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Accepting the Moments When My Autism Is 'Showing'

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I am 24 years old and I am diagnosed with autism that has been described as “high functioning.” There is a broad misconception in the autism community that so-called “high functioning autism” means “easy autism.” And while it’s largely true that those of us labeled “high functioning” tend to have average or above-average language abilities, that doesn’t mean things are “easy” for us.

Many autistic people who are very language-abled can (whether by conscious effort through masking difficulties or not) “pass” for being neurotypical to an outsider. Unfortunately in our society, if you are perceived as having a cognitive or developmental disability, you’re automatically seen as less than. Less capable, less competent, less worthy. So being able to mask your challenges to some degree, even for a short period of time, comes with a bit of privilege that not every autistic person has. That said, I’d like to tell you about a few times when I, as an autistic woman who frequently passes for being neurotypical, have what I call “your autism is showing” moments.

I am generally energetic and I like being around people. However, even being someone who enjoys staying busy, I usually need to spend some time alone decompressing after a long day. When I say “decompressing” I mean hiding in my closet alone with the lights off, in silence, with a blanket over my head for several hours. All this only to later emerge not feeling “refreshed,” but able to mostly tolerate what the remainder of the day has in store.

During times when I am unable to fully decompress, or am experiencing extreme negative emotions, I often lose the ability to articulate what I need, at the very least it can be incredibly inconvenient, at most it can be disabling. Much like when your cell phone, which is normally able to send and receive text messages, loses connection. The phone still works, it is capable of texting, but it has momentarily lost connection. Until the connection returns, communication will be extremely difficult.

To help avoid extreme negative emotions in particular situations, I’ll often use tools like noise-canceling headphones, fidgets, or even my service dog. Usually, anyone using these tools is quickly recognized as disabled and often treated differently by others. This could mean anything from increased personal space due to others keeping their distance from you, to rude stares and comments and occasional outright discrimination.

Those “your autism is showing” moments can occasionally serve as an unpleasant reminder for me to continue working on strategizing to minimize future meltdowns. They can also serve as a reminder to others in my life to allow me some space or alert them that I might need some extra support.

Since learning about my diagnosis in high school, I’ve had to really work at accepting and loving myself not in spite of those “your autism is showing” moments, but sometimes because of them. Autism is a part of me and affects both how I perceive and interact with the world around me.

I try not to let myself feel embarrassed or less than when my autism “shows.” I have sensory needs, I sometimes get overwhelmed by my strong emotions, I crave structure and organization, I flap my hands and I let out a happy squeak every now and then. Self-acceptance is a journey, not a destination.

I encourage others to investigate their own “autism showing” moments. Sometimes that can mean our brains/bodies are trying to communicate that we need an accommodation or more support with something. Sometimes it can be a signal to others that something isn’t working and a change needs to be made. But most of the time, it means we as autistic people are just trying to live our best lives like anyone else. We just have our own way of doing it, and we should be proud of that!

Originally published: February 15, 2022
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