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Neurodiversity is human

by Alix Adair

April is Autism Acceptance Month, and a few years ago this month I was saying out loud for the first time that I am definitely autistic. This year I want to take some time to explain my singular experience with my neurotype. There are so many different ways to be autistic--some of us are super verbal, some of us less so, some of us are extroverts and some of us are introverts, and our special interests are all over the place. But the things we share make us human and valid and real, and if you’re just learning about yourself, you need to know that you are all of these things as well.

It felt weird the first few times, like I was claiming a label that I didn’t “deserve” somehow, because I’m still on a waitlist for an official diagnosis. But here are the facts: the majority of the autistic community recognizes self-diagnosis because the majority of the medical community is still under the impression that we’re all skinny white cishet men who love trains and science. We are not.

In fact, a disproportionate amount of us are trans, nonbinary, or otherwise gender diverse--some of us even use labels like autigender or neuroqueer to describe the intersection of our autism and our gender.

Just like being trans, a lot of people tend to think that claiming a neurodivergent (that’s a word that includes other diagnoses like ADHD and OCD, and you can have more than one!) label is somehow “trendy” or being popularized by the internet and we’re making it up to be cool.

That always makes me laugh, because I have never been, nor will I ever be, cool. You can ask literally anyone who knows me. In fact, as a kid, I had a really angry soapbox about coolness and how useless that label was. (I had a lot of really angry soapboxes as a kid. I still do, but I’ve learned better timing for them, mostly. Hannah Gadsby, who is also autistic, describes this phenomenon in her standup special “Douglas” as “pufferfishing,” which means getting really upset over something that doesn’t seem to upset anyone else.)

I was always tracked into “gifted and talented” programs that I didn’t feel like I deserved. In kindergarten, I got extra homework because I already knew how to read. How fair is that? Some kid who’s normal like everyone else gets to go home and relax and I have extra questions to answer about books I never asked to read? I even got pulled out of class to do extra work. You can imagine how cool this made me.

In retrospect, it’s not at all surprising that I hummed and sang to myself a lot, or stuck to the side of the hallways so I could touch the wall as I walked. Stuff that makes you feel better by letting your energy out when you have a lot of feelings is called “stimming” by autistics, and I’ve done this my whole life. Allistics (non-autistics) do a bit of it too, if they tap their feet or bite their nails. I pull on my hair. You could track how well my day’s gone by how my hair looks, still. If it’s standing straight up, I’ve needed to stim a lot.

Stimming can happen when you’re really excited, like when I watch Jeopardy and it reminds me of my grandpa and how much I loved him because we’d answer all the questions together. It can also happen when you’re very upset, and all that energy just has to go somewhere. (Some of us stim in unhealthy ways that can hurt us, and this is one way we get misdiagnosed as borderline or depressed, if we’re self-harming. It can be hard not to scratch my fingernails on my arms or legs if I’m very upset, just to try to ground myself in space with my body.) Yeah, I’m definitely not doing any of this to look cool.

In fact, I remember winning some superlative award in eighth grade (probably “nerdiest” or “smartest” or something like that. It definitely wasn’t best hair.) and refusing it on principle. I tried again when I was salutatorian of my high school class, because to my mind, school came easy and I hadn’t worked hard enough to deserve it. They didn’t let me refuse that one, though, so I wrote an angry speech about how useless these labels were. (Weirdly, other kids really liked it and I was cool for like, a week.)

But no, I’m not telling you I’m autistic so you’ll think I’m cool. I’m telling you so that if you’re like me, you’ll understand that we’re both human.

It is a really common autistic experience to not feel human. Our emotions can be all over the place, and allistics keep telling us that we’re either over- or under-reacting. I cried constantly as a child because everything was so frustrating and confusing and the worst part was when I didn’t have words for what was making me feel that way. You can imagine how cool this made me with my peers.

Even teachers would take me aside to try to help me not be so weird, and I never listened. I knew that if I were making people laugh, then at least they weren’t tormenting me, so for some reason in eighth grade I drew on my nose at lunch every day with a blue marker. People thought it was funny, so I kept doing it. It distracted them from how I got better grades than they did, which I didn’t think mattered at all. In fact, when teachers called attention to it, I’d get really upset.

My thought was that I hadn’t put in any work, that school came easily to me, and so there was no point in complimenting me on it. Someone who worked harder should be complimented because they were studying and trying, and I was reading under my de