How Stereotypes Affect my Autistic Identity

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By Dana Trick

I’ve noticed that society believes people must have one primary identity. I’m pretty sure that’s not the case for many people. However, while gender, sexual, and racial identities overlapping seems acceptable, the disabled identity is not. I guess it’s because disability, both mental and physical, is still seen as something to be fixed … to be cured. Because of this, I’ve felt I should bury my autistic identity so deep that my subconscious would have no knowledge of it.

After some recollection and reflection, I believe that my almost two-decade hesitation with embracing and expressing my autistic identity was due to various obstacles. I was always told to act “normal” in public and, most frustratingly, at home. I understand that it was to prevent me from being bullied from other kids or freaking out visitors in my house, but it made me confused about who I was. Fortunately, I subconsciously resisted those normalization attempts to an extent, but it caused me to have disdain towards my autism. I didn’t hate it but I didn’t love it. Autism was part of me but I viewed it as something entirely alien to me.

The other obstacle was the definition of autism I came across during my self-research on autism. Every time I read about autism in medical/psychological encyclopedias and the internet, as well as Donna Williams’ book Nobody Nowhere, I felt I failed over half of the symptoms. For example, I understand sarcasm, metaphors, and some forms of philosophy (I personally have an interest in Eastern philosophy, mainly Buddhism and Daoism), and was accepting of change.

Consequently, I started to question and doubt myself. Do I really act like this? Am I really that kind and nice? Is the personality I have now my true self? And, how do I recover my autistic self?

Do I stim with no regard if there are people around? What do I really like? Do I actively stay away from obnoxiously loud noisy places that make me freak out? Would anyone come near me when I was being my autistic self? When should I tell friends that I am autistic and how should I incorporate it during our conversations?

It took quite a while until I realized that a person doesn’t need to feel one-hundred percent on the autism symptom checklist to be autistic. I’m still trying to find my true self.

Ironically, the enormous workload that both college and university pushed on me prevented me from making friends that I could copy behaviors from, along with my Mexican-American and sexual identities. I want to embrace my autism full-heartedly with no fear of being hurt.

The stigma surrounding autism is still prevalent in the modern-day world with two prevalent stereotypes that society believes I should act like.

First, the ever-prevalent autistic who can only speak in shouts and cries and is totally dependent on whoever is taking care of them.

Second, the savant autistic who displays incredible intellect in the fields of math and science, has an extreme lack of social and conversational skills, and needs someone to make them more “normal.” (Rain Man)

The thing about stereotypes . . . why do most “normal” people think any person of a minority has to act like a stereotype?

It is the equivalent of painting a thirty-one million square mile mural with two ounces of orange paint. Even when mixing the paint with water, there is a limit for the orange paint to cover the canvas and still allow the painter to continue painting.

Some people of a certain minority, autism in this case, may display some behaviors that appear stereotypical, but a lot of those same people don’t fall into stereotypes. Many experiences that most people with autism face are not mentioned at all in the media. It’s like we actively must be devoted to act a certain way to prove our label so people can see the “what we are” over the “who we are.”

On this journey of embracing my autistic self, I encountered these stereotypes and almost emulated them. The pressure to act like a stereotype based on inadequate information and ignorance made me feel like I could never be my autistic self. Just because I have autism does not make me either a genius or slow-minded. Just because I don’t always behave like I’m autistic doesn’t mean I don’t have autism.

I’m just me.

Autism is a part of me, not all of my me. I have my own interests, my own goals, my own dreams that can both positively and negatively be influenced by my autism. I’m hesitant to say “I’m autistic” or “I have autism” to potential friends without sounding that I’m someone who has a please-handle-with-care identity. Even worse is being told that I don’t “act like” I’m autistic.

I know it’s hard for most to change some of their actions and words to accommodate a person who’s different, but why do most “normal” people overreact at the slight mention that I’m different from them?

I love my autism and I never want to be “cured” from it.

I guess, in an ironic twist of fate, the reluctance to accept change is something both “normal” people and people with autism have in common (ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha).

But, even when I know there’s pain in this path, I’m going be happy with my autism.

I was looking through some of my old poems the other day and found a great amount of them dedicated to describing my life with autism, almost all of them hopeful and happy. The most ironic thing is that I’ve written them during the years I was “normal.” In some way, I started loving and embracing my autistic self for some time before my mother found the Art of Autism website.

Header Image: The word-bubble that my cartoon self is yelling is a parody of the chorus in Jeff Williams’ song, “This Life Is Mine” from RWBY Vol. 4 Soundtrack.

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Dana resides in Moorpark, California. She spends too much of her time reading books (fantasy, fiction, history, poetry, comics), drawing weird things that suddenly appear in her head, writing stories and poems and listening to a strange assortments of music genres that she isn’t sure what type of music fan she is.

1 Comment

  • Love this post! It doesn’t just resound for autism, but for all labels.

    For many people, the ‘labelling’ phenomena is new. Lots of ‘I didn’t know anyone with autism/adhd/dyslexia* (*delete as applicable) when I was at school. Are there really more people with these conditions? Do they even exist?’ comments abound in my place of work (as a teacher), with friends and, most annoyingly, family. Mankind has always struggled with self-identity. The questions of ‘who am I? why am I? how am I?’ are not new, but the ‘what am I?’ question is, and I think it confuses everybody over the age of 40 and appears to annoy everyone younger.

    I constantly get people looking at me quizzically when I tell them I have ADHD (which I find much easier to admit than autism). I think I actually revel in their confusion and stubborn disbelief. Honestly, it doesn’t make a difference to colleagues/friends/family if you are autistic or not. You are you. Trust me, they get it better than you do. They may not understand the root of your quirks, but do they need to? Do you understand the root of theirs? So is it any wonder that giving a label to explain yourself is simply a statement of ‘I identify as’ because, as you say, autism is not who you are. It is part of ‘what’ you are. Personally, the labels of autism and ADHD have not helped others understand me better, they’ve helped me understand myself. Now I’ve stopped trying to be who I think I’m supposed to be: I simply am. And in me finally resting easy on myself I have come into my own, which makes everyone else happier to be around me.

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