Written by JayJay Mudridge
Presented at Reframing Autism’s online Symposium on Autistic Flourishing: Acceptance, Authenticity, Autonomy, 5 November 2021
CW: ABA, trauma, suicide, coarse language
I’m an Autistic educator/academic tutor, a multiply published poet, a hobbyist CrossFit athlete, and I run the page Not Another Autistic Advocate on Facebook where I attempt to dispel cultural myths about Autism and Autists, and I have an audience of over ten thousand. So, if you can, go give that a follow. There’s your plug. I figured I’d get it out of the way early.
When … when I was asked to speak at Reframing Autism’s Biannual Symposium, I was friggin’ elated. Then I saw what the topic was on: Flourishing Authentically. And my Autism Brain panicked a little, because of how nebulous it seemed at first.
The first question that came to my mind was, “Is there a way to flourish inauthentically? Is it really flourishing if it is inauthentic?” Which I thought about for a little while, and came to the conclusion pretty quickly that yes, one can absolutely flourish inauthentically.
As an Applied Behaviour Analysis survivor, I’m well versed in flourishing inauthentically. For those unfamiliar with the term, Applied Behaviour Analysis, or ABA, is at its core conversion “therapy” for Autistics. It’s rooted in stim suppression and extinguishing behaviours that identify us as Autistic. The father of ABA even stated that its fundamental goal is to make us indistinguishable from our peers. I’m not sure it’s an ABA-survivor specific struggle, but rather an Autistic-specific struggle, because most of our – that is, society’s – conceptualisations of flourishing are based in neuronormative standards. Which is why we can have ABA survivors recounting how their lives were destroyed before they could even have a chance to begin, lives like my own, and dominant culture responds with how we are actually Applied Behaviour Analysis success stories; praises us for quote-unquote how “high functioning” we are; posits that we are successful because we spent so long within the existential torture that is ABA programming.
One can very much flourish inauthentically, especially in childhood. Because of the way society treats children in general, flourishing is often defined by parents’ conceptualisations of it, doubly so if the child is Autistic. In fact, when the child is Autistic the goal seems to become inauthentic flourishing. The reason I specify that it’s inauthentic flourishing is parents see progress while the Autistic child is experiencing the trauma of masking.
The only thing ABA teaches is masking, and Autistic masking leads to anxiety, depression and suicide. Studies have been done on this; it’s not just speculation or personal experience – and I absolutely have the personal experience here – it’s science. Cassidy et al said in their 2018 paper that was titled ‘Risk markers for suicidality in Autistic adults’ that:
“Camouflaging significantly predicted suicidality in the ASC group after controlling for age, sex, presence of at least one developmental condition, depression, anxiety, employment, satisfaction with living arrangements. Camouflaging and age of ASC diagnosis and suicidality and age of ASC diagnosis were not significantly correlated. This suggests that camouflaging is directly associated with suicidality rather than in combination with ASC diagnosis. Camouflaging also explained significant additional variance in suicidality above depression or anxiety, suggesting that the association with suicidality is, at least in part, independent of mental health. This is the first evidence of camouflage being a unique independent risk factor for suicidality in ASC.”
In slightly more accessible terms, at least I hope, what this quote is saying is that camouflaging, or masking, our Autistic traits – traits that have a neurobiological imperative – leads to suicide in us. In fact, suicide is one of the leading causes of death among Autistics. The researchers controlled for other mental health conditions, age of diagnosis of Autism, and whether individuals were satisfied with their living and employment situations; even with doing this, they found that masking was related to suicide in Autistic individuals.
My mask looks like this in casual conversation: “Smile. Run intro scripts. Look in their eyes. Don’t flap. Don’t spin. Don’t rock. Use tonal inflections. No, that is too much tonal inflection. Smile. Don’t look towards that sound. Direct the conversation towards them. Keep your hands by your sides. What does that facial expression mean? No, you can’t ask that! Look in their eyes. Don’t flap. Keep personal anecdotes to a minimum.” Ad infinitum.
Autists often create a persona closer to that of neurotypicals or at least more acceptable to neurotypicals, in order to survive in a world not made for us. Some examples of this are performing extroversion, suppressing noticeable stims, thinking about the minutiae of each interaction, overemphasising tonal inflection (like I am likely doing right now), adopting ways to hold our bodies that cause us discomfort if not pain, and not using adaptive technology like noise-cancelling headphones or sunglasses, and more. It’s exhausting.
