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Breaking Out of the Shadows of the Autistic Boys' Club

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“You must be really high functioning, because you definitely don’t look autistic.”

Autism is the second closet I come out of on a regular basis, since I’m also a lesbian. Sometimes I wonder if closets filled with rainbow puzzle pieces and Love Is Love merchandise were buy one-get one at IKEA when I was born.

She leans in, anticipating a response. It’s posed as a question. I know this.

But autism is not a look. It’s not a face. It’s probably in the eye contact I’m intentionally avoiding right now, though. The juxtaposition of the cold metal shelves and bokeh filter glow of the lighting department behind her shoulder is a better focal point while my thoughts race and frantically try to join up the dots and mental connections needed to carry on even basic social interaction, let alone the surprising complexity of this dreaded phrase.

My brain switches to autopilot, as it usually has to when I reveal my diagnosis. Time to awkwardly laugh it off with the usual script of “yeah, I get that a lot.” (Hello, thank you for flying Air Autism, if you check the pocket of the seat in front of you, you’ll realize there is no manual. Good luck!)

In that hardware store I have an epiphany: I realize autism is often viewed not as a face, but as a gender. Autistic boys are introduced with a one-in-42 statistic from the myriad of informational sites, a nod of acknowledgement, and “ah yes, my nephew/brother/cousin has autism, too.”

When I reveal I am autistic – at work, to friends, to extended family, to general people in my life – I am greeted with exaggerated looks of confusion and the delicate cocktail of denial and bargaining: see above question I received about being so-called “high functioning” and not “looking autistic.”

I grew up thinking I was overly sensitive and weird, an undiagnosed autistic girl with comorbid obsessive-compulsive disorder and severe anxiety since early childhood that made me an easy target for bullying. Spoiler: they didn’t pick on me because I was autistic, of course not! They didn’t know. They just knew I was very smart and very, very weird. I guess I cannot blame them; I mean, I didn’t know my autistic classmates were my brothers in neurodiversity, even though I could not relate to them about trains and planes and automobiles, as I preferred analyzing Anne of Green Gables, Edgar Allan Poe, and reading a few Goosebumps books per day.

In young adulthood, I still felt different and without a role model as the guys began to identify with the wheeling-dealing Rain Man and the ever popular Sheldon Cooper. So when my mental health took a toll, my (surprise, surprise: primarily male) healthcare team at the time didn’t even think of autism for my diagnosis. I was a girl, so of course I was simply depressed and anxious with low self-esteem, and was (incorrectly) medically treated as such for a few years.

It took until three months before my 24th birthday to be listened to. I was referred to a lovely female psychiatrist in the next town over, and it was there I found out who I truly was, and was able to embrace my diagnosis and my new chance at life. Twenty-four years. Nearly twenty-four years to break out of the still very normalized perception that autism is a boys’ club.

But now that club’s key is in my hand, an admittedly chewed down fingernail of the other hand is on the light switch of a neon “open” sign, and I’m opening the door to welcome the next generation of autistic girls. May they thrive, stim, and not let autistic stereotypes define them, because they too – no, we do – define autism as well.

Originally published: February 26, 2019
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