Labels: Why They’re Great

Up until the age of 15, I didn’t like myself very much. I thought of myself as ‘awkward’ and ‘weird’ in a way I couldn’t explain. Physical appearance hadn’t overly bothered me throughout my life but who I was inside had. I’d always felt different to my brother and sister, but growing older meant I felt different to everyone. I desperately wanted not to care but from the age of thirteen onward I was researching everything I could. Like physical and mental health conditions, hoping something would apply to me and someone could tell me what on earth was going on. The answer hadn’t really crossed my mind. By when, in the diagnostic appointment, they said “we think you’re autistic”, I was beyond relieved.

I’m autistic, not ‘weird’. A simple word summing up my entire life was all I needed. I’m not limited by a word that has given me the chance to live a proper life again. I can make friends and go “I’m Emma and I’m autistic, ask me questions if you want, I’m just telling you who I am”. I can get a job, telling my future boss “I’m autistic, and I want to help people learn, especially people who’ve struggled with understanding the world like me” (true story!).  I can tell the world “I’m autistic and I couldn’t care less if you look down on me for that. If you want to look down on me, get out of my life.” Most of all, I can leave the house being me, flapping my arms and not caring, if I want to. I’m not hiding who I am, because the effort it took caused a burnout-breakdown I never want to see repeated.

Not only that, but saying “I’m autistic!” or “I have anxiety disorders!” are, to me, useful descriptors that tells you who I am in a concise way. It’s way easier to say “I’m autistic” than “I flap my hands sometimes, can have vicious meltdowns, can’t communicate brilliantly, don’t understand social norms and codes, am hypersensitive to pretty much everything and have only seemed to talk about Harry Potter for the past six years”.

There’s this idea that labels limit you. I’ve had conversations before where I’ve even been talking about how much I love labels, only to be told “but, you don’t want to limit yourself, you’re not just autistic.” Not only does my life revolve around being autistic (more on this in my Language: Identity vs Person post) but I love the fact I’m am who I am. Being autistic isn’t limiting, a lack of support is.

I didn’t have support for the first 15 years of my life, and I hated myself.  Having a label, and the access to support that it brings, helped me learn to love who I am. How – in anyway at all – is that limiting? I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my life. And yes, to some people, labels seem ridiculous. They seem limiting and harsh and unnecessary. But I wear my labels like they’re my favourite clothes, and I’ve never felt more comfortable in my own skin.

Standing Out

It seems that in life you’ll either stand out or slip into the shadows, unnoticed. Except, the chances are you probably won’t. It’s not that simple and most of the time it means you’ll be one, while actual wanting to be the other. Being autistic means I naturally stand out so I spent years slipping into the shadows.

Many autistic people spend their lives doing something known as “passing as neurotypical”. Whether it’s a conscious effort or not, it’s far from inherent and can use up energy at a ridiculously rapid rate. Simply, it’s repressing our autistic-ness. It’s not reacting to sensory stimuli in the way that feels natural. It’s not physically behaving in a way that feels natural. It’s not being yourself. It’s putting on a neurotypical facade and pretending you actually understand the world.

I spent 15 years of my life doing this and can remember it all so vividly. It was only last year when I stopped, but I can remember repressing things from years early. It was like living a body that didn’t belong to me, I wouldn’t allow myself to be me. I can remember the times I smiled and nodded because I couldn’t process speech quick enough and it was too awkward to ask the person to repeat themselves. I can remember the times on school trips where people would comment “Why do you never eat?” because the food wasn’t meals made by my mum, consisting of the small range of food I liked. I can remember the times the facade slipped a little, and people would ask “Why are you so weird?”. Those are just some of the things I experienced during the 15 years I barely allowed myself to recognise every non-physical trait I possessed, because I was scared.

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Credit: Autism Women’s Network

These comments and situations may seem unoffensive and harmless but it’s important to remember that they were about the very core of who I am. They are what fuelled my belief that hiding myself was okay, and even the best option for me. Unfortunately, it was probably the worst. It meant that I struggled with autistic burnout for such a long time, most of last year. It might not seem like a long time, but each days drags when you struggle to get out of bed and forget basic self care. The Autism Women’s Network recently released an image with the signs and causes of such a burnout. I’d recommend reading it to understand what autistic burnout is, and if you do, you’ll see “Passing as neurotypical/ surpressing autistic traits” under the causes section.

It’s interests me how far I was willing to go to fit in, to pretend I was like anyone else, but how much I didn’t care about other aspects person I created. I was never interested in fashionable clothes or popular music that other people listened to and I’m fairly certain it was because adopting an “I don’t care” attitude on these somewhat surface-level things was easier. I couldn’t bring myself to dedicate time to wearing the clothes everyone else liked, or the horror movies everyone seemed to watch when we were thirteen; pretending to be someone you’re not is kind of preoccupying.

And it’s not that I ever wanted to lie to people, it was more of a coping mechanism in a sometimes cruel world, that won’t always accept people for who they are. I think it’s somewhat natural to adjust yourself fit in when you’re different. It’s easy to omit the mental health issue you have when telling people about yourself, to cover up what society might consider physical imperfections, to say you like something you don’t. Fitting in is such a hidden choice, but people do it every day. Last year, however, I made a choice. A choice to be me, and express that in my day to day life.

I’m autistic and I honestly don’t care what people think anymore. I flap my hands in public when I’m happy. I’m honest that I don’t understand emotions. I talk about my special interest in depth, if I want to. Allowing myself to be unashamedly and proudly autistic means I stand out but it doesn’t matter. Anyone who glares at me or comments things in a snobby, ‘I’m-better-than-you’ tone is someone I don’t want around. It might mean at times in life I’m somewhat isolated but I’d rather be lonely for being me than popular for lying. And I’m lucky enough to always have my family, who love me for who I am and I love them for who they are.