Not Handicapped, Not Disabled, Not Mentally Ill

A few days ago, in the midst of talking about the effects of the fire on my life, I slipped in the news that I now have a label – “autistic.” I’ve had the label “high functioning” forever, but there was nothing after that modifier to explain why functioning well was in any way exceptional. And now there is.

Let’s back up a bit. Ever since I was a child, my mother has joked that I am her “crippled” child, because I’m left-handed. “Poor baby, you can’t do it because you’re using the wrong hand,” she’d say when I was struggling with something like using a can opener or pair of scissors. I knew she was joking. I knew she didn’t really think of me as disabled, but it left me with an important piece of information.

Differences are something to be mocked and pitied.

It doesn’t matter how one sees oneself. If others see you as being less than them, they pity you. And any difference that’s not commercially exploitable (extraordinary good looks, athletic ability, brilliance resulting in salable products) makes you less than.

I’ve had to adapt, adjust, and mask all my life, and for most of my life, it didn’t help. When I was a child, my intolerance for enormous family functions, for overstimulating environments, for physical discomfort was seen as my being willful, and I was lectured, yelled at, sent to my room. As an adolescent, I was ostracized, humiliated, and ridiculed. As an adult, I have been passed over for promotion, given poor job performance reviews (not for the quality of my work, but for the quality of my social interaction), and been largely discounted.

When I was a kid, there was no such thing as autism.

There were disruptive kids, angry kids, bored kids. They were behavioral problems that kids, with proper guidance and discipline, would grow out of. The lack of any kind of clinical label meant that nobody felt sorry for us or thought we needed any kind of special consideration apart from detention.

This morning, my sister sent me this article, and when I read the title, I immediately felt insulted. Now there’s a label for me that other people use for themselves. I don’t know what to do with that label, because it feels to me like another way of manipulating people. Just as I reject the “victim” label after the fire, I reject the “autistic” label, not because I don’t fit all the criteria, but because I can’t stand the fact that people who didn’t like me or didn’t understand me before will suddenly cut me slack because of that label. Because they think that they know something about me now that they didn’t before. And that’s not true.

If you’ve spent any time with me, you know as much about me as there is to know. Any label applied to me – “writer,” “depressed,” “autistic,” – is irrelevant because labels are stereotypes that homogenize everyone to whom they’re applied. I’ve spent years trying to tell people “yes, I’m [insert label here],” only to have to explain that it’s true, despite my not fitting their notion of what a person with that label looks or acts like.

If you have known me for a while, you know that I’m not disabled, handicapped, mentally ill. I’m just me, and I’m just fine, regardless of what label you choose to use for me. And if you feel the need to apply those labels to me, I have a few of my own that I’ll apply to you.