And that is okay. I never should have been forced to appear “normal” in the first place. I should have been allowed to judge for myself if and when fitting in was worth it. My peers who ostracized me should have also been held accountable.
Many #ActuallyAutistic folks talk about their experiences faking neurotypical in public, and the toll it has taken on their mental health. They have spent many years trying to fit in, only to find that it is not sustainable in the long run. Meanwhile, I had the opposite problem; I made the weird kid my identity and I exaggerated my quirks for attention. As a child of the ’90s and early ’00s, the cartoons I watched encouraged viewers to be themselves, and I took that message to heart. I also had one great special ed teacher who set my expectations of others high. She fostered a positive environment for my classmates and me – no matter how different we were, no matter what supports we needed.
But things were about to change as soon as I was transferred into a regular ed classroom. My family’s expectations of me were changing, too. They felt it was time that I start toning down my imaginary world so that others don’t label me the weird kid. I hated that advice right away. They were basically asking me to keep the things I enjoyed and loved hidden for the sake of being more like everyone else. But no matter how upset it made me, they continued to argue until it broke into a fight. Soon our relationship was about to go downhill. It made me feel as though their acceptance of me was conditional.
During my first few years of regular ed, none of the kids were particularly mean to me, but they never fully included me in their activities either. We only said “hi” to each other and talked for a few minutes, then I went off to play alone at recess. I saw no problem with that. I still hung out with my special ed friends while I continued to take the short bus. Because I rarely hung out with “regular” kids, my family was concerned that I was missing out on learning important social skills.
They were not completely wrong. Due to the segregation between mainstream and “special needs” children, neither group knew how to interact with each other. I continued to act in ways that were expected for special education students, and had no concept of why NT children would find it weird. I never had any problems making friends while I was still segregated in those classrooms; in fact, many of the students there loved my company and we had great times together. It did not occur to me why neurotypical students would not be able to enjoy my company the same way. It took two years of mainstream inclusion before I learned how fickle my peers truly were. Then it hit me like a hurricane as I entered junior high. Every interaction with my peers triggered a fight or flight response. I still clung to my values, and there were a small number of teachers and students who supported me for who I was.
But even as I transitioned to a more accepting high school, the trauma of severe bullying remained with me. It took me a long time to regain the confidence to talk to crushes, thinking I would never have a chance with anyone I wanted to be with. I fooled myself into believing that it was actually my thing to assign numbers to people, rather than others pinning that role onto me. I loved the attention anyway, so I continued to do it just to feel like I was a part of something. But the idiosyncrasy did not last in college – while it made me stand out to my peers, it never helped me accomplish what I was truly after, which was connection.
So I withdrew for many years, convinced that I would never make any friends unless I learned to master the art of normalcy. I may have been right the whole time, who knows? But I sure hope the next generation of college students have better options. The fact that UC Davis transformed its Autism Awareness Association into the Autism and Neurodiversity Association was a big step in the right direction. I wish I got to see that change while I was still there, I am sure that some of that was influenced by my past anger at the group. I am glad they finally listened.