Let’s say there’s a dial control that determines how intensely each person experiences the world at any given time. Think of a pain scale at a doctor’s office, or maybe a knob on a car radio. If most neurotypical or allistic (non-autistic) people’s dials can turn from one to ten, then mine goes beyond ten- mine can turn to eleven or thirteen or maybe even fifteen. My dial and the ability for it to point past ten is a very integral part of what it’s like for me to live my life on the autism spectrum. It means that I have the tendency to feel things very intensely: both the good and not-so-good. This dial affects each facet of my life. It affects my physical senses, like hearing and taste. My ability to empathize with others. All of my emotional states. Everything about my perceptions and my responses to everyday life can turn past the number ten.
It’s certainly not always easy being autistic. Whether it’s coping with sensory overload, emotional burnout, or feeling like an outsider in a world that’s not built for people like me in mind, I have plenty of not-so-great days. But being a human isn’t always easy either, and to me, being autistic is as simple and as complex as this: it’s a way of being human. I decided to write this essay about the joys of being autistic after I recently came across the twitter hashtag #AutisticJoy, in which autistic people tweet about things they love about their lives on the spectrum. We all have good days, bad days, and days in between. We also all have activities or objects or people that bring us comfort and joy. In today’s post, I’m going to tell you about a few of my favorite things that make the bad days better and the good days the best as an autistic person. These are my joys of being autistic, which for me, are also the joys of simply being.
Stimming (or self-stimulatory behavior) is something many autistic people do to regulate and express ourselves. It can be a way to try and turn the dial back down to a more manageable number if we want, or a way to communicate an internal state. Classic examples of stimming include repetitive motions like flapping one’s hands or rocking back and forth, but each autistic person stims differently. When I get suddenly excited or happy about something, I often jump up and down and flap my hands in a wild frenzy, which is an action I and other autistic people call “happy flapping.” This is as natural and as instinctive to me as the urge to laugh at something that’s funny, and I love doing it. Some say that laughter is the best medicine, but I say it’s happy flapping.
- Special interests
Sure, everyone has hobbies and passions. But an autistic person’s special interest is next-level. The common stereotype is an extreme love of trains, and I will admit that even I went through a train phase for a while as a young teenager. But special interests can be anything. They can be specific animals, plants, or places. They can be activities, like different sports or types of games: Baseball. Ultimate frisbee. Scrabble. They can be TV shows. Movies. Academic subjects. Video games. Special interests can be can even be objects! Computers. Lampposts. Skateboards. Icebergs…I think you get the idea. You name it, it’s probably somebody’s special interest. Special interests provide a kind of security, a safe haven in this loud, unfriendly, allistic world. At the end of a long day around people who I feel like don’t understand me, I’ll always have my special interests to come home to.
- The online autistic community
Autistic people are everywhere. We attend your schools. Work in your favorite coffee shops. We might be in front of you in line Post Office. We are your neighbors, your friends, your family. You might recognize that we’re autistic, or you might not…but we’re here regardless. Due to my tendency to engage in social masking, most people I interact with likely have little to no idea that I’m on the spectrum unless I choose to disclose to them. It’s tiring, to say the least. But there’s one communal space that doesn’t pressure me to conform to neurotypical standards of behavior: online. For myself, it started with YouTube when I was about thirteen. Typing the words “Asperger’s Syndrome” into the search bar was like opening a door to an entirely different universe. I was met with page after page of search results, a never-ending list of videos by people vlogging about their lives on the spectrum. Thirteen-year-old me had discovered the autistic community, and it was all at my fingertips.
Today, I’m a part of about two dozen or so Facebook groups, Twitter chats, and special hashtags created to unite autistic people on the web. The online autistic community, (the autistic self-advocacy and disability rights community in particular) has truly transformed my thinking around what it means to be a part of a marginalized group. We post jokes and memes about autistic life, strategies for managing tough situations, realizations about living in our society as neurodiverse individuals, etc. And most importantly, there is support. Just a click away, there are people I know I can connect with because they experience struggles and triumphs through the lens of the autism spectrum, just like I do.
Whether I’m happy-flapping, doing research about my latest special interest, or participating in an online discussion with like-minded folks, there are some pretty great things about being autistic. (And I’ve only listed three!) Being reminded of the positive things helps the bad days ache a little less. Sure, there are plenty of not-so-great things about living as a person on the spectrum. Most of the items on that list, however, are not necessarily because of autism itself. Autistic people are navigating our way through a society that has a long way to go, especially when it comes to accessibility for and acceptance of those whose bodies and /or brains operate in ways that deviate from the current norm…But that’s a post for another day.
There is a common narrative in our society which tells us, in subtle and explicit ways, that disability is inherently tragic, that difference is wrong, and that autism is some kind of ailment that is to be prevented and cured. In my opinion and lived experience, that couldn’t be further from the truth. I think that in discussing and amplifying the wonderful parts of autistic life, we can all chip away at that toxic narrative, and hopefully build a better one that finally has the best interests of autistic people everywhere at heart.