Society and Autism Stigma
This blog is part three of a three part blog series entitled: Unmasking Autism. I would highly encourage you to read both previous blogs before proceeding here.
Most of the trauma that led to my masking did not develop from therapy; the stereotyping of Autism by society led to how I felt about my condition.
My earliest memories regarding Autism come from the first grade. At the time, I didn’t know that I was Autistic. I noticed how I would melt down over things that other kids wouldn’t melt down over. I noticed that I had a harder time socializing than other kids, I noticed I was different. Whenever I melted down a teacher would need to deal with me. Sometimes they did so in a productive manner and other times they did not. I had a particular teacher who I am still in contact with. She didn’t know too much about Autism and did not deal with me well at the time. If I was having a meltdown she would take me out of the class and tell me not to repeat the behavior. This was also done if I was stimming or “being disruptive”. It made me feel dehumanized and worthless, I felt like the “other.” This struggle and difficulty in class continued into the second grade. At this point, my parents decided to tell me I was Autistic. They explained Autism and I am grateful for their support as I learned how to understand this part of me.
Understanding being Autistic was difficult. Teaching others about Autism was also difficult. For example, as the teacher I mentioned earlier continued to deal with me in a misinformed manner, my parents realized the teacher was not educated on how to deal with an Autistic student. Educators from MATAN were helpful when they helped her understand how to work with me.
Third grade was the first full year I knew that I was Autistic, and it also followed the summer when my father passed away. I remember one experience in particular. I don’t remember why I had a meltdown but I remember being dragged out with my desk due to the disruptions I was causing. I felt like I was a disruption and not a good person because of my Autism.
I also read comments about Autism on the internet which were harmful (see blog on MATAN from JDAIM 2022). I internalized the stereotypical messages found online and in society and the experiences I had in school (and similar experiences at camp). I viewed Autism now as an enemy, something to be defeated and controlled.
I have an imaginative mind and in order to escape from my pains I would create worlds inside my head (I want to talk more about this a different time). One of these worlds was incredibly harmful. It’s hard to explain but I imagined a world in which in second grade a civil war broke out between my “normal” self and my “Autistic” self. I viewed Autism as the enemy and I worked in all circumstances to limit my Autistic behaviors. I suppressed my stims and I avoided talking about my Autism. I thought it was a disease. I got angry when I saw my mom blogged about my Autism online.
I believed this stigma well into middle school, but at a certain point my perspective changed. This is due to the conversations I had with my aunts, my mom, my therapist and staff in my middle school. I know for a fact that my feelings towards my Autism would have continued and gotten worse without their support. I always felt safe within my family and specifically within camp. My shift in perspective hit an apex in the spring of 2021 when I returned to reading about Autism on the internet. However, I read new sources that framed Autism differently. Autism is not a disease. In fact, that’s offensive. It’s a simple difference and Autistics can go on to do great things. With the proper support, I formed a healthier relationship with my Autism. I balanced masking and being Autistic and by high school I began openly sharing my experiences.
My message is simple: society needs to learn about Autism and treat Autistics with respect and empathy. We need to learn to destigmatize Autism. Autistics aren’t screeching animals. Autistics aren’t dumb or stupid. Autistics aren’t troubled geniuses who study a niche topic all day. Autistics are diverse. Autistics are smart, talented and capable in their own ways. And yes, Autistics (like everyone) deal with a variety of challenges such as with learning, socialization, communication and interaction. By reading my blog or going to a training by an organization such as MATAN or by watching an informative TedTalk, you are helping Autistics. You are educating yourself more about what Autism is and how to support us.