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When Someone Said I Could 'Pass for Normal'

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I am an autistic self-advocate and author. A few years ago I had a launch for my book about employment for autistic teens and young people. I was excited at the prospect of this – my second book – making its way into the world.

Around that time, a friend of a friend had made contact with me. She seemed a little disrespectful, and I regretted passing on my phone number after she called me and tried to convince me to promote some lifestyle course she worked for to autistic people. I had to be quite forthright and assertive and tell her in several different ways why I did not want to promote her course to autistic people. I felt quite used by this woman, and hoped I wouldn’t have to have further contact with her.

My book launch was at the National Library of Australia, a prestigious location for my little orange book. The book was officially launched by the CEO of the local autism peak body. I gave a presentation on the book and its journey from being thoughts in my brain into being an actual thing. My talk was focused on the strengths of autistic people, on valuing us for who we are and respecting our different but valid approach to the world. The applause was great and I was delighted that so many of my friends and family were in the audience.

Just as I was about to go downstairs from the lecture theater to the book shop where I would sign books, I saw the woman who had been promoting her lifestyle course. I was a little anxious that she might engage me in conversation and try to promote her course some more.

I signed books for so many people. The illustrator, Andrew Hore, was sitting next to me and we had a great time tag teaming the signing and swapping different color pens with one another. I met new people and signed books for relatives and close friends. Towards the end of the event, the woman I’d had trouble with came up to get a signed book. I was anxious, but told myself she would probably be nice after hearing my speech on autistic pride and identity and capabilit.

As I handed her the book she said “You know you shouldn’t say you are autistic. You could pass for ‘normal.’” I was floored. I didn’t know what to say. After that lovely evening and me speaking about how autistic young people could use their strengths and be proud of who they are, this woman was telling me that I should hide my hard-won autistic identity because I could look non-autistic. She was basically negating the essence of who I am.

There were a number of friends near the table who heard what the woman said. I somehow summoned up the response, “I do not wish to look non-autistic. I am proud of who I am, autism and all. I don’t think you were listening to my talk, because that is a terrible thing to say to a person.” I was noticeably shaking as I said those words, but I was proud of what I said.

Like so many other autistic people, or people with disability and / or mental illness, we travel through life being told why we are less, deficient, incompetent and that we should be grateful for anything we get. I spent my teens and early twenties desperately trying to act non-autistic and it almost destroyed me. I internalized bullying and abuse and hatred to a point I wished I wasn’t me. I tried to fit in to any peer group that would have me, regardless of how negative or dangerous that might be.

The point at which I accepted myself as an autistic woman with a unique and beautiful mind  was amazing. The comments by the woman at my book launch just blew all that positive self-talk away. I was sitting in the National Library signing my book, but I was also in school having bullies taunt and shame me. I was in those dark places of the soul brought on by loneliness, isolation and despair. I was being told I would not be able to work because I am autistic, that I couldn’t possibly be creative or have empathy and every other foolish stereotype.

So my response to the woman at the book launch, even though it took a lot for me to say it, actually represented me reclaiming my identity. I wouldn’t have changed what I said, and I was so grateful to everyone who witnessed the comment and offered support afterwards. I hope the woman has grown a little in her journey of understanding difference since then. In fact, that experience did help me to define myself, so I am oddly grateful to her for providing me with the opportunity to publicly plant my Jeanette flag in the land of “Autistic and Proud.”

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Originally published: January 31, 2017
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