Autism, Ableism and the Key to Self-acceptance

Written by Esme Jay

In a world like ours, accepting yourself as an Autistic person can be a job like no other. It can often feel futile; as if there are a thousand barriers standing in the way. We are taught, intentionally or unintentionally, to think that disability is a bad thing. From teasing at school, gung-ho attitudes to capability, and media displays of inspiration porn, right down to lacklustre workplace accommodations and social stereotyping, we are taught that disability is somehow not okay. In truth, this is BS.

This is BS because disability is a natural, inevitable, reasonable variation of the human experience. Wherever you find humanity, you will also find disability.

I could ramble on and on about this forever, and one day maybe I should, but for now — this is about you. 

Ableism has likely played a massive part in how you see yourself, and perhaps how you see your life. You might view yourself and your existence through a solely neurotypical lens, and thus, nothing you see is ever in focus. You think that you and your life are inferior: that you are worth less as a person, and your place on this planet is less important. 

Of course, I’m guessing. You might not think these things. And that’s okay. Hell, that’s an amazing thing. But I suspect, to one degree or another, that you struggle — or have struggled —  to accept yourself for who you are.

For most of my life, I thought I should fold into conformity. I thought that my differences made me ugly and useless and a little bit creepy. I tried so hard to fit in that I often put myself in dangerous situations, or didn’t remove myself from toxic environments when I should have, and I thought that proving myself to a neurotypical world was the most important thing I’d ever do. “Hey, look! I’m one of you! I can do the cool stuff you do!” Of course, this didn’t work out.

I discovered that it was destroying me. 

Pretty recently, to be honest.

Maybe only this year.

I used to believe that the Autistic community was a purely safe space — somewhere I could finally be myself after years of hiding. It turns out that there is a whole lot of toxicity among Autistic people, too. I guess it would be ableist to think otherwise — kind of like that whole “disabled people are pure” trope.

Well, I’m here to tell you this: Autistic people are mean and spiteful and lovely and angry and beautiful and sexy and hurtful and witty and sad and funny and kind, because Autistic people are people.

In a way, that’s cool. In another way, it’s hard. It’s hard because it means that safe places don’t always feel safe.

In my opinion, relying on huge, multifarious communities for self-acceptance isn’t always a great idea. There’s in-fighting, there’s discourse, and sometimes there’s cruelty at very hurtful levels. I  experienced some of this first-hand, and it made me recoil. I whipped right back into my shell and lost my identity again. Feeling too afraid to be myself, I once again sought conformity in an attempt at being liked. In truth, not being liked terrified me. It reminded me of alienation and othering and, more domestically, abuse. “Why are you like this? Who does these things?” I wanted people to see me as one of the crowd. 

Later, I realised that being “one of the crowd” is a fruitless ordeal. You can never please everybody. Some people will prefer you one way, and others will prefer you another way. Yet others will never prefer you at all, because they just don’t like you. Trying to be one of the crowd merely amplifies this effect: like taking a photo of yourself under a fluorescent light, you come away wondering who the hell you are, and knowing that who you are ain’t you

After some very dark-night experiences, I went on one of those annoying soul-searching journeys. My mental state was like one of those movie montages where the person is drifting through domesticity and misery and the humdrum of the everyday: drinking green tea by windows and staying in bed until afternoon. It was a very Roman Polanski type thing. Have you ever seen Rosemary’s Baby? Well, I was Rosemary after she starts figuring out that her neighbours are demons. 

Only, I’m not Rosemary, and I don’t know my neighbours, and I wasn’t thinking about demons: I was thinking about how there is toxicity everywhere, interwoven with kindness and beauty and love and respect and autonomy. Sometimes even in the same place. And that was strange.

Polarising my views of people — “Autistic people are safe; neurotypical people are scary,” — did absolutely nothing for me. Frankly, it did nothing for them, either, because it’s an arrogant disservice to think that you can understand people just because of who they are. People are a lot less black-and-white than you might guess. People are weird, and complex, and complicated, and they have about as many shadows as a forest in early evening. It’s almost impossible to look at someone — even someone you know well — and say that they are one way or another. A lot of the time, people can be one thing and also be something else, perhaps simultaneously. Brilliant dichotomies.

I realised that if I wanted to accept myself, I had to start accepting other people, too. And accepting people means accepting that people aren’t always acceptable. People do unacceptable things all the time. For some reason, I thought that this would be different in the Autistic community. I thought that once I found my community, my people, nobody would ever be horrible to anyone and everything would alway turn out okay. I guess I shot myself in the foot with that.

For a start, I’ve been horrible to people. I will probably be horrible to people again. As much as human beings enjoy flag-bearing our own righteousness, we can all be scathing little dickweeds now and then. It’s part of the whole circle of life. “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” That’s a Samuel Beckett line. Beckett is one of my most favourite writers — and philosophers to boot — and if you ever feel yourself becoming a little too goddamn self-righteous, reading Beckett is sure to set you back where you belong: among the crowds of wasters and thrivers and gigglers and cryers. Actual humans, living actual lives. 

Seeing everyone as a human being — no more, no less — allowed me to see that I was just another person trying to navigate life. I wasn’t one thing or another; I was a blend of different things, just like everyone else. And if I could accept other people as a blend of good, bad, and everything in between, then I could learn to accept myself this way, too. A person doesn’t have to be a carbon copy of perfection to be valuable: our value is intrinsic because we are human. 

Esme Jay is an Autistic/ADHD advocate and socially anxious oatmeal enjoyer. To read more of their writing, please follow them at Pixie’s Big Why on Instagram.

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