I often wonder how children brought up with the emphasis on fitting in even survive, why they are not crushed by the weight of living as another. I know that when I was finally given a diagnosis that fit and was able to embrace it, my previous anxiety and depression lifted.
Passing – And Passing
by Jane Strauss
Intersectionality exists, though most have ignored its multiplicative effect until recently. I have lived in the junction of minority culture and disability for far longer than the junction has been recognized. Dehumanized as a Jew and again dehumanized as a disabled person, both detrimental to my existence and self actualization.
As a child, I had no labels but Jew, underachiever, and oversensitive. We lived in a White Christian-Catholic neighborhood, one of three Jewish families within miles. At certain times of the year, if I did not fly under the radar, terms like “Christ killer” were bandied about. This was because the others never saw me at Mass, not because my family actually engaged in any Jewish practices, for they had assimilated so well that I never saw a synagogue until I was 10 years old.
At school, I had a target on my back. I made friends with some teachers, but did not understand why one needed only a particular kind of clothing to be valued by other students. I read years above my level, created outstanding art (I was told), had few friends, and was bullied unmercifully by kids and even some teachers, especially the PE teacher, a wizened middle aged woman named Miss McKee. I struggled with rote memory out of context. The times tables were hell. But I escaped into theater, learning to become another, even for a little while. Theater also taught me about passing, because I practiced being somebody else. I am generally not surprised when another actor or comic self diagnoses or reveals their autistic traits. To this lapsed thespian, it only makes sense, as having a script made the difference between making it through the day at school and melting down in terror and frustration. Autistic Pride, Disabled Rights, did not exist.
I grew up learning that Passing was Necessary. I grew up hating that I had to try to Pass. I passed so well that, after moving to yet another neighborhood in which we were the minority, a kid at the school bus stop told me that some “kikes” had moved into the neighborhood. I broke his nose for that, even though he probably outweighed me by a good 50 pounds. That was when I stopped Passing, at least a little. It was the beginning of a journey.
As an adult, I tried the ultimate Passing. Not only did I pretend to be“normal”, I thought about becoming a Christian, and even was admitted into a Christian seminary, relocating in the upper midwest. My experience in seminary taught me that, even if I were to convert, I would always be seen as “the Jew” so I decided to return to my roots, the roots my parents (who had made passing into an art form) had denied in my childhood. I then found that employment was challenging, unless I passed as a member of the dominant culture I had rejected, worked on holy days, concealed my culture, and quieted my culturally exuberant communication style. Not passing resulted in queries such as “Do you wear your hair curly to hide your horns?” (Yes, even in the last quarter of the 20thcentury, folks.)
Concurrently with increasing stress and anxiety I acquired a multitude of labels: atypical learning disabilities, psychiatric conditions, but none of them really fit, or told the whole story. Finally, well into my sixth decade on the planet, and after more than three decades of wondering if speaking Autistics existed, came the Autism diagnosis. While I knew it was another undesirable (from society’s viewpoint) identity, it was finally one that made sense and I embraced it. Fortunately, I had been involved in the disability rights movement for decades by then, so passing was never an option – any more.
Passing-while it is often defined as based upon race – can also involve a divergent culture, a “hidden” disability, or both. It is a way of trying to fit in, by denying one’s core identity. It takes atoll, in self esteem, energy, stress, and watchfulness. One is always “on guard,” lest a slip be made that could lead to discovery. And the fear of “what if?” you are discovered feeds on itself and can, in the end, paralyze. It can even result in one of the “comorbids” so-called, to Autism – which is called anxiety disorder. Passing is also a euphemistic term for death. And every time one denies core identity, the result is a little bit of death, cumulative over time, lessening energy, often resulting in depression. Tiny deaths mount up and can lead to suicidality. If society wants my core to die, why not help it along?
With respect to disability, specifically Autism, the norm in treatment (especially for “social skills”) seems to be teaching us to pass for non-Autistic. The goals, and I have seen such goals both in my work as a teacher in the past and in advocacy for my youngest child, often require more stringent behavioral norms than are ever expected for the run of the mill student. This kind of program mirrors and formalizes my own injurious childhood. It teaches the Need to Pass, and in so doing denigrates the Person one Is, reminding me of the historical conscription and indoctrination of Jewish boys in Czarist Russia and the Boarding Schools to which Native children were sent.
Teaching rules is one thing, putting higher expectations on the “special education” student and grading on how well they can fake it, an entirely different kettle of fish. I often wonder how children brought up with the emphasis on fitting in even survive, why they are not crushed by the weight of living as another. I know that when I was finally given a diagnosis that fit and was able to embrace it, my previous anxiety and depression lifted. It was as if a two ton canary that had been sitting on my head finally took flight.
How many of the so-called co-morbids to Autism are a direct result of “treatments” is a puzzlement. I doubt that this will ever be researched, as the possibility of harm being discovered if such a study were honestly conducted is too great a risk for the “treatment industry”(including Universities) to countenance. It would also require that those developing and executing the research program first honestly look at the system requiring those of non-dominant races, cultures, neurologies, and abilities to deny their validity as productive members of society. And above all, it would have to take into account the harm done by passing and acknowledge that intersectionality exists.
Very well written article. Thank you for sharing your experiences. I too am autistic and now that I embrace who I am, I am the happiest I’ve ever been. I have stopped being who others want me to be and started truly being who I was meant to be. Like you it took lots of years of bullying, pretending, and ignorance on the parts of many to get to where I am now, but I am here now and won’t ever look back.
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