Keeping Up Appearances

I read a post about the problems with calling autistic people “high functioning” and it made me think of how much my life always has been about struggling to keep up appearances. I grew up without any names or diagnoses for any of my disabilities, and not knowing I was autistic was by far what made me suffer the most. I worked so hard on seeming “normal”, because when I failed (which I did, a lot), nobody understood that I needed help, support and accessibility. Instead I was considered weird and punished in different ways. One of the reasons for why I think functioning labels as so harmful is because it becomes a measurement tool to state how “normal”, meaning similar to neurotypical, an individual seems to be. It obfuscates how much work a person might have to do to keep this up and as a result, a lot of autistic people suffer in severe stress collapses. (There are more reasons for why I think functioning labels are harmful, for instance I see it being used as an excuse to treat people terribly bad, just because they are considered “low functioning”.)

So what do I mean when I write that I worked hard to seem normal?

  • I did careful research in books, movies, tv shows, among kids in school etc. about how people moved and talked.
  • I observed people around me and analysed what kind of behavior that led to different outcomes. I didn’t understand it, but I memorized it and spent plenty of time analyzing it.
  • I took all this research and wrote lists on what to say, what to not say, what to do, how to walk, how to dress, how to be in order to seem like a real, relatable person.

Writing this makes me cry, because I can’t believe how hard I had to fight every day as a kid, and still – I failed. I was punished in different ways for everything I couldn’t be.

I was eight years old the first time I started to refuse going to school, because it was too much. I was stressed out. I wonder if people understand what kind of life this was. I worked myself to exhaustion and still I failed, not only in certain areas of life – I failed at being a real person. The lists I made weren’t like a helpful shopping list to remember what to buy, it was an attempt to construct myself as a human being worthy of respect and being liked.

As a kid, I hid most of my interests, because they were considered weird. I had to hide almost everything that was me and my life was a constant battle to just navigate and understand people’s behavior. It felt like I was running a car really fast in the middle of total darkness with no lamps – I had no idea what to expect of anything. I had no idea when I was going to crash into something, I just knew that I would and still couldn’t stop. Because the only way of stopping and protecting myself from collapsing was to stay at home and hide in my room. I did that in periods of time, until my parents dragged me to school, threatening me with that if I didn’t go to school, the police would come and place me in foster care.

I was verbal, but talked to mask everything I didn’t understand. I had so many scripts that worked fairly well, but it got me into trouble too. When I actually did tell the truth, without scripts, people didn’t believe me. My reality simply couldn’t be true. According to people around me, there was no way you could stop going too school as a teenager because you don’t have any mental energy left.

I thought about all the energy consuming research to fit in when I watched parts of the first episode of the horribly bad Atypical on Netflix. We get to see the autistic main character Sam do exactly this type of research, but the show fails to portray how exhausting it is. I think that’s really bad, because this kind of emotional and mental labor seems to be a fairly common, and a very exhausting, part of autistic people’s lives.

The Parent Movement and Self-Diagnosis

Content: This post contains ableism.

 

Recently, I’ve been getting som pieces of hope regarding the movement of parents to neurodivergent kids. I’ve seen autistic parents speak up about the ableism within the parent movement and even though it has mostly been met with silence or total dismissal, I thought that maybe some kind of change is happening. Then I got a reminder of how bad the situation actually is.

Where I live, most parents to neurodivergent kids don’t know what ableism is. There is no organization for self advocacy for autistic or neurodivergent people, only one for people with specifically Asperger’s syndrome and they are very ableist themselves, not wanting to have anything to do with people with people with intellectual disabilities or people with what they consider a too big support need. The big discussion point in media is if autism and ADHD really exist or if it’s just made up by Big Pharma and lousy parents who can’t control our kids. Autism Parents are not used to being questioned by autistic adults and the parent movement is so permeated by ableism that it seems impossible for most of the parents to even imagine advocacy without ableism. Neurodiversity isn’t only misunderstood, most Autism Parents haven’t even heard of it.

