Hi. Welcome. I am so glad to be here with you all today. I am Lauren Melissa Ellzey, also known as Autienelle across social media and self-advocacy networks. And I am thrilled to be here today to talk about all these different types of Autistic relationships. And in particular today, with me, the Autistic relationship with identity or self-acceptance.
Now self-acceptance is multifaceted. It is so many things. It has so many layers and it is such a buzzword I feel like these days. Self-acceptance often seems tied to self-love. And in the modern day narrative self-love is something that we’re supposed to be able to acquire, completely and totally on our own, completely and totally separate from what society might even be telling us about ourselves. And here today, in these few minutes, I wanna try to unpack what self-acceptance can look like as a journey for Autistic individuals in a society that doesn’t really accept us.
Self-acceptance, firstly, is self-understanding. How can we accept ourselves if we don’t quite know who we are as individuals and who we are as Autistics? I had to not only accept me, but I had to peel back the layers of who I am in my multiplicity of intersecting identities. And the main one I’m gonna start focusing with right now is Autism. The definition of Autism, in and of itself, is so tied to my ability to accept myself as Autistic. So let’s take a look at two definitions. One by the APA and one by the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. So we see here, according to the APA, “Autism Spectrum Disorder is any one of a group of disorders with an onset typically occurring during the preschool years and characterised by varying but often marked difficulties in communication and interaction.” On the other side, we see here, from the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, “Autism Spectrum Disability. A developmental disability that affects how we see the world, we as in Autistics, and Autism is a normal part of life. We think, process our senses, move, communicate, socialise, all of these things differently and we might need help with daily living.” These two definitions are very different and we might say that they highlight the difference between viewing Autism and Autistics through a deficit lens or through a strengths-based or neutral lens. My life, I have seen and been confronted with narratives around Autism that are very deficit-focused. And how can I accept myself as an Autistic if I only see myself as deficits? When in reality so many Autistic traits are really neutral if we just look at them a little bit differently.
Across my path and journey of self-acceptance, I began to rewrite these traits that are being thrown at me through a deficit lens in a way that is neutral. This way I can just see Autism as a part of me and not as a thing that I should change. For example, “restricted interests”. That’s very deficit focused. What if it’s just “focused area of expertise”? What if an Autistic trait that is often worded as “difficulty with socializing” can be thought of as “prefers one-on-one interaction, company of nature, company of animals”? Or “difficulty multitasking” can really easily be rephrased as “tackles tasks one at a time”. These are differences. I am different and I can accept myself as different very easily when difference isn’t viewed as a deficit.
Being Autistic, in my journey of Autism, has really looked like people not saying that they can see it. “Oh, I didn’t see you as Autistic.” Claiming that Autism has “a look”. But Autism, as many of us know, doesn’t look any particular way. We’re all so different on the Autism spectrum. And what’s more, is that when I am different, when I am so seemingly obviously Autistic, since nobody wanted to acknowledge my Autism beforehand or since most people don’t seem to really know what Autism is outside of deficits, my differences take on this strange form in other people’s minds.
So I accept myself as unique, but others who know less about Autism and know less about me come to these assumptions that I’m weird or I’m a malodiversary. I love that word, malodivergent. It means, well, I don’t actually love the word itself, it’s meaning and when it’s applied to me, but it’s a very powerful word. And that it means someone who tries to be different because being different is popular. I’ve been accused of that a lot in my life by people who said I don’t look Autistic but then make assumptions about my identity. So I am different. Other people might say that I’m wrong or that my differences make me a problem. I feel that I’m very innovative. A thinker outside of the box. But in the classroom and in the workplace that can be seen as being contrary. Contrary to the norm. Contrary to the status quo and therefore distracting. Innovation can be distracting when people wanna plug along in the same way. So all of this is to say, as I try to accept myself, as I grow in self-acceptance, I’m tossed these other words at my way that sometimes they can feel like I alone am knocking to the side, as I struggle and battle to accept myself despite what others tell me about myself.
And then self-acceptance is self-expression. As others try to tell me who I am despite what I know about myself, you know, many Autistics are actually often targeted to change who we are. We are targeted for normative behavioural interventions that seek to change our differences. The right to express ourselves without behavioural intervention is certainly connected to our ability to access self-acceptance.
Self-acceptance is often tied to the freedom to intersectionally express one’s whole self. So I’ll take a moment to talk about myself individually, but please remember how every Autistic is so different. We have so many different intersecting identities, but I’ll position myself as one example. So I am Autistic, I am multiracial, and I am queer. These are intersecting elements of my identity. And within each of these intersecting identities there is a marginalisation that I face. There is a push to assimilate that I experience from others and I’m combating that as I strive to accept myself wholly. And within there I am Autistic and a woman. I am multiracial and part of a very underrepresented group of racial identity. And I am queer. And according to a study on Autism research by George and Stokes, 69.7% of Autistics identify as non-heterosexual, versus 30.3% of typically developing peers, “typically developing”. So even within my identities that I’m desperately wanting to express, I’m experiencing underrepresentation, marginalisation, and then there’s this call, “Oh, self-love, self-love.” It’s a fight to get to that. It’s a fight for Autistics to access self-acceptance and self-love. It’s a fight to express who we are without others trying to change us.
