When we meet someone new, it is expected that we get to know each other to some extent. The context of the meeting tends to dictate the sorts of questions that are typically part of the conversation. Where are you from? What do you do? Do you have any children? There are also some answers that are typically considered to be appropriate, and some answers that will generally attract a negative reaction.
I think what we are trying to do when we engage in these discussions is to find out the other persons identity. Who are they? What defines them? Do I have anything in common with them? I guess this is not an inherently bad thing, but it is problematic when you consider the fact that we tend to make certain assumptions about a person based on their answers that, if we are honest with ourselves, are often assumptions made in error.
Let me introduce myself:
I am Michelle.
I am a woman.
I am a mother.
(I wonder: did you assume anything so far? Maybe about the way I look? How old I am? How many children I have?)
I have two University degrees.
I have been in community building and advocacy roles for around 5 years now.
I am founder and a Director of a not for profit community organisation.
(I wonder what you think I studied? I wonder if you have assumed anything about my income? Or what my days look like, and how much time I spend working? Have you formed an idea about how successful or how capable I am? I wonder if you think I am like you or not?)
I could go on, but I think you see what I mean by assumptions. The things I have just disclosed to you would be considered positive things. I can change your perception of them by adding more specific information if I want to. Your values and experience will influence how that perception changes. For example, when I say I have six children, you might want to ask “all with the same guy?” (yes, that happens), or you may comment “do you really think that is responsible?” (that happens too), “you might exclaim “you must be mad!” (happened once), or you might smile wistfully and say “you are so lucky” (has also happened).
Your values and experience will also influence how you react when I say “I am Autistic”. My experience tells me that there are a large number of people who will think quite differently of me when I say that.
Some of them will think how inspirational it is that I can be Autistic and do all these other things. Some people will assume that I am less capable than I am when I say it. Some won’t know how to process the information because looking at me and trying to reconcile my life with their ideas about autism creates an incongruence for them.
Some people will default to trying to correct my language, insisting I am “a person with autism” because “autism doesn’t define you”. But it does.
The image above shows my face (fair skinned, brown long haired woman wearing dark rimmed glasses) on the left and has the following words on the right:
Autism does define me, and it was a relief to be able to settle into that definition because it answered questions and empowered me to be able to live my life the way that works best for me.
I know that some people think that being Autistic is not a positive thing, that autism causes difficulties and struggles for both autistic people and their families. I will not deny that being Autistic can be hard sometimes. But I see that as a problem society causes, not a problem that being Autistic causes. Much in the same way as a woman advancing a career is disadvantaged by discrepancies in pay scales and access to maternity and parental leave, it is difficult being Autistic when society is so determined to see Autistic people as burdens who need “special” help that is often viewed as being too difficult to provide.
So, let me re-introduce myself, in more detail, so we can move past some assumptions.
I am Michelle.
I am a woman, who doesn’t place much value in society’s ideas about typical gender roles.
I have 6 children.
Our family is wonderfully neurodiverse and neurodivergent, and we do everything we can to ensure we all live our lives well in ways that we choose, working toward goals that we set for ourselves.
I have two University degrees. One in teaching and one in psychology. Earning those degrees was very difficult for me, and I am very proud of them, even though I am not a student who achieves high grades.
I have been in community building and advocacy roles for around 5 years now. Most of this has been done in informal, community based settings, where I work to help people find good peer support and to gain confidence in their own ability to advocate for themselves. All this work has been undertaken in a volunteer capacity. I have a heart for mentoring, and I am good at it.
I am founder and a Director of a not for profit community organisation, that exists to support neurodivergent people in finding community, support and real inclusion in their local communities. I am passionate about this work, and though it is a new project I am hopeful it will become something that is a key part of my life and will help many people.
I am 41.
I am a recently identified, proud Autistic person, who is just as happy to have Autism define me as I am any of the other characteristics I have shared with you.
Being Autistic makes me who I am, it influences how I think, what I am passionate about, and how I approach engaging with those passions. Knowing I am Autistic helps me make wise and self affirming decisions about how I live my life and care for my own needs, and is an empowering and positive part of my identity.
This post is part of my emerging autistic identity series- read them all by clicking here (clicking link will open a new window, posts are in reverse chronological order- first at the bottom)
This article has been translated into Russian on the Neurodiversity in Russia website. To read >> click here << (link will open in a new window)