When most NT (neurotypical) people hear the word ‘autism’, I’m most definitely not what comes to mind. Autism is rarely spoken about in a context of diversity, outside of the more familiar and more visible autistic stereotype. I’m 27 (I was diagnosed at 26), trans non-binary, mixed race and also happen to work as a professional translator at the same time as studying for my PhD. I ‘don’t seem autistic’, right? Wrong. I ‘don’t seem as though I need support’, right? Wrong again. Diversity in autism exists. Autism is not exclusive to any one group and diagnosis is often inaccessible for people like me. Not only do we not fit perfectly into the current, exclusive diagnostic criteria, we’ve often spent the majority of our lives masking and hiding our true selves in an attempt to fit in. Diverse representation is essential. If we don’t see ourselves represented, how can we feel validated? Who do we look up to? Who can we learn from? The reality is, we can’t.
My academic career is often what throws people off. They assume that as an academic individual, I don’t struggle and I don’t have major challenges that I’ve spent a lifetime trying to overcome. For me, academia has always been a place of safety. Research has consistently provided me with structure. It’s a process, predominantly non-linear, but it follows a plan, has an order and to me it just makes sense. Being able to conduct academic research based on my special interests has enabled me to start living as my authentic self, following my diagnosis. Exploring people in writing, based on literature, theory and the notion of ‘the other’ has been a gamechanger in terms of coming to understand and accept myself. I strive for inclusivity in every aspect of my life and my research is based on creating an inclusive space, but this is something I’m yet to find in terms of my autism.
My journey to diagnosis was not atypical; I always knew I was different, I never found a place where I truly fit in and my vulnerability has been taken advantage of more often than not. However, I always assumed that everyone experienced what I was going through, they just dealt with it much better than I did. An autism diagnosis had never even crossed my mind as I simply didn’t fit into the images of autism made visible to us in films, series and the current diagnostic criteria. I couldn’t possibly be autistic. I’ve always struggled, but at the same time I’ve been invisible. For the most part I did well at school, academically. However, socially I struggled massively. From bullying to ‘friendships’ that fell apart, I was always confused and never understood why it was always me. I was consistently told that it would get better, but the truth is it actually got worse. I was still falling victim to bullying and confusing social situations in which my vulnerabilities and weaknesses were taken advantage of during the last year of my degree. I never thought I’d still be struggling with these issues at age 21. Major burnout after years of masking, confusion and feeling totally lost led me to my diagnosis in 2020 at age 26.
My biggest challenge has always been my perfectionism and an inherent need to compare myself to everyone else. I guess I’ve tried to twist and turn myself into a bizarre shape in order to comply with what most people would deem successful. If I’ve learned something over the last year, it’s that what damages me the most is trying to adhere to NT expectations, what is considered successful in the NT world and just assuming that I can follow suit and not have to face the emotional consequences such as meltdowns, shutdowns and burnout.
My social difficulties and issues with relationships are still very much present. From RSD (Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria), oversharing, literal understanding to black-and-white thinking, these issues are still very real. Only now having found the autistic community on Twitter and being welcomed with open arms am I starting to live as my authentic self. One of my favourite things about my autism is the way in which I see beauty in everything, even where other people don’t. I don’t really understand ‘norms’ or societal standards, I see people. I see beauty. I see beyond what other people see. World Autism Awareness Day is a day which serves to raise awareness of the autistic community and what it means to be autistic. However, what happens the day after? For the most part, people go back to living their normal lives and stop sharing autistic content, creators, etc. The visibility MUST continue. I have always been autistic, I’m autistic in everything I do and I always will be. Autistic children become autistic adults. We don’t grow out of our autism, nor do we disappear.
In terms of where I am in my life at the moment, I describe it as ‘becoming’. I’m still finding my own sense of self, exploring and starting to understand much of what I experience. My perception of the world is different and I’ll never see the world as an NT, nor do I strive to. If autism and discussions surrounding neurodivergence and disability were more inclusive and diverse, there would be no reason to continue into adult life without understanding the world in which we live, the way in which we feel, understand and perceive. I aim to raise awareness of the lack of diversity in every aspect of autism, from representation to diagnostic criteria and how we’re treated by professionals. If by sharing my story I can help just one autistic person feel validated, loved and worthy, then my work here is done. Absolutely no autistic person should have their sense of self, validity or authenticity defined by neurotypicals.