Yesterday marked my first official appearance as an autistic person. I had been invited to join a seminar discussion of empathy in autism. Most of the students were nervous, as they had never met an autistic person (that they knew of) before. And I was feeling a bit divided. Though I was looking forward to the opportunity to share the message of neurodiversity, I have also been reluctant to become some sort of "professional autistic" on parade. In my (supposedly limited) imagination, I had NT's calling me a freak, certain other NT's calling me a nitwit, and even some of my fellow neurodiverse joined in with charges of token and lab rat.
Of course this is the kind of social pressure which, although I am rumored to be immune to it, has plagued me all my life. "Coming out" gradually at my own school and to other acquaintances has been a surprisingly difficult experience so far, given the peace of mind my diagnosis has brought me. People have disappeared, others have told me to get over myself. Some who I was sure knew better seem to find themselves unsure what to say and do in my presence.
None of this matters much. Mainly, I just didn't want to mess up. Messing up would mean presenting myself as the Quintessential Asperger-Person, capable of speaking for or representing hundreds of thousands of unique individuals. It would mean unleashing arrogance to an extent that minds would slam justifiably shut, or letting false assumptions stand unchallenged. And of course, I messed up in just these ways. Not everything, most of it went pretty well, but some. I wouldn't be human otherwise.
And that is the myth I most hope I challenged. The seminar was on empathy, after all, and this was my point, to make clear that empathy is not the exclusive province of the neurotypical. I was allowed to choose two readings for discussion; one was Gernsbacher's "Toward a Behavior of Reciprocity".
The very first student comment was that reciprocity is not possible with "low functioning" autistics, because they are "not interested" in interaction with anyone and also have low intelligence. Oh, brother! Was I being set up? I knew that a couple of students had already been in the professor's office, worrying about what I'd be like. Were they looking for an "outburst", or "tantrum", or was this truly their level of understanding? I couldn't be sure just yet, but I knew I would get my chance to speak soon. So no outburst, though I did get a visual of steam coming out the top of my head. (Actually, it was a picture from a video game called "Incredible Crisis", in which, as a Japanese office worker, the player is allowed about 4 mistakes in each mini-game before his head turns bright red and explodes. In case you wanted to know.)
When I got my chance to talk, I talked about assumptions people make, and about the different types of empathy, about autism as a culture and a valid difference. At least I think I did. When it comes to talking, I am never sure I've gotten anything across. I have no idea if they liked me, if they took me seriously, or thought my opinions were valid. I don't know that kind of stuff. After a while, they did start asking questions, and I did my best to answer for myself and not for every-autistic-ever-born.
What they wanted to know was do I have problems with friendships? (yes) Am I married? (yes, but not legally) Do people treat me differently when they know I have AS? (often) What is the difference between autism and Asperger syndrome? (none in my opinion, but there are others)
Do I wish I had been diagnosed as a child? (yes and no) What obsessions or special interests do I have? Do I care what people think of me?
What they wanted to know, I believe, is am I human, do I have feelings, am I like them? All this time I was drawing my squares, mumbling under my breath, clicking my pen, being my autistic self. Did I pass the test? Was I human enough to count? Did I do a disservice to others on the spectrum by saying too much or too little? I wonder. Like most every experience I've had, it was flawed, and I was flawed, and I wouldn't change a thing.