Whether we were taught to mask in ABA, by parents or caregivers who didn’t accept our authentic Autistic selves, or a lifetime of exclusion and social ostracisation for our Autistic traits, the world created a need for us to do so.
Neuromajorities perceive difference as a threat, as something to be eradicated. It’s not an active choice; it’s a defence mechanism and a survival strategy. It isn’t deception; it’s surviving in a world that doesn’t accept Autists as we are, that routinely excludes us at every turn all the while on the surface calling for our acceptance and inclusion. But it … it harms us. Now, back to difference as a threat and how it relates to flourishing inauthentically. Forced normality is a logical fallacy because appeal to normality is a logical fallacy – any argument that argues on the premise that “normal” is tantamount to something being good is logically fallacious; whether something is normal or not tells us nothing about the thing itself, least of all whether it is moral, or right or preferable.
And in the case of Autistic Culture, and how flourishing inauthentically is an easy trap to fall into when society, as it is currently structured, produces, I would wager to bet, next to zero untraumatised Autists, and this is because the pressure to flourish inauthentically – that is, flourish in relation to neuronormative standards. This is because as a society we push quote-unquote “therapies” like ABA, that are at their very core and fundaments, a process to make Autistics conform – to our detriment and for the arbitrary comfort of others.
I had compliance drilled into me as a child in ABA, where both food and things I love were withheld for compliance and effective masking of my Autistic traits. I developed a fawn trauma response; what was taught to me is that my existence, as is, is unacceptable. This carried over into adulthood in a flurry of giving more than I receive, being satisfied with crumbs, existing as an afterthought, and needing to constantly justify why I deserve a seat at the table.
Apologising comes as easy to me as breathing, because I’ve never had a space to exist without feeling like my mere presence was stepping on the toes of neuromajorities. [As Paul Collins wrote,] “The problem with pounding a square peg into round holes is not that the hammering is hard work; it’s that you’re destroying a perfectly good square peg.”
As an adult, and as an advocate, the goal is to be so openly and authentically myself that other people feel safe doing so. If existing in a world that isn’t built for me around people who don’t accept me has taught me anything, it’s taught me that if you need to constantly justify your seat at the table, it’s time to build a new table. In my opinion, unmasking is key to living – and therefore flourishing – authentically. For those who have been masked for most of their life, it can be hard to tell where the mask ends, and their own personality begins. Often, I get followers in my inbox or in my comments section mentioning that they don’t understand how Autistics can unmask, especially when it’s a trauma response based in the way the world treats us. So today I want to outline my process on how I unmasked. First, it should be acknowledged that a good amount of this comes from a place of privilege as a white, cis-passing-ish Autist and a semi high profile advocate. Racialised and otherwise marginalised Autists may not be able to unmask fully.
Firstly, I acknowledged that it was harmful. I learned all the social rules, behaved in socially acceptable ways, I didn’t infodump, I inflected my voices, I made eye contact despite it burning and feeling too intimate and awkward, I suppressed my stims – and I was rejected anyways!
People still found a way to reject me, not because I came across as Autistic, but because I came across as weird. Secondly, I acknowledged that it is exhausting. Masking takes time, energy, spoons and cognitive bandwidth. When I was masking, I would go to work and I would come home with no energy to walk my dogs, or make food, or read, or do anything other than just lay there depressed because of the energy thinking about the minutiae of every interaction, every word, every movement and whether it was neurotypical enough.
Three. I acknowledge that there’s nothing wrong with being Autistic and existing in Autistic modalities, it’s not a bad thing. Like I said before, appeal to normality is a logical fallacy, plus Autism is normal. If it wasn’t beneficial in some way, it would have been weeded from the gene pool millennia ago. Just because others see you as different doesn’t mean you’re hurting anybody.
Four, I committed to self-care in adaptive technology. Existing Autistically is self-care. Wear those noise-cancelling headphones to make the sounds bearable. Wear the sunglasses if they make the lights easier for you. These exist for a reason, and that’s to make you more comfortable in a world that isn’t built for you.
Some people will absolutely look at you weird, but they are adaptive needs, similar to, you know, wearing glasses or wearing a hearing aid, and you’re not responsible for anybody else’s ableism.
