I’ve officially been diagnosed with high-functioning Asperger’s Syndrome for a while now, yet I still find it extremely difficult and uncomfortable to talk about or even mention most of the time. I mean, I’ve talked about it in previous blog posts, but I’m not so open about it in real life…
I’ve been to support groups and had counselling, but I mean it’s difficult to initially tell people not knowing how they’ll react to it or how aware they are of the many challenging issues we regularly face – whether they’ll be compassionate or just ignorant and bigoted. And it’s a tricky one with a learning disability, since there are no obvious visual indicators, therefore it’s not immediately obvious to people.
And I can’t say writing about it on here is any easier. It’s always terrifying. Yet I always manage to convince myself that I shouldn’t be ashamed of discussing it online in blog posts and via social media, as it can potentially help people.
It’s just that I don’t want to sound angry. I could be reaching so many people in the same predicament as me and who have the same experiences. There’ll people who’ll be able to relate to what I’m saying and will hopefully feel less alone.
I remember being at school, long before I fully knew or understood what exactly autism was, I was on special needs for basically all my school life. And I never knew exactly why. I was so embarrassed and guilty about it as, back then, I wanted nothing more than just to fit in, be accepted and be like the other kids. All I ever wanted to do was blend in.
I always felt so much pressure to fit in and was never ever able to really relate to anyone. I’ve always been socially inept, especially among my peers. Hence the reason, that as I got older, I embraced my solitude. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found it more and more difficult to relate to people my own age, thus making friends is a million times harder for me. I’ve always felt that I didn’t belong or fit in anywhere – I just couldn’t find my place with people.
I would always be paranoid and anxious, and I was scared whenever someone in class was brought in to support me, it’d give them even more of an excuse to be bullied. At one point, I had to sneak out to go to a meeting with the special needs team, making sure no one had any idea where I was going. I was so petrified to admit to myself that I was different from everyone else – and that has persisted throughout certain areas of my life. Being on special needs in school made me feel so insecure, like I was a broken person, like needing that little extra help was such a bad thing. I always struggled with being different.
Special needs were always seen as synonymous with bad behaviour. I was constantly being taken out of classes, moved to other classrooms and taken to the special needs department as I was considered as a burden to the other kids. I got sent to the isolation table a lot. I’d always overhear teachers talking badly about me as well.
I always feel the need to hide it due to the negativity, awkwardness, lack of understanding and social stigma, and in such a developed country as well. I’d be most likely be shouting it from the rooftops if societal attitudes were better. Especially how women and girls with autism aren’t widely represented.
I’d mostly find myself do things that I wasn’t that interested in or didn’t want to do. I’d be insecure in certain situations because my low self-esteem never really recovered.
The attitudes towards disabilities in this country are very dismissive and apathetic. People just seem to prefer to shut themselves off from it. People don’t like to discuss them and like to keep them swept well under the carpet. Anytime we hear about disabilities in this country, it’s either the “inspiration porn” of the Paralympics, where only for a brief period people with disabilities are empowered and relevant; insinuating that it’s a fuel for criminal behaviour; scapegoats for heinous events or actions; the constant negligence; sugar-coating the truth or just inaccurate stereotypes. The media doesn’t represent us accurately. So, by default, we’re automatically made to be discriminated against or put in awkward and difficult situations.
It’s the same social barriers that existed decades ago with things like race and sexuality, where people didn’t know what to say nor did they understand, so it led to segregation.
Whether it’s just the lack of disability access in venues, welfare cuts, special needs schools abundantly closing, there’s always the failure to meet the basic human rights and treats disabled people horrifically. Society just doesn’t seem to be progressing.
In social situations, I’m always torn between the idea of revealing my Asperger’s diagnosis and consequently being disparaged and alienated, or not telling anyone the truth and just telling the odd white lie and just blending in. Or at least trying to.