I want to take a moment to pause even more fully on that queer element. And when I talk about queerness and Autism, I wanna make sure that I’m encompassing LGBTQ. That this is gender diversity as well as non-heterosexuality. And so within this, I wanna give a trigger warning before I state the following statistic around suicide. But according to the Trevor Project, 40% of queer youth contemplate suicide. And we know now that 69.7% of Autistics identify as non-heterosexual. That need to express ourselves, to express ourselves and have that expression be accepted, is key to self-acceptance. Seeing and embracing differences and the expression of difference is acceptance. Acceptance is not making everyone the same or seeing everyone as the same. Without the freedom to express ourselves, it is hard to accept ourselves. But once we taste that freedom and are afforded safety to express, we can begin to shout out loud in self-acceptance.
Which leads me to my last spot, last point, last area. Self-acceptance is self-determination. Self-determination theory comes from Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, initially in the research, and has just grown and grown. And self-determination is something we talk a lot about in disability communities. Self-determination discusses how individuals need to feel autonomous, competent, and a sense of relatedness and belonging in order to lead lives where we can determine our outcomes. This is a huge deal. Autistics are fighting for self-determination to lead lives as we see fit, to lead fulfilling lives. Fulfilment is key to acceptance, to self-acceptance.
Let’s pause and consider autonomy. Autonomy is where we can make our own choices, we can feel a sense of control in where we are going and in our futures. Self-acceptance is not accepting what society may say is my so-called “lot in life”, that I can’t make my own decisions because of my disability. “They don’t know how to make the right decisions.” These ableist assumptions about who I am, about what I want and what I need, and me not even being able to determine that for myself. We need to feel autonomous in order to feel a sense of accepting of self. Every Autistic deserves autonomy. Autonomy may look and feel different for each of us, but I can only fully accept myself when I am given the autonomy to state who I am and to state what I need. And I’m gonna go the extra mile and say not only should I be able to state that, advocate for that, but receive the respect in return that my wants, needs, and self-identity is valid.
Beyond autonomy we have belonging. And despite what popular culture may want us to believe, self-acceptance rarely happens outside of feeling cared for and connected to some form of community. A lot of my self-acceptance occurred in tandem with meeting and hearing from other Autistic individuals through books and online. Autistics often socialise differently. We often connect differently. Myself, personally, I really enjoy internet and online connection. Yet I’ve often been told that that’s weird and that I should push that to the side and instead strive for in-person socialising as though that’s the best and only way to find authentic belonging. Belonging can look different for different people depending on our needs around socialising, depending on our socialising capacities. I experience a lot of social overload, but online, as I connect with my Autistic communities, communities intersecting across my identities, and as I read books about people who experience things similarly to me, I feel a deep sense of belonging.
Also, as I grow in my ability to advocate for myself, as I grow in autonomy, and I have people respecting my boundaries, I do find that I belong more in spaces. The less I have to pretend to not be Autistic, the more I feel like I belong in a community because I’m being accepted for being Autistic. I want to accept myself and I wholly accept myself now for being Autistic. It’s really hard to do that when the voices around you are saying, “Mask it,” “Change it,” “Change your behaviour,” “Be like us,” “Not you is better than real you.” Belonging can be achieved through accepting these differences. And I definitely know that in those online communities and that world of belonging my growth and self-acceptance flourished.
And lastly, here in self-determination, we have competence. So everyone has strengths. The more space we offer Autistics to see and embrace and be empowered through our competence, through our inherent strengths, through our developed strengths, the more we can be freed from the overwhelming weight of deficit mindsets. How can I accept myself when I am inherently a deficit? That’s just not true. Everyone is different. Everyone has different strengths and everyone has competencies. Seeing those, embracing those, and feeling empowered by my strengths has been key for me. Discovering and fostering my own strengths in writing, research, storytelling, and design has helped me to foster a healthier relationship to myself. Upon that foundation of a healthier relationship, I have been growing in my self-acceptance. It is discouraging, though, that I’ve had to do so much of this work on my own, that I’ve had to seek out so much on my own my strengths. Of course we can do that on our own. We truly do need communities rallying around Autistics, around so many groups of people, so many individuals seeing, choosing to see the strengths.
Sometimes it can be easy to look at what we don’t like. Maybe because we spend a lot of time looking at what we don’t like in ourselves. But fostering a strengths mindset of ourselves, fostering a strengths mindset in how we see others, builds up self-acceptance, builds up communal acceptance, builds up strength of identity.
So I’d like to conclude with three messages. One to my younger self, one to my future self, and one to those listening. These messages are around self-acceptance. They’re around relationship to identity. So to my younger self. You spent so much time trying to mould yourself into anyone else. And they may have told you to “be yourself”, but they never seemed to mean it. You are beautiful. And this world needs a lot of changes. Being like everyone else isn’t gonna make those changes happen. It may take time, but piece by piece you can accept yourself, and your differences, and your identities. And from there you can join so many others in making changes. To my future self. Self-acceptance doesn’t really end, especially for Autistics. We’re rapidly learning and unlearning things about Autism like wildfire. Always remember, self-acceptance is radical, because, for Autistics, it means accepting what others don’t want to see. And it is truly radical when self-acceptance leads to acceptance of all differences. And lastly, my third message to those listening, Autistic and non-autistic. The more we insist on being someone else outside of our identities, the more we expect others to do the same. Our world is diverse. It’s neurodiverse. Maybe it’s time to accept our world for what it is. Full of differences. Thank you.
The Reframing Autism team would like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the lands on which we have the privilege to learn, work, and grow. Whilst we gather on many different parts of this Country, the RA team walk on the land of the Birpai, Awabakal, Wattamattagal, Whadjak, Amangu, Bunurong and Kaurna Yarta peoples.
We are committed to honouring the rich culture of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of this Country, and the diversity and learning opportunities with which they provide us. We extend our gratitude and respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and to all Elders past, present, and emerging, for their wisdom, their resilience, and for helping this Country to heal.