By Kris McElroy
I wish I could say I go into Autism Awareness Month with joy and excitement. Instead when April 1 hits I see an intense ball of emotions behind my eyes swelling in my body as I look in the mirror and prepare to navigate the stereotypes, the stigma, the messages that have been used to tell me “I am not like other autistic people” or that “I am difficult and need to do better at making life easier,” and navigate being a part of a family who still won’t say the word “autism” or “autistic.”
This all mixes with the perceptions that I can’t be married, I can’t be a parent, I can’t contribute to the conversation, and having people applaud me for existing and graduating high school before they even ask me my name or even say hello.
It’s been a challenge.
This year I didn’t want to feel this way every time I looked in the mirror. I didn’t want to hold onto that secret shame I have carried for years about being autistic after finally getting a diagnosis as an adult. I want to ask myself as I look in the mirror exactly what in the world Autistic Pride means to me?
1. It means my soon-to-be 2-year-old daughter knows her numbers 1-20 because of my counting when I stim.
2. It means continuing to learn what it means to be in a neurodiverse relationship and what it means to be autistic within all my intersections and roles in life – including being a dad.
3. It means communicating to others that I’m an autistic dad and while my routine with flexibility or my detail-oriented questions and checking in may seem rigid on the outside; this way of communicating helps me be a present and effective dad.
4. It means changing the way I talk to myself. For example, I used to carry on the harmful messages from others from the past by continuing to say them to myself. Now when I start saying them, I change the narrative to something positive and healing such as “advocating for myself does not make me difficult rather it is a superpower” or “me being autistic is not the challenge, society wanting me to fit into all the boxes is the real challenge”.
5. While I keep telling everyone “When you meet one autistic person, you meet one autistic person,” I have started telling myself that I am still getting to know the autistic person I see in the mirror that is me and that is okay.
6. Autistic pride is a journey. Some days I am very proud to be autistic and on those days I am very connected to the strengths it brings me. On other days I am frustrated and at a loss, especially when I feel like all I am doing is encountering barriers and challenges one right after another with none of my strategies working.
7. It means understanding that for me being autistic is deeply intertwined with my mental health and my overall wellbeing. Finding resources and support for my mental health has been its journey of ups and downs.
8. It means ending the struggle to identify my emotions in the prescribed box way and replacing it with working with a therapist to connect to my own body and learn how my body and mind interpret and display feelings and emotions. This has been life-changing for me.
9. It means seeing myself as a person first with significant value; not past experiences of being treated as less than or a charity project or an educational post, or a prop for an awareness day.
10. It means permitting myself to stim.
11. It means permitting myself to engage in my special interests.
12. It means giving myself permission to eat the same things repeatedly, to wear the clothes that feel good to my sensory needs and buy multiple pairs or wear the same thing.
13. It means giving myself permission to wear my earbuds or take a break.
14. It means permitting myself to randomly quote things, use my visual imprinting skills, and watch my reruns and my 80s and 90s movies.
15. It means looking in the mirror and honoring where I am at that very moment.
Kris McElroy is a freelance writer, artist, and advocate. He is passionate about social justice issues and exploring race, disabilities, gender identity & sexuality, mental health, identity, trauma, and intersectionality. Born and raised in Maryland, Kris is an autistic biracial black transgender man with multiple disabilities who enjoys spending time with his wife and family. He received his Bachelor of Science in Psychology from the University of Maryland and a Master of Science in Multidisciplinary Human Services from Capella University.