Blending in and trying to fit in and be normal, however draining it may be, just always seems to be the most viable option, regardless how dejected and lonely it ultimately makes me feel. I always felt pressured to create this persona, like an armour, a defence, something to hide behind. I always tried to be the person I felt would be more socially accepted by others, but it eventually becomes exhausting.
From an early age, we’ve been continuously bombarded with tonnes of coming-of-age milestones and there’s always the pressure of we must have done and/or achieved certain things by a certain age.
There’s always this propaganda that tells us we need to do more or achieve more – those never-ending obsessions with milestones. We live in a society that measures our worth and value by the milestones we have or haven’t achieved, and it’s bound to make us extremely insecure and unsure of ourselves and bring on inadequate feelings.
There’s so many preconceived ideas (in fact, TOO many) of how we should be and how our lives should be, how we should fall into stereotypes, and we’re constantly bombarded by them on a regular basis.
According to someone who isn’t on the spectrum, there’s always a set of criteria you must fulfil, and you must live your life a certain way.
Basically, if you don’t fit into society’s ideals and norms, then you’re worthless and that’s become the dominant ideology. You don’t deserve to be on this planet.
For me personally, as someone on the autistic spectrum, it’s just that much easier to get tangled up in this whole barrage of opinions, judgments and preconceptions and it’s very destabilising and alienating.
A couple of years ago on my trip to America, in which I didn’t have anywhere near the same level of knowledge or self-awareness that I have now, it was the first time I’d been on a trip without family or not as part of school or university. The first night after I met the whole group for the first time, we played ‘I Have Never’ and when I said I’d never been to a music festival or done one of those super-trashy girls’ holidays in Ibiza (my two most dreaded situations) for example, they replied ‘What have you been doing with your whole life?’
You know, the things you’d typically discuss on a night out…
Things were awkward there for a moment and felt unwelcome, devalued and embarrassed as I was just seen as immature and my reluctance to drink and I just did not know how to respond. A reminder of why 99% of the time at home I avoid social situations and human contact and always end up telling white lies and keeping my true self under wraps. It was always reinforced to me that I’d failed at life. I thought: Have they ever met a young woman with autism? Do they really understand the realities of what people with disabilities and the social perception? I doubt it…
There probably would’ve been a barrage of intrusive questions. Would they have believed me?
Thankfully, I haven’t had the ‘If I were you, I’d kill myself’ line…
I was being judged before they got a real chance to know me. So, the best thing to do was regress back to Laura circa 2008 -10, who was just starting university, living a vapid student life, drenched in insecurity after years of torment and low self-esteem, desperate to be ‘normal’, feeling the need to be out as much as possible, having pictures online, doing everything she could to be liked, being a fake version of myself at times, playing the role of a party girl, pretended to be popular and tried to blend in. It was all smoke and mirrors.
I disguised my disability the whole trip as I didn’t want any “special treatment” or any pity. I pretended it didn’t exist. Plus, I’m aware that many people feel extremely awkward around disabled people, so much so, that they actively avoid them.
That’s when it dawned on me in that moment the realities of being autistic – or having any form of disability or ailment – the fact that the things that people can do effortlessly are much more difficult and completely foreign to me and perhaps many others like me. When they people first see me, they’d initially expect me to be a certain way, someone who’s out every Friday or Saturday nights, someone who knows where the best places to go are…
The fact I am autistic would most likely come as a complete surprise to them – someone who really struggles to establish friendships and relationships, someone who’s extremely prone to meltdowns, someone who has spent years just trying to find a sense of belonging.
The fact that I would be judged before even having the chance to be known. It was just impossible for me to be open with them about it. Having autism felt like a dirty little secret, especially as it was so personal and still very raw for me at that time. I don’t fit into all these societal ideas that are constantly projected on us daily.
Even when I think about that in retrospect, it was interesting to me what it said about the typical neurotypical attitudes and perspectives. It was only a few months after my diagnosis and I was still trying to process it.
