So part of the journey of self-exploration has been in getting to witness the autistic diaspora.
When autism is discussed in a vacuum, rarely does ethnicity come into play. Like most things, autism is discussed from a white place. A male place. A privileged place. A parental place. A neurotypical place.
But the great thing about social media is that communities can rise up and speak directly to one another and amongst themselves that would not have been possible but for the Internet. We can compile experiences to build a sense of what really goes on in situ rather than from a clinician’s viewpoint or diagnostic criteria. It’s a democratic process that fills out the picture of what it is to be autistic.
I’ve learned so much about how we communicate differently than neurotypical people down to linguistic differences and humor. Also that non-verbal communication is just as, if not more, important to a group of people whose speech is disrupted by everything from auditory processing issues to missing social cues to neurotransmitter deficiencies and stress.
There are times when it physically hurts for me to have to say words out loud. My peak talking hours are 10 p.m. through 4 a.m. Outside of those hours I have to make a concerted effort. On days when I’m tired, I can force out words but there will be huge mistakes. My English starts to go. And while I am much much much less proficient in any other language, I speak in Spanish when I’m in pain, in French when I am anxious and, eventually, when I am physically exhausted, I just spell out words in American Sign Language that I taught myself from a Girl Scout handbook when I was eleven.
And then there is coded language. I’ve now heard a few Black women’s experiences about not feeling or sounding Black enough. It made so much sense to me because I got called out a lot as a kid for not talking like everyone around me. And, as an adult (I didn’t really interact with other ethnic minorities until college), I’ve been called out by people of color for acting “White.”
But here’s the thing: autistic people tend to have literal comprehension of language. They parse meaning differently. Slang is harder for autistics to incorporate. So, yeah, we talk like the Windows 95 manual reads because we say what we literally think and feel and slang works on different brain pathways.
Also, we don’t try to hide our meaning, so figurative flourishes lack importance. We’re not sugar coating anything. You can see this as a social deficit but for me, when I finally experienced directness, it felt incredibly freeing. If anything I can’t stand talking to passive aggressive people who hide the ball with their words and then grade you on how good you are at reading between the lines. It’s exhausting.
But these differences take their toll. I’m sure I wasn’t the most pleasant kid, but I straddled several different cultures as a kid (Mexican, Mexican-American, white American, and different classes within these groups that add furrher nuances) without the benefit of self-awareness that comes with an autism diagnosis. I was never going to master in-crowd talk with a single group let alone many or all of these groups. So I learned to observe and mask. Just go with the flow until the puzzle pieces came together enough that I could decode the communication and engage to a limited extent.
It meant always being an outsider. But it also meant that I built skills that allowed me to mutate to fit the needs of the situation. Stick me anywhere and I will float…eventually.
I got used to being an outsider in Nogales. I got used to going to Circle K or Food City and being asked “where I was from” when I have no other answer than Nogales and the people asking me clearly were not from Nogales. I got used to white teachers dismissing me because I had a Mexican name and then coming to the realization that I was the smartest kid in the class and that I couldn’t possibly be just another kid from Nogales.
That I have to have more compassionate for others’ ignorance and rejection when I’m supposed to be the one with social deficits is ironic and tiring. But then again, stick me and a typical person who fits “in” to their home environment in a completely foreign place and I’m going to integrate better. It’s why NYC is ultimately the best environment for me because it’s full of distinct cultures, strangers, people who are not from this place and people who have lived non-linear lives.
We’re all just weirdos trying to survive at this thing called life here. It’s the squares who find this place off-putting. And somehow, we manage to be kind to them because we know what it is to live in the absence of kindness.