Last year, around this time, I wrote a post about what I wanted to work on in 2011. A year later, I have written almost nothing at all in this blog. In part, this is because I’ve been pretty busy — circumstances have led me to move out of my home country to Silicon Valley to work for one of the excellent tech companies based there. But also, in other places and sometimes using my real identity, I have been engaging in small acts of autism advocacy. Over the course of 2011, my perspective on myself, Autism, and the relationship of those two has changed.
To review, I wrote that in 2011, I wanted to stand for myself. That’s what I said, but that’s not what I really meant. It took me almost the whole year to come to this conclusion but what I was really after is contained right in this little paragraph near the end (the most salient part in bold):
In 2010, I worked on building my self-esteem. I’ve made some great progress but before I can say I truly believe in myself, I must be willing to be myself everywhere and to everyone, always.
I didn’t so much want to stand for myself as be myself. I recognized it long after I wrote that post, when I had the opportunity to attend a talk given by Mike Robbins, the author of “Be Yourself, Everyone Else is Already Taken.” I did end up buying and reading the book after the talk but it wasn’t nearly as useful as the realization that holding me back from being myself was my belief that I am fundamentally flawed. In other words, if I were truly myself, I wouldn’t be liked or accepted. It’s a poisonous belief, reinforced by years of adjusting my behaviors and mannerisms in response to the cruel teasing and bullying of my peers. The ultimate goal of this process was to no longer be Autistic.
At one time, I was actually convinced that I’d really done it, that I’d become so “normal” that Autism was no longer a factor in my life. Only on very rare occasions did I hear anything other than “wow, I wouldn’t have known you were Autistic if you didn’t tell me” when disclosing my diagnosis. But then, I still continued to have trouble with friendships, dating, and co-workers that snapped me back to reality: I can change all of my behaviors and mannerisms and study all kinds of social skills. In the end, I’m still Autistic, just armed with much more social experience and honed methods for coping with my difficulties.
I felt completely defeated. My goal was unattainable and thus I would never be accepted and loved in the way that I so strongly desired. From that point on, I was perpetually depressed. But I did cut through the haze of my depression just long enough to decide that if I couldn’t be normal, I might at least get along well with other Autistics. The people I met at that time led me to a broader Autism community on the web and materials on Autism advocacy. That was the beginning of a total paradigm shift in how I think about myself.
Many months after that, I found myself working for a new company in a new country, and I was up for performance review. As part of this review, I was asked for a self-assessment, a short document detailing what I had done, what I feel my strengths are, and what areas I feel I can work on. I am an expert in telling myself that I’m doing it wrong but I had to write about my strengths too. Certainly, I didn’t want to suggest to my new employer that they’d hired somebody who has none. And then it hit me: a limiting factor of my performance at work was that I hadn’t thought about my strengths and therefore I wasn’t playing to them. I spent some more time reflecting on what I do well and wrote what I felt was a very candid and complete picture of myself at work.
Then — and this is the beauty of having a brain that thinks in patterns and associations — I connected all of the thought I’d put into that self-assessment with material I’d read on neurodiversity, a movement to recognize and respect differences in our neurology that apparently started from Autism advocacy. When I fully replaced the word “normal” with “neurotypical” in the framework of my thoughts and spent a lot of time reflecting on my strengths, it clicked: I wasn’t defective, just different. Neurotypicals have a way of communicating with each other that their brains are suited to but my brain doesn’t work that way, so I have to adapt by leveraging the benefits of my unique neurology. I couldn’t see this because I’d fallen into the trap of always seeing myself in terms of what I can’t do and never what I can do. I can’t read facial expressions well, I can’t express my feelings well. I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.
I started to think more and more about things I can do, strengths that I have, and slowly pulled myself out of the trap of thinking about myself in terms of “can’t’s.” If I could never be neurotypical, I’d rather admit my differences than allow people to misinterpret them poorly by using the same standards they use for neurotypicals. For example, holding eye contact is still somewhat difficult for me and although I make my best attempts, when I’m tired I will keep my eyes mostly away from the other person’s. That will be taken to mean “he’s ignoring me” or “he’s not fully engaged here.” There’s no third option of “he has trouble holding eye contact because it unsettles him but you still have his full attention.” Neurotypicals don’t do that; Autistics do. From there, patterns about my friendships emerged: I get along much better with people who prefer to be direct and thus intentionally place more weight on verbal and other explicit/obvious cues. That makes sense, since Autistics are ill-equipped to communicate otherwise.
In 2012, I’ve completed the transition to being a self-advocate and, in small parts, an Autism advocate. So, 2011 was the year that I learned how to appreciate myself but 2012 will be the year that I stand for myself and in doing so reach my true goal: being an authentic person that others can connect to and like. And what about my strong desire to be accepted and loved? The person I really wanted to accept and love me was myself, and at the time he was on a mission to completely discard everything that makes me me. Mission aborted, I can pick up the pieces and love myself in a way I couldn’t possibly before.
The fate of this blog is uncertain. Its title somewhat reflects my old, misguided attempts at becoming neurotypical and as I do more Autism advocacy under my real identity, the anonymity of this blog becomes less and less important. It may disappear as I reorganize the rest of my online presence.
If there’s one thing to take away from my story, it’s this: there’s nothing wrong with us being different.