The other day, I was also reminded of how the concept of self-diangosis is basically non-existing where I live. Despite the fact that there are multiple factors that will decide if a formal diagnosis is possible or not, even so-called self-advocates often refuse to see the need to recognize self-diagnosis. I came out as a self-diagnosed autistic and was basically told that it couldn’t be recognized and it hurt. It hurt more than I expected. It hurt because even if I wasn’t expecting miracles, I had some hope for this specific context and group of people. When a person in charge declared that they didn’t care at all about all the reasons why a formal diagnosis isn’t possible for all autistic people, I was a bit disappointed.

Because how can you declare wanting to empower neurodivergent people but only those privileged enough to get a formal diagnosis? How can you refuse to care about for instance the racism, ableism and sexism that keep a lot of neurodivergent people from being diagnosed? I don’t understand how anybody can defend throwing some people under the bus in a struggle for empowerment and against oppression.

This is so typical and one of the reasons for why I’m creating more and more distance between myself and most other parents of neurodivergent kids. I work hard on dealing with all my internalized ableism, not only for the sake of my kid but also for my own well-being. Being around Autism Parents and the rest of the parent movement is too much of a reminder of why I should hate myself.

I’m Your Alien

I will never forget the first time I met with a nurse at a clinic for autistic children. Six months earlier my child had been diagnosed  as autistic and a referral letter was sent to this clinic. Now we were finally here, me and my partner. My expectations weren’t that high but I knew they had occupational therapists and I was hoping that they could help us make the preschool our kid attended more accessible. We had a fairly good cooperation with the teachers but it was hard work to do on our own, and I thought that getting some help to increase accessibility and support would improve my kid’s health by decreasing his stress level.

One of the first things that the nurse told us was “These children rely heavily on motivation to learn new skills”.

I froze. I couldn’t pinpoint exactly why but there was something in this sentence that made me highly uncomfortable. Obviously a part of it was the motivation thing, since it’s a central part of ABA and that wasn’t something we wanted, but there was something more that made me react. There was something in how this nurse talked about autistic kids. “These children…” they were the Others. They were not a part of us.

During the rest of our meeting she talked about autistic kids in the same way, creating a distance between us parents and our autistic kid. At this point I wasn’t clear about that I was autistic, but I had my suspicions. I couldn’t articulate it but I was very uncomfortable and somewhere in my head a thought kept repeating itself: You are talking about me. These kids you are talking about like aliens, I’m one of them. I’m one those people you don’t consider a complete human being.

A Weak, Valuable Body

The result from image searching “inspiration porn”. 22 pictures, 13 of them are of visibly disabled people who are performing physical activities. Click on the image to go to the search result from Google.

There are so many reasons for why I strongly dislike inspiration porn (it dehumanizes disabled people, it’s used as an excuse to not make contexts and places accessible and it’s used to maintain oppression of disabled people) and there are a number of people who have written and talked about why inspiration porn is a bad thing. However, there’s one aspect that I haven’t read very much about: How inspiration porn tends to value strong bodies more than weak bodies.

I’m talking about the kind of inspiration porn where there’s a picture of a disabled person doing something physically demanding, like climbing a mountain, boxing or running a marathon, with a comment stating something like “She didn’t let her blindness stop her, everything is possible!” or “If she can so can you. No excuses, just do it!”

This worshipping of physically demanding activities isn’t limited to inspiration porn, it’s everywhere. Physical activities, like exercising, are frequently presented as the solution to all sorts of health problems and sometimes it seems to be so holy that the most oppressive, paternalistic ideas are accepted as long as it’s in the name of promoting physical activities. As an interesting example, we have this thread on twitter with the message “Movement is medicine”.

Image of stairs and escalators in what looks like a metro station. The stairs are made to look like running lanes, accompanied with an image of a person running up the stairs. Click on the image to get to the twitter thread where it’s from.

However, when it’s combined with ableism in the shape of inspiration porn, it gets even more problematic. Why? Because it tells us that a weak body is a bad body. That a body that can’t perform physically, doesn’t have the same value as bodies that can. It tells us that disabled people can be valuable as long as we can manage to be physically active. If we’re physically active, we’re excused. Then we’re good disbled people. It becomes a moral aspect of who we are. It’s the same kind of idea promoted in the sentence “Teach your daughter to be proud of what her body can do, not what it looks like”. But what happens when people have bodies that can’t do that much? Are our bodies bad bodies?

