Discovering our autism can be life-changing. Suddenly our past challenges and present struggles make sense. Our futures hold a newfound possibility for self-acceptance and healthier coping. And somewhere, in that meld of relief, grief, and joy, we reach for the hope that others may finally see us and understand us.
But then, so many people with autism (self-and professionally diagnosed) are met with disbelief. Our friends say, “I just thought you were quirky.” Our families shake their heads, grumbling, “Why do you always have to try to be something special?” People we’ve only just met declare, “There’s no way you have autism!” Their intentions are good, but the methods are ableist and damaging.
What can we say to those rejections? We’ve already put ourselves out on a limb by telling our diagnoses. Yet far too often, when we feel most like we are blossoming into our real selves, these hurtful statements wither our small grasp on self-realization. First, we must recover our sense of identity, and then we can choose to respond:
1) Ground ourselves in truth. Just because our autism doesn’t fit another person’s preconceived notions doesn’t make it any less real. If I tell someone I have terrible eyesight, I’m often met with the following reply: “I doubt it’s as bad as my vision/my friend’s vision.” It’s obnoxious, and I feel an urge to prove my poor vision to the other person. Regardless, I still have a -9 vision that’s hard to live with. The same goes for my autism. It’s frustrating when other people talk it down, but their words do not change my reality.
2) Draft up a few go-to phrases for these situations. My personal favorites include, “It’s hard to tell what anyone is going through from the outside. You wouldn’t believe what my life has been like, but I’ll spare you the details,” or, “Autism is interesting in that it looks different for every person with autism, but trust me, I’m people with autism, and it’s been a lifelong experience.” If I’m in a playful mood, I might say, “Yep, I wonder why you never figured it out on your own!” Now you know more about autism.” It’s a hard conversation to navigate, but we can reclaim our narrative.