I am incredibly lucky, privileged, and blessed to have so many amazing talents. I am a gifted writer and, as I recently learned, pretty good at giving presentations too. I’ve been told I’m doing a good job helping people better understand autism.
Plus, I have the gift of an amazing memory, especially given things I’m interested in. I have a passion for learning and understanding things. I’m a good bass player too, on top of many other things.
All of these are amazing gifts and talents that I’m glad that I have. But recently, I’ve found myself scared to share them with the world for fear that it will cause people to discredit my autism.
You see, it is really important to me that people understand that being autistic carries with it disabilities that make daily life a challenge. There are many things I cannot do and many others that I have great difficulty with. It is important that people recognize where and how I am impaired in what fashion so that my sensory and communication needs are met. If people write me off as “not that autistic” because I write eloquent blog posts on the internet, this is a problem. If my autism is discredited, it may lead me to lose supports, accommodations, and the understanding that I need or will need to do even the most basic things. And no, I’m not exaggerating at all.
There’s this idea that so many people have, even subconsciously, that autistic people shouldn’t or couldn’t have talents. If an autistic person is good at something, especially if it’s something autistic people stereotypically “aren’t supposed to be” good at, like talking or sports or academics, then they’re immediately written off as “not that autistic” or “high functioning” or a “recovered autistic” or some other nonsense. How many times do you think someone has thought these things about an autistic person upon hearing about a talent of theirs without ever even having met the person? Without having even seen the person? My guess would be a lot.
These stereotypes are all crap of course. There are a ton of eloquent autistic writers. And a ton of eloquent autistic public speakers. There are autistic musicians and autistic professional athletes. Autistic actors and autistic scientists. Everything. And these people aren’t unimpaired “shiny autistics” either, many (most?) have significant disabilities and high support needs. The fact is that you can be incredibly talented and also disabled, and being talented doesn’t make you any less disabled.
I know this of course, but I still have a paralyzing anxiety that if I let my talents shine through, people won’t take my autism seriously and I’ll have necessary supports pulled from under me.
Two weeks ago I spoke at the Autistics Present Symposium. I stood up at the podium and I talked eloquently for thirty straight minutes about my topic. I stayed at the podium with my body calm and under control. I was worried when I shared that video that the above would happen; that people would see it and assume I’m not that affected by autism and not take my message seriously.
What people didn’t necessarily see is that I had pre-scripted every single word of that presentation and I was literally just reading aloud words I had already written on paper. It had been rehearsed over and over again prior to the event, even my vocal intonation was scripted and rehearsed. What people didn’t see is that I wasn’t even processing my own words that I was reading. My eyes were seeing and mouth moving based on that visual input, but I had no idea what I was even saying. Trying to process the words while coming up with them and saying them is too hard, I cannot do it.
And this is of course under the best conditions at a sensory friendly event that I had plenty of time to adjust to.
Or how about my blog? I write super amazing well-written articles documenting my experience and teaching about autism. People only see the end, not the means.
What if I told you that I can type independently, on a keyboard, without any assistance, at ninety words per minute? That’s blisteringly fast by typing standards, by the way. But for me, that speed doesn’t really matter given that even on the best days I can really only go for two sentences at a time before I have to re-regulate. This is mostly because I write pretty abstract and complex stuff on this blog, I can do more with other stuff, but it’s still slow. This whole post up to this point has been typed sentences or half-sentences at a time via almost continuous work on it over the past few days. It’s because I need to calm my body and gain enough inertia to focus on writing, on translating my thoughts into words. I think in pictures and feelings and music and sounds, there are very few words there at all. Turning them into words is doable, I do it all the time, but it’s taxing.
I’m lucky in that I can generally make my mouth say what I want it to say, many autistic people struggle with this. But then people hear me speaking and they only hear what I can say and not what I can’t. They hear me talking about complex science topics, but they don’t know that I often have trouble expressing my most basic needs and wants. I basically communicate often with scripts, as spontaneous-ness is hard. In fact the more I reflect on myself, the more I realize that I actually have a lot of trouble with spoken communication. My speaking abilities are almost always present in some form, but they fluctuate greatly like a roller-coaster moment by moment. But people don’t understand this, because they see me speaking but don’t realize what goes on underneath.
I wish that there wasn’t this untrue stereotype that “real” autistic people can’t be good at anything. That people would realize that skills and abilities aren’t linear. That people would realize that you can be both disabled and talented and that one does not discredit or take away from the other.