My body is weak. It can’t perform. Physical activities make it weaker and make my disease more severe. My body can’t be pushed to obey. My legs can’t run anymore. For walking more than a few meters, I need support. I can only sit up straight for a few minutes. I’m physically weak. The message I get from everywhere I turn is that a weak body is a bad body, and that a physically inactive person is a bad person. I don’t agree with this message, but I get affected by it.

I think fat activism is great and I think that kind of activism is needed for ill bodies, weak bodies and disabled bodies too. Because by now I’ve been ill for several years and I don’t have much muscles left. My body doesn’t only feel weak, it looks weak and it’s starting to really get to me. The other day when I passed my mirror I realized that I’m starting to feel bad about how weak my body looks. This is a kind of internalized ableism and I don’t want it.

Autonomy, Vulnerability and Safety

Content: This post includes mentioning PTSD, vulnerability and harm done by paternalistic behavior and lack of respect.

 

My ME (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis) has become worse during the last year and I’m therefore applying for help with some everyday chores. The days when I’m not able to make myself a simple snack are becoming more and more frequent and my partner can’t take care of me as much as needed, because he has to take care of our kid and work.

Applying for more help has made me think a lot about what I need to make this help work and it’s clear to me that I need people to be very careful about respecting my boundaries. If somebody is going to help me, I need that person to make it their first priority to make sure they help me with what I communicate, in the way I need it to be done. This might sound so obvious that it’s redundant to state, but in my experience it isn’t.

During the last years so many people (healthcare professionals, my mom and people from my social insurance agency) have demonstrated that they don’t respect my boundaries at all, and I’m hurt by it. For some reason it seems to be a common misunderstanding that when you are helping a disabled person, you are automatically entitled to the person’s private information and to run the person’s life. It doesn’t matter if I tell people that their ‘help’ is actually just making life more difficult to me, just by claiming that they are trying to help me they seem to think that they are free to do whatever they feel like.

When I say that this paternalistic behavior has hurt me, I mean that it has done some serious harm. I’m scared of healthcare professionals. I have nightmares and I’m hypervigilant in most situations where I need help. A big part of my PTSD stems from situations where I’ve been a patient, a child or needed help in some other ways. Also, healthcare has made my ME more severe by harmful diagnostic procedures, tests, assessments and treatments and nobody is willing to take any responsibility for it. Healthcare professionals act like it’s my fault that I have such a weird disease that they refuse to learn anything about, and having EDS and being an undiagnosed autistic doesn’t exactly make me less weird to other people.

When I think about how I could make receiving help work (and not just worsen my ME and PTSD), I think about how I need to have autonomy. How I need to be in charge and by getting practical help I become a subject that cares for myself. I don’t want to be taken care of, I just need people to practically do what I can’t do. I need my knowledge about myself to be respected. I need to be seen as the expert. Given the background I just accounted for, these needs (that are a lot about restoring my integrity and sense of humanity) make a lot of sense to me.

Then, every evening as night falls and I’m waiting to fall asleep, something else surfaces. I stop thinking about practical solutions, and I’m too mentally exhausted to think one more analytical thought. Then I’m just longing and hurting. I’m too exhausted to defend myself against people who are not respecting me. I’m ashamed to write this but then I want to be protected. I long so hard for someone to comfort me, and it feels so totally impossible to ever allow it again. My deepest, most shameful desire isn’t sexual – it’s about feeling safe enough to allow myself to be vulnerable in somebody else’s presence.

Initially, these desires seemed contradictory. Daytime I fight to defend myself and avoid situations that make me vulnerable to other people’s harm. At night, all I wish for is to be able to be vulnerable again. However, these aren’t contradictory needs. It hit me last night that being deprived of things like integrity, respect and a fundamental sense of safety means I was also deprived of the privilege of trusting people. Longing for autonomy and longing for vulnerability isn’t two different things, it’s two different sides of the same need: safety.