If someone says something to you or makes a rude comment, remind them of how cute you look.
Fifth, I committed to the stim. Commit to not suppressing the ways your body naturally moves and wants to express emotions. Do you want to flap your hands when you’re happy? Fucking flap, dude! You look joyful. Do you need to stomp when you’re angry? Me too, you deserve to. The human body is an amazing vessel for expression and emotion and Autists express our emotions bodily. Remember that nobody else is expected to suppress their natural body language, so why should you?
Six, disclose if you feel comfortable. Not to everyone, but I’ve found that for me it can mitigate social stressors. I’m often accused of having “a tone”, of sounding or looking angry. So I tell people that part of the way my Autism manifests is not knowing how my voice sounds or my face looks. It doesn’t always match my words. So please pay attention to what I say instead of my tone or facial expression, because they don’t always correlate.
Seven, realise that other masked Autistics who are suffering under their mask may see you unmasking and see it as permission for them to exist in Autistic modalities as well.
Eight, be aware that it will be lonely at first. People will stare, people will make rude comments, people will ask you not to stim or not use adaptive technology because they think it’s weird. People will leave.
But the people who leave you were never your tribe in the first place. And people will gravitate towards you, the right people will see you being your full self and be enamoured of and impressed by your authenticity.
You’ll find people who find your quirks charming, who learn what your stims mean, who see poetry in your flaps, who prompt you to infodump and then listen. Unmasking, for me, has given me a way to gauge where and when, and also with whom, I can exist Autistically – and to what degrees I can.
Nine, understand that you deserve to exist in ways that make you comfortable. You deserve to be accommodated and acknowledged. Autism is beautiful, and so are you. It’s not a reflection on you if others don’t see that. For me, flourishing authentically means disconnecting from pathology paradigms.
I wasn’t always the positive advocate with a take-no-prisoners attitude towards accepting Autistic neurologies a value-neutral fact, with mildly shouting proud-esque joy in making neurotypicals uncomfortable in ways that hurt no one. Unlike many self-advocates I was diagnosed very early, especially for somebody who’s assigned female at birth. I’ve always known I was Autistic which lends to an entirely different set of problems.
I grew up with what the Autistic advocacy community would call ‘Murder Parents,’ or ‘Autism Warrior Parents’, adults in my life who made my disability the centre of their identity. Talked in hushed tones about my neurology around me. Who were always discussing with neighbours or relatives, or whoever, how hard it was to parent a child like me. Who broadcast my struggles to anybody who listened and wielded puzzle piece iconography like a weapon.
I have to this day never attended a prom or even been asked to dance. And I missed out on routine childhood experiences like slumber parties and team sports, and dates because I quote-unquote “have Autism”. All this under the guise of advocating for me. All this while calling for my acceptance and inclusion. As long as I didn’t show what I really was. When I cut off my family of origin and I found the Autistic advocacy community, my universe flipped on its head. I saw people out and proud as Autistic. Whereas I’d always tried to hide my neurology. I saw people stimming in joyful ways. Giving advice in Autistic-specific life hacks for social situations and sensory overload. I saw a bevy of noise cancelling headphones and sunglasses and big floppy hoodies. I learned about the social model of disability. I listened to non-speakers using their AAC to make YouTube videos about Autistic communication and their own inner worlds.
I saw people with struggles that were the same as mine, for the first time. And I learned that there are other ways to think about Autism. Finding community was my first step in flourishing authentically.
Real community, not a community of, you know, students pretending they weren’t Autistic to please their families, or denying neurobiology.
And, it wasn’t easy. It was kind of a shock to my system. But the acceptance into the advocacy community, the frank discussions about accessibility needs, and the utilising of technology to discuss in-depth Autistic specific struggles. And not about how to overcome them, either, but rather how to live comfortably alongside them. I realised that my neurology’s a gift. It’s not a superpower, it’s not a tragedy; it just is.
Flourishing, flourishing authentically is radical self-acceptance. And radical self-acceptance doesn’t always look like self-love. Some days it is so hard to love my Autistic neurology. But I always accept it.
And I’ve made a commitment to flourishing authentically. Existing in the modalities I was built to exist in. Society’s neuro-normative standards be damned! And I now live by the words ‘do no harm, but take no shit.’ 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.