After all, a busy bar wasn’t the most appropriate place to discuss my autism diagnosis, contemplation of suicide, the years of bullying and the fact there were times when I forgot what it was like to have any human contact I was that much of a recluse. The fact I couldn’t be one of those people that complained about Monday mornings and rejoiced about Friday evenings or talk about office Christmas parties.
The second tour I went on in South East Asia I was way more comfortable in my own skin. That trip was where I had a lot of epiphanies. One of which being that I was ready to finally let go of that party girl persona I established during my university days for good, however difficult it initially was. I never told anyone about it then because I didn’t think it would be relevant to them, it was a different group dynamic and, like I said, I just never knew how they would’ve taken it. It’s so difficult when you’ve just met people and you’re going through an extremely personal thing, that if you shared, they may or may not believe.
When it comes to jobs, it’s always difficult. Would it put me at a disadvantage over other candidates? How would they react? When I do go for interviews and don’t disclose it, I always end up missing out on jobs as they got the impression I didn’t care. When I did, I still didn’t get I, so I always question how much difference it makes.
When I used to work at an e-learning company, I never told any of my managers until shortly before the contract was about to end because I was that terrified.
I remember a time when I had a meeting to come up with ideas for a struggling site and struggled to articulate as I wasn’t as experienced back then. It was like I was in a police interrogation. For someone to make me feel that awkward, uncomfortable and threatened was just unbearable – I just remember wanting the ground to swallow me up whole. It was my first ‘real’ graduate-level job since graduating from university a few years prior. I couldn’t help but wonder how it would’ve been had I mentioned anything. That’s when I knew I couldn’t trust myself to tell them.
So much so I got someone from Autism West Midlands to do it for me. I knew it would be somewhat of a risky move, but I was pessimistic and knew they’d react negatively. But it didn’t seem like a huge surprise for them.
I often find myself wishing that my identity as an autistic person was non-existent. But it isn’t though. It’s something I must live with every day and will have to live with for the rest of my life. I wouldn’t want to be ‘cured.’ If I was a neurotypical person, I wouldn’t be the person I am – I don’t think I would be as creative as I am.
It just doesn’t feel right trying to blend in and pretending I’m normal when I’m obviously different. It’s not right. At all. I can’t keep lying to myself and to other people. The truth is, I’ve never not felt different in my life, ever.
Also, normal is nothing more than just a social construct. Normal tends to mean something different to everyone. It’s entirely subjective.
I always seemed to be a million miles behind everyone else and matured much slower than all my peers. I missed out on numerous coming-of-age milestones. I feel so embarrassed about how I was when I was younger and how belittled and inferior I felt. I mean, there are times when I lament the fact I never got to be a happy teenager, have a lively social life and healthy, honest friendships. It is what it is though…
I’m thankful for the autism group and online forums, where I can find people like me and who I identify with. It’s more important now more than ever to step up and have our voices heard, challenge media narratives and power, initiate social change, break social barriers and help each other out. I’m proud to be making even the smallest difference to someone’s life through my blog. It’s so important, especially now, that people with any form of disabilities have a voice. Being popular doesn’t matter to me anymore. Disabled people are equal to everyone else and deserve equal opportunities.
‘Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are.’ – Brene Brown
Not everyone will “get” me and that’s perfectly fine. Regardless of whatever I do in my life, there’s always the possibility that I’m going to be looked upon very coldly and cynically.
But my hope is that there is much more openness in the future as well as the breakdown of stereotypes. The day will come where we’ll no longer have to be ashamed of who we are. No one should have to pretend they’re something they’re not just to fit in with societal expectations. There’s no reason why I should feel pressured to conform to any societal norms.
The day will come when I’ll be able to 100% unapologetically live an authentic life and be truly happy, so much so that all the struggles I’m facing now will be worth it.
It’s a case of what’s more important: trying to be liked and accepted for the fake version of myself or showing complete integrity and staying true to myself – the latter seems like the much better option…