We take many aspects of social interaction for granted. But what are these interactions like for Autistics? Society must examine its role in creating an environment that can be exclusionary, and even hostile, toward Autistics.
For example, many don’t stop to think about the phrase “common sense.” These words themselves stop conversation because the word “common” is powerful — and whatever or whoever is labeled “uncommon” is marginalized. Sticking to “common sense” asserts that whoever is uncommon — in their reasoning, mind functioning and literal senses — doesn’t matter in the conversation. This attitude marginalizes Autistics, a community of individuals whose mind functioning differs significantly from what’s considered “normal,” and many of whose sensory experiences are more amplified or suppressed than “normal.”
My Autistic journey began 20 years ago, but my journey of self-discovery started only about two years ago, when I was diagnosed Autistic. For me, being diagnosed was a relief. Before, people would often avoid me in social situations, and this kept forcing me to question my validity. Now, I had a label to throw the burden of explanation on.
Autistics are not wrong. We are not deficient. But I had internalized my struggles with social interaction as deficiencies. I could only explain these struggles using Autism. I learned more about Autism from how others interacted with me than from myself because I didn’t pick up on the social differences. Others did, and they interacted with me differently because of them.
“They made it very clear” is another phrase I’ve heard throughout my life. Some things might be clear to others but not to me. Autistics often miss social cues, and a lack of explicit communication is a source of anxiety for many. When an Autistic is trying their best to understand, saying “they made it very clear” can lead to self-blame. What were the social cues, and why didn’t I pick up on them? Did my mind insert a memory that wasn’t there?
I remember when a fellow Autistic described similar experiences, and I questioned if they considered the other’s perspective. Another Autistic with such experiences introduced the term “gaslighting,” but I still questioned them. It wasn’t until a third Autistic reaffirmed such experiences that I realized I was projecting the way others treated me on my fellow Autistics. This specific form of gaslighting is internalized ableism. It was ableism because I admonished myself for not picking up on social cues, which is inherently difficult for Autistics. It was internalized to the point where I applied it against myself and Autistic friends. People often assume their communication is clear, but truly clear communication requires mutual understanding.
An Autistic’s quest to be understood can involve long messages. I hear the phrase, “You need to learn to summarize,” so often to the point that I get anxious about putting down a single word, worried I’ll write too much. Despite the intent to foster understanding, such long messages often end up overwhelming readers unfamiliar with such formats. Slowly, I learned to cut out content before even starting to write. I learned to evaluate my writing from a “normal” perspective, the Autistic equivalent of evaluating something in an unfamiliar language. And yes, this anxiety affected me as I was writing this piece as well.
Only recently did I learn that many other Autistics share this experience. Activist Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha coined this as “Autistic long form.” Autistic long form describes a very thorough form of communication, akin to a fine nest built by a tireless mother bird, who scours and feels for the perfect twigs to arrange at just the right angles, layered to a warm depth with meticulous precision, only to find it ruined because a neurotypical reader (one whose mind functions in ways that fall within dominant societal norms) somehow finds it to be “too much.” Too bad I already began trying to conform to neurotypical standards before being empowered through this framework from the Autistic community.
Autistic community and identity are key. As with the coining of Autistic long form, Autistic community reaffirms our ways of being and empowers our Autistic identity. So when friends say, “I never would’ve guessed you were Autistic,” it downplays an identity that greatly shapes our lives. It also highlights our efforts at camouflaging — hiding Autistic traits and performing in a way deemed more “normal.” Camouflaging is tiring and often detrimental to self-esteem.
We cannot keep camouflaging. We are different, and our interests often don’t conform to the norm. In discussing Autistic acceptance, I like to draw from one of my personal interests: animal liberation. Autistics, like other marginalized groups, have historically been dehumanized. But why not unhumanize and liberate ourselves from the norms of human society? “Humanness” was built on a base of “sameness,” and it has always been up to “the other” to prove that “sameness.” Even the saying “person with Autism” ascribes our value to being a person — to having commonalities. But we’re different. We’re Autistic. And we belong.
Brian Liu is a UC Berkeley undergraduate student and an Autistic member of Spectrum: Autism at Cal.