’d fit in great at Evergreen. I considered myself something of an intellectual and an artist (I’m a musician, and I wrote back then as well, though not as much as I do now). Additionally, I’d come out as bisexual in high school, and I knew they had a thriving LGBTQ (or just “gay” as we called it back then) community at Evergreen.
Unfortunately, I fit in even worse there than I had in my rural high school. I just couldn’t get social situations right, and boy were social situations complicated in college. That time, much like now, was one of radical exploration of culture and bias, and I always somehow ended up on the wrong side of those debates. Once, when looking for an apartment, I asked a friend who had a room for rent at her house. She told me I had to be a lesbian in order to rent there; bisexual wasn’t “gay enough”. When I pointed out she herself was currently dating a dude, though (which is what we called cishet males back in the days when we wore onions on our belts), she said she was a lesbian currently dating a dude, and she got mad at me for not understanding the difference.
I felt incredibly left behind by the entire social justice movement at the time, in fact. I was looked down upon for my abused woman syndrome; if I had any self-respect, I was told, I’d be able to rise above my abuse more than I had. Some guy friends of mine let me play in one of their bands once for a show; the women told them it was about time they had a woman in their band, but after they saw me play said I was too timid to be interesting. I probably made those girls think I hated them or something, because I couldn’t make eye contact or small talk, but still.
There were more social narratives in that environment than I’d had to deal with in high school, and I wasn’t good at social narratives to begin with. It was horrifying.
So I retreated. I completed my education by independent contract (living with Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and staring an organic farm business back home). I fell into my heroin addiction, and into another abusive relationship. I ended up in prison for the heroin eventually. I’ve gone on and on about those stories elsewhere in my blog.
I didn’t think of myself as neurodiverse. I just thought of myself as a failure, and too weak to do life correctly. Even when, a long time later, I began to recognize my neurodiversity, I continued to run on internalized ableism. I can’t help but think this is at least partially because I’d been alienated from the message of empowerment in college. The social justice movement is taking a long time to embrace neurodiversity.
I wanted to point this out only because this dynamic has not changed much in the SJW arena: there is SO MUCH ableism. People accept mental illness and neurodiversity (and the signs of abuse) as long as they follow the accepted narrative and fit into the box people are comfortable with. The whole thing about neurodiverse people is we don’t fit into that narrative the way neurotypical people expect, though.
We need to do better. I don’t want more young people to be driven away the way I was. If I had been embraced for what I was back then, my life might have gone very differently. We need to renounce ableism—even internalized ableism—and be a safe place for neurodiverse people of all kinds. We especially need to avoid ableism during call-outs (if you believe in call-out culture at all, as it currently exists). Pointing out homomisia etc. doesn’t mean much if you’re being incredibly ableist while doing it.
At any rate, it was a long, long time before I was able to love myself for who I am.
I won’t go into the long process of accepting my bipolar and PTSD, which came first; I’ve written about that elsewhere on my blog. But my acceptance of those parts of myself led me to the neurodiverse community. There, I finally found others who believed as I was coming to believe: that having a brain that worked differently was something to be proud of, rather than ashamed.
Of course, most people in the neurodiverse community don’t really believe psychosis or bipolar are things to be proud of, and things that don’t need curing. They aren’t…but that’s another subject I’ve gone on and on about in other posts.
Finding the neurodiverse community taught me a lot about autism, something I was researching anyway at the time, since I was having real marriage difficulties. My last husband was undiagnosed autistic—I’m sure of this now. I used to think it was his autism that was causing our marital difficulties, but as I learned more about it, I realized that autism wasn’t the problem at all. It was his abusive, toxic masculinity that was causing our marital difficulties.
As I learned and interacted more with people in the autistic community, though, I found myself identifying with them a lot. People talked about needing to fidget and stim, their social difficulties, their emotional overloads… that was me in spades. Eventually, I took an online diagnostic test, which was pretty definitively in the “most likely autistic” category. So, I took another, with the same result.
It’s taking me a while to get used to the new label, but not as long as I thought it would, since it fits me so well. I haven’t yet decided whether I’ll get formal testing. It could open up new counseling opportunities, but I’m not sure how effective those would be anyway. The only real reason I’d get formal testing is to avoid the reactions of doctors and neurotypical people when I tell them I’m self-diagnosed. I’m so used to ableism at this point, unfortunately, that this consideration doesn’t hold much water with me, though.
Self-diagnosis is valid; a lot of us would bang our heads on the wall trying to get a diagnosis otherwise. It would have been cool if a doctor had spotted I was autistic earlier, so that I could have perhaps gotten more appropriate psychological care. But doctors don’t know much about autism. They say things like, “You’re just smart/shy/introverted/anxious,” or, “You’re not autistic! An autistic person wouldn’t be able to sit here talking with me like this! An autistic person wouldn’t have a job!” Or, “Sure, you might be autistic, but we’re all ‘on the spectrum’.”
Ableism abounds. Neurodiverse people are scalp-deep in it all the time, so we kind of have to get on with things despite it. Diagnosing ourselves is just one aspect of that.
If you’re interested in taking the test yourself, here’s one…I’m not finding the first one I took, for some reason. That one was cool because it had a graph of where in the “spectrum” you were with regard to your social life, romantic life, and intellectual life. If someone has the link to one like that, I’d appreciate it.
If you’re interested, I got a 37 on the Psych Central test that I linked to above 😊