Gerber: People With Autism are People

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So, it’s autism awareness month. As someone with autism, I want to say a couple of things.

People with autism are people. We have minds that work, they just don’t work like neurotypical people and it can be hard for us to communicate with people. Don’t ignore us or baby-talk to us. Baby talk or assuming we can’t think is really frustrating. Be patient, and try to learn how best to communicate by talking to the person. In the case of someone nonverbal, try to find out how they prefer to interact, by asking them or their friends (I’m not completely nonverbal, so I can’t give advice here).

Learn about autism from people who actually have autism. Remember that all of us are unique. Each of us has varying symptoms and differences. Not every autistic person is visibly autistic; some of us are very skilled at masking our differences– which isn’t exactly a good thing. Masking is exhausting, and it basically forces us to present a different person to the world than who we actually are.

It seems like I was the last person to find this out, but, in case anyone else doesn’t already know, Autism Speaks is really bad. It doesn’t represent or help people with autism. It portrays autism as a curse that must be forcibly fixed. There are almost no autistic people actually in the organization. Don’t donate to them, please. The neurodivergent symbol that is used now and that we actually like is the rainbow infinity sign, not the puzzle piece.

I’ll now try to describe what autism feels like for me. Remember that I’m just one person, and everyone’s experience is unique.

For me, it’s like my brain runs a different operating system from the norm. Not like an older version of Windows that is slow and can’t run modern software. It’s a very well-built system whose programmer wasn’t thinking about compatibility with programs for other systems. The usual social interaction software didn’t come pre-installed, and I can’t download the usual programs.

My social interaction works with janky extensions that are either third-party or that I programmed myself. Actual speech and words, I can handle pretty well. Social cues, I struggle with. I can’t read them reliable; I miss some, I misinterpret some and I read too much meaning into some. This is why I ask people to be direct with me if they need something from me, if I said something that bothered them, or if they just want to tell me something. I will not pick up on a subtle signal.

Also, when I don’t trust that someone will be direct if there is an issue, my processor gets occupied wondering if every little thing was meant to be a signal that the person hates me. Social anxiety in my case comes mainly from knowing that I don’t have the same instincts as most people and being afraid I’ll do something wrong.

I sometimes am in a nonverbal state where my brain just really doesn’t want to talk. This is when my speaker drivers get disconnected. I get sensory overload, especially with noise. My microphone, camera, smell sensor, and touch sensor get turned up to maximum sensitivity, and the input messes with my circuits and code. My task management programs often glitch– that’s executive dysfunction.

My RAM will get overloaded, especially after social interaction. I need time to reboot, clear up my processor and rest.

This analogy has been helpful for me to understand my needs and remind myself that I’m not whiny or needy. I actually need to give myself space for my operating system when it has to do stuff that it isn’t meant for.

I personally would not want to not have autism.

If I were born with Windows instead of my unique WonkyOS, I would be a different person now with different interests, different skills, different friends, and different goals. If someone were to install Windows now, I would not be this person. I would lose most of what makes me, me– the way I think, the things I’m best and worst at, how I communicate and all the metadata in my memory and knowledge files.

Autism is me; it’s the way I work, and I am glad I work the way I do. I mean, not having to deal with sensory overload or executive dysfunction would be great, but they’re part of the package, so I don’t mind having to figure out how to work around them. My unique way of thinking is worth it.

To those who read, thanks for reading. I’m not asking anyone to become an activist or anything. What I ask is this: Remember that we are people. Autism is a neurodivergence. It’s only a disability because society requires people to be able to think and communicate in ways that we can’t, and doesn’t let us ask for our needs to be met.

When you have a question, ask someone with autism. If you’re talking to someone who believes a misconception, correct them if you can. Don’t condemn us for being different. It is okay if you don’t want to be friends with a particular autistic person. We’re people, and that means some of us will vibe with you and some won’t. You don’t have a duty to befriend every neurodivergent person. Don’t feel bad if you don’t like one of us. Just don’t decide you don’t like someone purely because they have autism.

I’m hopeful for a world where people are aware that neurodivergence is normal, is not a defect, but is simply a difference. A world where accommodations are a more normal thing, and not something people feel pressured to hide. A world where society accepts everyone’s varying needs. A world where it is understood that everyone’s mind is different, some more than others, and people learn to communicate with people who don’t think the same. A world where autism is no longer a disability, because society has adjusted so that we are able to exist without a struggle.

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