Content warning: bullying, mental health issues
Tomorrow, 18 June, is Autistic Pride Day. Yay to that. I’m all for pride. Autistic pride means a lot to me. I was bullied and targeted for my ‘difference’ as a child and teen and made to feel anything but proud to be me. As a young adult I got in trouble with the law and was viewed as an aberrant member of society. I had no sense of self respect or pride – quite the opposite in fact. I was diagnosed as autistic in 1994 at age 20. To me the diagnosis was entirely negative. Outwardly I didn’t believe it was true. The diagnosis to my mind validated the hatred of bullies I had endured for years. It was like all their insults were encapsulated in that hated word ‘autism’. It was a diagnosis of weirdo. I hated my autism and kept it hidden where possible. I was so bothered by my autism that I couldn’t watch movies or TV about autistic people. My autism diagnosis could have been a means for me to understand myself better but instead I was avoiding it and getting into more and more trouble in a bid to prove I was like allistic people.
My inability to accept my autism related to my self-esteem and self-image. Bullying had left me hating myself and thinking I was a terrible person. In actively sought out negative outcomes and tried to be accepted in social groups including drug users and criminals, I thought if I could be accepted by these groups I would prove that I was ‘cool’ and autistic people in my limited experience were not ’cool’. My self-loathing was bound up with my denial of my autism. Had I liked myself a little bit more I would have been able to see my autism is a key part of who I was but this realisation was years away.
In 2000 I decided to change my life. I had just spent around five years in and out of jails and institutions. I was the most desperate and unhappy person imaginable. I had thrown my life away, partially as a means to distance myself form my autism diagnosis. But in 2000 I decided this would change. My mantra was ‘new millennium, new life.’ I still didn’t accept my autism but I was on the way. The new life I aspired to involved professional work, further study and a mortgage, not necessarily in that order. I wanted to be ‘ordinary.’ I enrolled in university and set out to change my life.
One thing I discovered at university was that people liked me for who I was. I had several genuine friends for the first time in many years. At the end of first year in university I became unwell with schizophrenia. I spent time in hospital and did a lot of soul searching. When I got home I came to the understanding that I was autistic. It was not a ‘see the light’ moment and I did not instantly proclaim my commitment to Neurodiversity. I saw my autism as a part of me but a part I didn’t quite trust. I was more able to tell people I had been in prison that that I was autistic for a couple of years.
I gradually became less of a self-hating autistic but it was a journey. In 2004 I took part in a public speaking course for autistic adults organised by an autism and employment service. It was the first time I had been around a group of fellow autistics. I met a woman called Donna who was an author. Not having been involved in the autism community I didn’t know who she was but it turned out that she was very well-known. You may know her as Polly Samuel and she became my mentor. I spent a lot of time with Polly. She introduced me to the concept of autistic pride. Polly also encouraged me to write my life story. I did and I guess the result is that I am sitting here writing this blog and that I have a significant profile in the autistic community. Polly essentially gave me my advocacy career and my sense of pride as an autistic person. After my first book came out I was thrust into the world of advocacy. It was utterly terrifying and exhilarating and liberating all at once.
I guess the take away from my pride journey is that there is no one right way to do these things. People do not need to instantly go from being diagnosed to being an advocate. There are many challenges and barriers to pride. I am delighted that I got to a position where I like and value myself and feel a very strong sense of pride but I acknowledge that for some people it is a challenge. I long for a world where we don’t need a pride day because it is pride day every day. Happy Pride Day to you all. We are amazing and should celebrate being our unique selves.