I'm autistic. Deal with it.
Updated: Sep 8, 2021
This article first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on July 12, 2021.
It’s difficult being autistic in a neurotypical world. We, a culture of over 6 million strong, live amongst you. Some of us live in secret, others loud and proud, but we are united by a self-evident truth that we should be treated equally.
And yet equality for us routinely means adapting to the world as it is, rather than having neurotypicals meet us halfway.
Ableism, discriminating against disability, whether visible or not, is still acceptable. For most on the spectrum, our disability lies hidden.
On your television and film screens, autism is a one-dimensional trait. We are either the silent savant or the smartest in the room, with conveniently amusing social miscues and “quirks” advancing the plot. We are the easy punchlines and internet memes.
When observing how we get through a day, people often ask, “What’s wrong with you?”
There’s a simple answer to that: nothing.
For those of you not connected in some way to autism: Do you know what a “stim” is or how a sensory overload feels?
You probably don’t.
A stim is a repetitive action that varies from person to person. It helps relieve tension and stress. For some it’s dancing. Others could snap, rock, or even sing.
Sensory overloads, too, are a gigantic pain. Imagine your heart is beating out of your chest, breathing becomes more and more difficult, the walls close in. Muscles begin to tense up and you feel as though you’re going to snap at any second. At least that’s what it feels like for me.
It’s miserable. But I persist.
If “advocacy” groups had their way, and they do, they would say autistic people are meant to be pitied and grieved. There needs to be a cure so we can make you feel comfortable.
I hate to break it to you: We are also human beings. It’s difficult to express how we feel, but we are not empty vessels.
I cannot and do not need or want to be cured. I am, in fact, more alive, expressive and capable than you give me credit for.
But the discrimination against people like me is real. Only 15% of autistic people are employed. When you mention autism on an application, you expect it to get tossed without a second thought.
Upon graduating from college, I applied to countless jobs in a wide variety of industries, all of which I was qualified for. On the Equal Employment Opportunity form, under the question of whether or not I have a disability, I disclosed either that I was autistic, or that I would not answer the question.
I have never once heard back from an employer.
I am heading to UC Berkeley in the fall to work toward a graduate degree. Time will tell if even that lofty achievement can insulate me from further discrimination.
So what can you do to turn the tide as a neurotypical power broker?
First, look at yourself in the mirror. You have two eyes, two ears and one mouth. Don’t speak for us; listen to what we have to say. No two autistic people have the same experience.
Allow us to voice our opinions. Take notes on everything you hear. And then, after we explain it, share it with other neurotypicals. Take our truth and make it contagious.
Importantly, in an age where you would cancel someone over a racial slur, sexist remark, or homophobic comment, call out ableism in word or action.
To neurotypical parents, if you suspect your child is autistic, get them tested now. Don’t feel ashamed or grieve. There is no one to blame.
Let your children know they are loved and supported. Have their back as they go through the ups and downs of finding themselves, learning how to live as a neurodivergent person in a neurotypical society.
To neurotypical creators in media: realize your importance and how much having openly autistic characters in media will move the needle.
Even bad portrayals, such as Maddie Ziegler’s recent abysmal stereotype of an autistic person in “Music,” can move the needle. It showed the world that the old tropes and stereotypes perpetuated by films such as “Rain Man” were not going to cut it anymore.
With better awareness and acceptance comes better representation. It also increases the demand for more accurate portrayals, with both autistic and neurotypical actors playing the parts.
We are multidimensional people.
Great recent portrayals of us include Matilda Moss on “Everything’s Gonna Be Okay” and Sonya Cross on the short-lived TV show “The Bridge.”
Both of these characters have positives and negatives and are people first before they are autistic. Yes, they are openly on the spectrum, but the spectrum doesn’t define them.
That is the bar we should be setting.
Not every neurotypical person in the world is ill-informed about autism awareness and acceptance. No one knows everything about autism, and even the current information is not evergreen.
As difficult as it may be, we must listen to each other to create a better, more inclusive world. We must all show decency, helping each other up. We must stay inquisitive and hungry.
It shouldn’t take another century to make progress. Let’s begin the journey today and walk forward together.
Here’s to that journey.
Armon Owlia is a Master’s in Journalism student at UC Berkeley who has been a longtime advocate for autism awareness and acceptance. He is the creator and host of the YouTube series “For The Community,” and the upcoming podcast “The Aut Cast.”