Content warning – bullying
On Thursday I wore a rainbow suit to my corporate job. Ostensibly this was to mark Wear it Purple Day (which was on Friday but I work from home on Fridays). My colleagues thought my suit was wonderful and I had a really nice day. One of my colleagues who was working from home but had seen my photo of me in the suit expressed how wonderful it was that I was so comfortable that my workplace was supportive that I felt able to wear my rainbow suit. She was 100 per cent right. As the day went on I also realised that in my high school days I did everything I could to avoid looking different but as a forty-something autistic advocate, author and public servant I was not only unafraid of being different, I was actively displaying my difference and even taking delight in it.
My most recent blog post was about autistic masking. This one sort of is too I guess but from the other perspective of being happy and proud to be just exactly your own sparkling autistic self. When I started high school I almost instantly became the least popular child there. Kids in my year level hated me and kids in every other year level hated me too. Anyone who tried to befriend me would also be bullied, leaving me pretty much friendless. This was quite different to primary school where I got along quite well with most of the kids. In high school I quickly learned that I was weird and wrong – why would I doubt this as everyone told me it? I wanted to be less different as I figured people would hate me less if I was more like them. I didn’t know what it was that made me different so my strategies to fit in were all met with failure. I cut my hair differently – still hated. I wore more fashionable clothes – nope. Still hated. I even changed how I spelled my name for some reason but sadly that also had no effect on the bullying. In the end I gave up and resigned myself to being highly unpopular.
When I left school I still wanted to fit in and be accepted. Even when I was in my thirties I would wear nondescript clothes and try to act like the people around me. I was scarred by school bullying to the extent that I thought being visibly or noticeably different would result in my being ostracised even many years after the bullying stopped.
What changed? I think the difference in my acceptance of my difference happened when I became an autism advocate. In 2012 I met a young autistic man who sparked my passion for advocacy. He had been disabled by others’ low expectations of his capacity. I realised that many other autistic young people were probably in a similar situation so I set about doing my small part to change that. As I embraced advocacy I embraced my own autistic identity. I met autistic people who became friends and role models. I realised how much I loved colour and shiny, stimmy things and my Yennski style was born. Outwardly I expressed my individual identity. I wore a rainbow wig, I bought shoes and jewellery with lots of character and I dyed my hair blue – or some of it anyway. I learned that my quirky style made other people happy and even helped enable others to express their own individuality too. It makes me really happy to express myself the way I do.
When I was a child my difference was squashed out of me. I was bullied and threatened into hating myself but as an adult I have learned to embrace my sense of style and through it my funny, quirky Yennski self. When I was trying to fit in to placate the bullies I was miserable but when I started expressing myself the way I wanted to the opposite was true. I also realised that if you hate yourself and believe what bullies say it is quite easy for bullies to grind you down and discriminate against you. I have learned that being proud of who I am and being happy to express my individuality and sense fo self actually makes it harder for people to bully me and discriminate against me. If someone had given me a hard time for wearing my rainbow suit on Thursday I would have responded with confidence and understood that it was them with the problem, not me. But when people bullied me as a kid I would have been more likely to never wear the outfit resulting in insults again and feeling like I didn’t deserve to exist.
I’m delighted to be proud of my difference and I am grateful to the autistic community for supporting me to express myself in a quirky and proudly different way. Different is definitely not less. Different is resplendent and beautiful.