Recently, I’ve been called an autistic ‘success story’. And it made me wonder how exactly we define success – whether in autistic circles or elsewhere – and whether we need to do away with these definitions altogether.
Now, this is just an exercise in projection, but I think I can reasonably estimate which factors led to my ‘success’ label: I’m employed full time, I’m able to stand in front of a group of people and deliver a presentation on my autism, and I’m living a reasonably independent life.
And, although part of me feels obviously flattered, I can’t help but think that it’s just so…problematic and simplistic.
A lot of those things that make me a ‘success’ are without question accidents of birth. Some of the things I’ve been able to achieve have been made available to me due to certain privileges I’ve been afforded: I have always been able to communicate verbally in a quasi-neurotypical sense, I don’t have any learning disabilities, and I have a supportive family that have stood by me and held me up to reach as high as I possibly can.
Would I still be considered a success if I wasn’t one of the only 16% of autistic adults in full time employment? If I hadn’t been able to access higher education? If I didn’t have a family that helped me to get where I am today?
And in that vein, what does ‘success’ even mean?
I know that if someone were to catch me in certain moments, without any knowledge of the rest of my life, I would not be seen as a success. I’m almost twenty-six years old and I still live at home (with no signs that I will be moving out, getting a house, or espousing traditional ideas of ‘independence’ any time soon). I need another adult to sit with me during doctors’, dentists’ and opticians’ appointments. If I hit meltdown, I can cry and scream and turn into a frightened and indignant child.
So, am I successful? Or am I only successful when looked at from a very specific few angles?
A page has started being recommended to me on social media, which chronicles the ‘words and wisdom’ of billionaires. In that sense, ‘success’ is defined by the weight of a bank account. I have acquaintances on social media who promote ‘healthy eating’ products. In their sense, ‘success’ is defined in before and after photos of weight loss or six pack development. Other inspirational quotes are shared that define success as ‘loving yourself’ or ‘being happy’.
The definition of success seems to depend very much on the frame that you’re looking at it through.
And the frame of my ‘success’ is the neurotypical gaze.
It’s that same gaze that shines on a non-verbal child learning to speak for the first time – proclamations of success! notwithstanding how comfortable the child is in verbal communication or the level of anxiety the effort creates. And it’s that same gaze that places a gold standard on being able to pass as neurotypical in public – even if the mask is a slow instrument of suffocation.
Is this how we define success in terms of disability (whether you include autism as a disability, I’ll be sheltering it under that umbrella for this purpose)? Is it the so-called ‘overcoming’ of the disability – finding a way of acting like you aren’t disabled, no matter the emotional cost to yourself?
In my opinion, when this is our definition of success, we are in serious need of rewriting the dictionary.
In fact, maybe we need to throw the book in the fire and start again.
There have been days in my life when getting out of bed was a much bigger success than getting my degree. And yet one of those things got me an enormous celebration; the other one got me funny looks as I dragged myself outside with no make-up, baggy eyes and a complete inability to communicate verbally.
‘Success’ is when you get a higher score on Countdown; it’s the actual measurable act of achieving the best results when a contest has been previously agreed upon. It’s not the journey your life takes – and it’s definitely not the journey your autistic life takes down the road of neurotypical ‘passing’.
I never agreed to a competition between myself and other autistic people across the spectrum. Whatever scoring system the neurotypical world has decided to use, I did not consent to be judged in a contest of ‘acceptable’ attributes. We are not adversaries. We are not competing for the trophy of non-autistic-ness.
So, take your medal. I don’t want it or need it.
I’m not a success story.
I’m just me.
Doing the best I can.