Sunday, June 11, 2017

A letter to my younger teenage self

Dear younger self,

I know you are feeling insecure, frustrated and broken about being an autistic teenager living in a neurotypical world.  I know that learning about your autism diagnosis wasn't easy for you to accept.  It didn't help that when you were going through your formative years, the world hadn't embraced neurodiversity yet.  Instead, the medical model of disability prevailed as pro-cure organizations portrayed autism as a "tragedy."  Professionals weren't as helpful either as they often  contributed to the negative stereotype of autism by writing deficit based narratives about the condition.  They talked about how how  autistic people "lacked empathy" or were "socially naive."  Unfortunately, this was the only information that was available to my parents and others who worked with me since there weren't too many first hand accounts about autism or vocal self advocates at the time.  This had the unfortunate consequence of  having your needs and intentions misunderstood as parents and support people used approaches that contributed to your insecurity.  

In school, support staff discouraged you from socializing with adults (such as the computer teacher in middle shool) and pushed you to socialize with more typical peers.  They didn't understand how intense your social anxiety was or that you had no interest in being friends with your school peers.  You were strongly encouraged to give up your interests of Hello Kitty and Disney Princess in exchange for more teenage interests like fashion to get you to "fit in better."  You were forced to join clubs during lunch because the school staff thought it was good for you to branch out and meet people when they had no idea about the sensory overload you felt when you were in a huge social group.    As a result of your parents and others measuring you against neurotypical peers, you felt inferior to them.  You thought there was only one way to live a normal life and that is to become neurotypical.    You always second-guessed yourself and constantly kept asking others for reassurance.  As much as it annoyed the people around you. this behavior was a way to cope with your insecurity and  the inconsistent identity of appearing "normal" but feeling so different inside.  You were unsure about where you stand and what the future will hold for you.

Now as a young adult looking back and have accomplished some neurotypical milestones (graduating college and getting my first job), I can say that  "there is no such thing as normal" and the notions of milestones and deadlines are a myth.  Achieving the neurotypical lifestyle is not all what it's cracked up to be.  It can lead to more stress and expectations that can burden your already overactive sensory system.    I am also here to tell you that when you become an adult, you have more freedom and choice in how you want to live your life.  The concept of "age appropriate" is overrated and that your interest in Hello Kitty and Disney and all the other related things you like now are becoming more mainstream.    There are other autistic young adults who went through hardships and are tired of parents and professionals dominating the autism debate.  As a result of more autistics speaking out about their experiences, there is a growing movement of "autism acceptance".   The experiences that you are going through in adolescence has made me the strong self advocate I am today.

Looking back, I know it is hard  to accept that you are going to be autistic for the rest of your life. While there are interventions and therapies that might help you cope better with your symptoms, they won't take away the autism from within you.  The best advice I will share with you is to try to accept autism as part of your identity.  Accept the fact that autism might make it hard to do certain things that most typical people your age take for granted (e.g. driving, making friends, traveling).  I also want to let you know that
 it is okay to have limitations due to your disability.  You should not be ashamed of asking for the supports and accommodations you need to deal with your limitations.  But most importantly, you are a human being and have the same basic needs and rights as someone who is neurotypical or nondisabled.  Autism does not make you any less of a human.  You were born for a reason: to make a difference in this world and to educate others about your condition.


Your 25 year old future self

Image: Christine, age 13 (2005)

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