Sometimes I wish that I was more obviously ‘autistic’.
And that makes me sound awful. It makes me sound like I’m fetishisizing a tired neurotypical stereotype, romanticising a set of struggles and challenges that I, despite being autistic, do not face. It makes me feel like a terrible person to feel that way. It also pours concrete on the ridiculous notion that there is a ‘typical’ way to be autistic.
It’s nothing less than internalised ableism. But that is something we need to talk about.
When I was a child in primary school, I remember wishing with all my might that the people bullying me would finally snap and hit me. Because then I would have tangible, physicical proof that the eye couldn’t deny. Maybe then, I reasoned, someone would actually do something about it.
But it never happened. And the pain continued.
Unfortunately, the times that I need the most support are the moments in which it is most difficult to verbalise my need for help. And because it isn’t a tangible, obvious thing – to stick with my previous comparison, there’s no bruising as evidence that I’ve been injured – people assume there’s nothing wrong.
I wish that the difficulties I have were more stark, so that they could be recognised by others – so that I wouldn’t have to explain myself over and over and over, so that they wouldn’t continue to question even after I’ve given them what they need, so that I wouldn’t be stuck with this awkwardly subconscious neurotypical mask, making people believe that I’m fine, no really, I’m fine.
So that, in a room full of other autistic people, I wouldn’t have that sudden all consuming shudder that I don’t belong here, that maybe this is a big mistake, that maybe this community I feel safe in isn’t actually my community at all, and it’s all a matter of time before they figure it out and kick me disgustedly out of the door. Locking it behind me. Never letting me back in because I’m a fraud.
I’ve made it sound like I don’t feel comfortable in the company of other autistic people. On the contrary, I feel so comfortable. Although we are all different and do not all share the same experiences, there’s a definite sense of oh, these people get it. And because I’ve found somehwere that makes me feel so comfortable, I am struck with the irrational fear that I will lose it.
I feel it when someone brings up an experience that I don’t recognise in myself. I feel it when I get a funny look after telling someone for the first time. I feel it when I remember the psychiatrist refusing to refer me to the autism unit because there was ‘no way’ my self diagnosis of autism was right. I felt it in the pangs of guilt I got when I was granted an access card marked ‘autism’ at Disneyland, and I felt it peppered through the amazing time I had with what it gave me. I feel it when parents or carers of ‘low-functioning’ (see why I hate functionality labels here) autistic people dismiss my experiences or opinions because I’m not ‘autistic’ enough to talk alongside them.
I feel it when people who know still manage to forget.
And the swish-swish-swishing of my own internalised ableism leads me to wish that I presented more ‘typically’, more ‘severely’, or as if I fit neatly into any of the other nonsense categories neurotypicals like to impose on us.
I feel like an imposter in my own community, in my own neurotype, and in my own skin.
In a room full of people I know I belong with, I find myself thinking: but what if I don’t?
It was only a short time ago that I realised that I wasn’t the only one, and that there was a name for what I was feeling.
This feeling is called Imposter Syndrome.
My newfound knowledge came from a post by the author Neil Gaiman, in which he described feeling out of place at a gathering of influential people (artists, scientists, ‘discoverers of things’) – waiting for someone to realise he didn’t qualify to be here.
Then he bumped into Neil Armstrong. And Neil Armstrong felt the same way.
Let’s unpack that.
The first human to walk on the moon felt like an imposter at a gathering of influential people. No wonder I sometimes feel like an imposter in a room full of autistic people (or at an event with an autistic focus).
Take this common thread of human insecurity, and add a dash of ableist expectations imposed by a violently neurotypical world, and you have the perfect recipe for the feelings I have described.
It’s the same type of concoction that creates my inevitable uneasiness at Pride parades – the human condition of self doubt, with a sprinkling (or landslide) of the biphobia I’ve seen and heard around the LGBTQIA+ community since I came out nearly ten years ago.
Why can’t we come up with some nice recipes for a change?
I’m still working on what a recipe like that may look like. But I’m guessing the ingredients would include open conversation about internalised ableism, more time in autism specific spaces, the mutual support and understanding between autistic people, and a nice hefty dose of neurotypical people minding their own damned business.
Whatever I, and maybe other people, might need in order to face and conquer the creeping threat of Imposter Syndrome, I know that acknowledging it and talking about it is a good first step.
Because I’m not a fraud. And I do belong here.