Wednesday, April 1, 2015

For Autism Acceptance Month, I'm Learning to Self-Accept My Autism

Each year, the month of April is "reserved" for autism. It's often used to raise awareness (autism exists - congratulations, awareness has now been achieved!) but I see a growing movement for people to accept autism as it is, appropriately named Autism Acceptance Month. There's more information on it here, but I like the idea of autism acceptance. It's a positive way to show people what autism is from the autistic perspective, thus perpetuating love, respect, and a real understanding for autism as a whole. In a world full of misinformation about mental health and disabilities, I welcome Autism Acceptance Month with open arms. We need to hear and value autistic people's own stories as a legitimate source of what autism is like beyond brain neurology and blue lightbulbs.

So it's with that in mind that I talk about my personal process of autism acceptance. Or as I call it, how I'm accepting being autistic.

Finding out I was autistic did a real number on me. As a thirteen-year old who felt like perpetual trouble, I took being autistic as confirmation that I was indeed a problem to everyone. All the difficulties I had with socialization, isolation, and control over my worst behaviors (i.e. frequent meltdowns) now had a name and I saw it as bad. My meltdowns were bad because of autism. My social life was a problem because of autism. I had to go to therapy because of autism. People were either mean to me or frustrated with me because of autism.

People never outright said I was a problem or a burden, but that wasn't the point. I felt like one regardless, of how others felt.

This was especially hard because of the timing of when I grew up. Autism research and awareness campaigns weren't as prominent in the 1990s and early 2000s as they are now. My parents have a library of books on autism and Aspergers but there weren't many public sources they could turn to for more information. Mainstream media didn't cover autism extensively or in any depth. My parents did the best they could following their instincts in raising me - focusing on building my strengths in academia, arts, and my passion for social justice as well as encouraging me to pursue my interests by helping me find social outlets for them. You could say they took the Temple Grandin approach in raising me - believing I was capable of anything if encouraged to do so rather than focusing on what I couldn't do.

In spite of all that, autism was a conundrum to me. I believed there wasn't anything I couldn't do if I put my mind to it, but my autism would always limit me in certain ways. I felt like I had to perfect or a superstar to prove to the world that I was worth something as a person. That I wasn't a problem, a burden, or someone to not take seriously or pitied. So I tried my best to hid my autism from people. I worked hard to present myself as "normal", if not slightly quirky in a cutesy way. I tried to do everything a neurotypical person would do, from having friends to summer jobs to passing a college semester abroad in the UK. And I would only confide about my autism with a few close friends who I felt wouldn't judge me poorly for it.

Then came my first year of graduate school.

My first year internship was at the clinical branch of an organization serving low-income families in Los Angeles. My first client was a four year-old Latino boy on the spectrum. When I first began working with him, he was largely non-verbal, didn't give much attention to others, and always played by himself. He rarely participated in class activities and would get upset if other kids tried to take the toys he was using. The teachers in his preschool class were accepting of his difference but were fully occupied with the other twenty-five students they had and thus unable to devote much time to making special accommodation for the single "special needs" child in the class. I came into the class twice a week (as much as my internship allowed) as a one-on-one aide and help him adjust to the school setting. We mostly engaged in play together and I'd speak both Spanish and English to encourage him to do simple tasks like focusing on one activity at a time and cleaning up when finished. He would decide the activities we'd do and I'd follow his lead. As the year progressed, we began to relate to each other more and more and he grew by leaps and bounds. He began to talk a lot more in both languages, developed more focus, and eventually join and engage with his classmates in class activities and play.

But the biggest thing to come out working with that boy is that I saw a lot of myself in him. He was a sweet boy who loved one-on-one attention and couldn't help the fact he was different. I saw that what he wanted and needed was someone to care about him, be patient with him, and be a positive encouraging figure so he could be happy. These are all things I knew I wanted when I was his age and I wanted to do right by him so he didn't turn out feeling like he didn't have anyone giving him positive reinforcements. Even when he misbehaved - usually in the way most toddlers do - I always emphasized that he wasn't a bad kid for it. I wish someone did that with me in school.

It was then I realized that being autistic wasn't bad. This child had some difficulties in focusing, socialization, and in performing some tasks, but it didn't mean he was deficient. He had a lot of potential to grow and just needed the right people and environment for it to happen. And the more I look back at my own life, I realize that I had a lot more of that than I thought I did. I had people who saw my potential and gave me the strength and conviction to pursue whatever I wanted to do. They believed I was smart, talented, and capable of whatever I put my mind to. I had some challenges, but they weren't going to stop me.  I just never appreciated the support I had until now.

That's what gave me the strength to begin accepting my autism. It's what gave me the strength to present a project to expand autism services to colleges and schools, which I discussed here. It's what gave me the strength to create this blog. And it's giving me the strength to pursue engaging in autism advocacy and services. Being autistic is no longer a hinderance - it's a major strength, especially in what I want to do.

I'm finally beginning to love and accept myself as autistic. And if I can do that, I can help make the world love and accept my autistic bothers and sisters as well.

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