As a child, I dreaded calls to my mom from my Auntie. Even though I could only hear my mother’s side of the conversation, it was torture.
Cousin A won the Royal Academy top performance award in piano for the province of Ontario for the fifth time in a row, when it had never been done twice in a row before him. He’s learning Latin as his fourth oral and written language. He’s taking university classes alongside his middle school courses.
Cousin B is at the top of her grade. She’s received xyz awards.
Anything my mother could brag about when it came to me felt silly in comparison to the things my Auntie talked about.
Sometimes I put aside my pity party to think about what it must be like to be Cousin C. They were sure she was their neurotypical child. In a family like mine, being neurotypical can make you the odd man out. What must she have felt when her mother bragged about the other two? What must it have felt like to only hear her mother discuss her anxiety and depression with my mother?
Readers who have experience with autism probably have already figured out what it took years for Cousin C to discover about herself. She’s also autistic.
Why did it take so long for her to discover this? She went to a psychologist after psychologist and was diagnosed with: Oppositional Defiance Disorder, Depression, Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and ADHD.
So the question becomes, why diagnose her with all of this when all of them knew how prevalent autism is in our family?
If psychologists are reluctant now to recognize the genetic component of autism, they were really bad about it when she was looking for a diagnosis. If psychologists tend to diagnose people based on tired and cliched stereotypes today, they used these almost exclusively to diagnose when they were considering Cousin C.
One psychiatrist asked her, “Do you care what people think about you? Do you care what happens to other people?”
When Cousin C answered, “Of course I do,” she was told that is the reason she could not have autism.
What are these tired and cliched stereotypes? Think of the words that were once used instead of autism: Little Professor’s Syndrome and Engineer’s Disease. If you had a creative mind that could accept things outside of rigid patterns, you must not be autistic. You couldn’t be autistic if you weren’t a mathematical genius, musical savant, or walking Rosetta Stone. If you cared about other people and had empathy, you must not be autistic.
We aren’t a collection of quirks, stims, and sensitivities. We are real people with problems, like everyone else. We deal with our problems in vastly different ways, just like everyone else. We can be creative, compassionate, socially aware, extroverted, gregarious, introverted, detail oriented, and unaware of the emotional needs of others. We can be every sexual orientation and gender identity and can belong to any culture or race. For your information, none of what I just said is meant to be read in that scary voice used in the crappy Autism Speaks commercial made several years ago, called I Am Autism. It isn’t meant to scare anyone or sound like a threat.
Now that I’m older, I understand why my Auntie made Cousin A and B seem like they have superpowers. She was focusing on the positive. I do it all the time. You’ll rarely catch me talking about my real life struggles being autistic. Some people would call this whitewashing my life. As far as I’m concerned, there’s enough negative and defeatist material in the world about autism.
Over the years I’ve come to realize books, television, and movies tend to do the same thing. They swing between a focus on a negative narrative of autism as a tragedy and portrayals of autism as a superpower. It isn’t very often you see a representation of average people with autism like myself and Cousin C; people with nothing that could resemble superpowers and who don’t fit into the previously relied upon stereotypes.