Column: A dance with autism

‘I can still be loved and be autistic at the same time, just as every other neurotypical child.’


AJ Jackson

“I am still the same person you have known, a diagnosis just puts a label on symptoms or on odd quirks I have in comparison to other people my age.”

The lights inside are loud, the incessant buzzing of the fluorescent bulbs housed in the ceiling. Does anyone else hear it over the never-ending chatter of idiot teenagers complaining about a TikTok trend, or how someone’s boyfriend broke up with them? When the squelch of sneakers sliding uncomfortably against a recently polished tiled floor, does that not bother you? How my brain hates that disgusting sound. I have a solution to fix those now-little problems.

I have noise canceling headphones.

To most people, they are a terrible invention when it comes to school. Students are unable to listen to their teachers’ directions because they abuse the option to turn on such a feature. But for me, it’s a blessing. Removing the excess audial noise helps my brain to not go into a terrifying meltdown of overstimulation which ruins my entire day when it’s barely begun.

I’m able to continue my day with them, feeling like a normal person, a neurotypical person.

The few friends I surround myself with only vaguely understand the troubles I face. They don’t understand why the fan whirring around a classroom makes me want to rip my hair out, or how someone chewing gum makes me want to tear the flesh off of my bones. The headphones help, they truly do.

Until I am told to take them off.

Being undiagnosed makes things much worse. Diagnosed kids have more than me, they have the special paper granting them a 504 or an IEP from the school district. They get to keep their devices to help them manage their symptoms while mine are confiscated for being distracting.

I am the jealous type when it comes down to those kinds of documents. How I would kill for that to be in my folder down in my counselors office, using it to my advantage when teachers scold me for wearing my headphones or struggling with an assignment.

I realize now most people would read this and find me to be one of those kids. Using their autism as an excuse, and let me tell you. I am not one of them.

The thing is, I have masked my entire life.

Autism is funny, really. It takes the simplest of interactions and twists them into terrifying, unnerving situations. Unsure of where to insert your own opinion into a conversation, a chance of interrupting or being seen as rude. 

I learned how to mask at a young age, despite my parents constantly insisting I am not autistic, because I have never acted like a boy who’s diagnosed with low-functioning autism. Especially since all of the research presented to doctors, parents and individuals with autism have all been conducted on boys. 

Initially, cats were my special interest as a child. I can still list every breed of cat and their defining characteristics and behavioral natures if asked, as well as identify breeds or coat patterns from viewing a photo of a cat, though many adults find that “normal” for young girls. But if I was a boy? That would be a different story.

Now, my special interest has changed to anime and manga. Two bookshelves filled to the brim with books, most of which have been read multiple times by now. My nose is always shoved in a book, whether it’s a physical copy or a digital one. 

Autism is frankly, isolating. It ruins your perception of conversations, missing miniscule tone changes and voice inflections, while someone’s body language is utterly foreign. But god forbid you ask a question about a social situation where you have no clue what is really going on.

It’s not easy or fun, and it sure isn’t some quirky thing anyone wants. 

Now here comes the infantilization, where people ask if I need things to be dumbed down or explained in smaller, shorter terms. I do not. I am more aware than anyone else in a room. That’s what my autism does for me.

I can sense things, whether someone really enjoys my company or if I’m just a pawn in their ultimate game of chess. I can sense who’s struggling, who is hating everything around them, or who’s having a good time in class. 

The trauma intertwined with being undiagnosed just makes it worse. Parents and therapists only point at the anxiety or depression which exacerbates all of my traits of autism. 

Why is it OK to treat autism as a dirty word?

Why is it ‘wrong’ to be autistic?

I can be high-functioning, born as a female and still be able to do ‘normal’ human things while being autistic. I am not holding anyone back for being my true self, my most autistic self. It’s not dirty or inherently wrong to be autistic, it’s just how my brain was formed. I can be treated the same as any other person; I just have different tools to work with and piece together.

Honestly, I could go on and on about how childhood trauma causes high-functioning autistic children to mask from a very early age, but it would be like beating a dead horse, because it’s apparent in society already. The reluctance to diagnose young girls and women with high-functioning autism, and if they don’t present every symptom outwardly? Then what even is the point?

Autism isn’t a bad thing, and it never has been. Everyone deserves to be equal, to be given the resources they need in order to succeed. I need those resources, even if I don’t appear outwardly autistic. I learned, I coped, I failed. I’ve masked, I’ve unmasked, I’ve hid. What does it take for a simple diagnosis on a medical document that opens up paths to help someone like me succeed?

Am I perhaps not autistic enough? Does my masking make you uncomfortable, or when I mention the dirty word, you cringe? Shoving away the idea that your friend, your patient, your granddaughter, your student, your daughter, is autistic.

I can still be loved and be autistic at the same time, just as every other neurotypical child. I am still the same person you have known, a diagnosis just puts a label on symptoms or on odd quirks I have in comparison to other people my age.