Being Autistic

I spent 40 years pretending to be someone else
Hiding my autistic traits
Shaking hands
Looking into eyes
Pushing myself beyond what I had
To hide who I am
Because who I am is not wanted
Who I am is not ‘normal’
Who I am can’t do everything that comes easily to others

Sit still
Don’t touch things
Don’t stim
Don’t think you’re special because you’re not
Kill who you are to be someone else
Someone worthy of space and love

I pushed myself and I beat myself up
I learned to hide
To laugh when others do
To stifle my laughter
To not allow myself to show these unwanted traits
Although they slip out
They always slip out

Too smart to be evaluated
Wrong gender to be autistic
Too much of a reader to be dyslexic
But excluded from the gifted program simply because
They thought I didn’t have leadership potential

When I asked for help
I was told I didn’t need it

A lifetime of masking
Smile and frown at the right time
Always policing myself
Presenting a front

A front that can be employed
A front that can be accepted
A front that can be loved

Not me

We have social skills
They are just different
We have empathy
Deep wells of it
We feel everything
Deeper and stronger
It’s overwhelming
We just show it differently
Sometimes we meltdown
Because we can’t hold it all

I only learned who I was because everything crumbled
My health has paid the price for
Giving all the energy I didn’t have
Just to make others okay with my existence
Chronic migraines
My body wore down from stress
I fell off the cliff
All sorts of testing
Meanwhile I kept crumbling

And in that crumbling I fought for myself
Researched with the drive and precision of
An autistic person
And people said no
I can’t be autistic
I can talk
I can look them in the eye
I don’t look like the
Autistic people on TV
Played by non-autistic actors
Written by non-autistic writers
Treating us as oddities
Playing out stereotypes

The health tests led to new diagnoses
A central nervous system condition
That causes widespread pain
Plus a plethora of other symptoms

The neuropsychologist
A person whose job it is to evaluate people
Was shocked that I am very intelligent
That I am autistic
Because I looked in his eye
I could talk
And I have breasts
The whole time misgendering me on purpose

I got my diagnosis
Because everyone told me I was wrong
I had to fight to get evaluated
Called 50 doctors
Wrestled with insurance
Was lucky to pay 250
Instead of 2500
They gave me one choice of doctor
Who labelled me with
An offensive and outdated term
The name of a Nazi who exterminated us
And called me high functioning
As if that should mean something
As if it was a compliment

I celebrated
Only other autists understood why
People finally had to see me
In all my autistic glory

Instead they told me I don’t look autistic
As if autism has a look
That they wouldn’t have known
As if that is a compliment
They still didn’t want to see me

I can no longer mask
Not the way I could
Not the way I’m expected to
Because of autistic burnout
I can’t do other things I could before

I’m learning how to unmask
But I can’t just turn it off
It’s a knotted string I can’t untie
So many knots that I can’t count them
Bit by bit
With people I trust
In public spaces
I will get there
Because others get to exist
And I should too

I turned to writing
The little I can currently do
While my migraines are milder
Advocating for others and for myself

I paint
To watch the colors dance
Into something new
But can’t do any of the
Marketing needed to sell
Paintings that come from
An autistic brain
The words to explain
The energy to give
Is lost behind the burnout of
40 years of masking
If I ever even had it

I am not broken
I never was
I am disabled
By a society that doesn’t include me
My needs are not special
They are not asking for more
They are just needs
Like everyone else’s

Special needs
Are ableist terms
That non-disabled people use to
Feel better about being a part of the system
Built on racism
Working with it
That disenfranchises
And stigmatizes us
We must dismantle it all
We can’t fix
Something that is working
Exactly how it was designed

People call me
High functioning
As if they know
My struggles
My strengths
And what I should be able to do
As if it’s a compliment
As if it means I’m better than other autists
Other disabled people
And I just want to yell at them
For trying to put all of us in boxes
That only harm

While they give me their ableist stamp of approval
That I never asked for
I dream of a service dog
I’ll never be able to afford
And a life of painting
That lets me be myself
That doesn’t make my body crumble
Until I collapse and have nothing

I don’t want to be a sideshow
I don’t want to be an oddity
I want to be included
I want spaces that don’t hurt
My autistic eyes and ears
I want people to stop abusing us

Listen to us and research before asking
It takes more energy for us
And more
To speak
To answer questions
To do it in the way neurotypicals want
Because god forbid
People think we’re rude
For speaking our language
Without fluff or flowers
Just honesty

I give past depletion
Unpaid intellectual labor
With the bonus of hate mail
From neurotypical people
Not because I can afford to
But because I have to
For autistic kids
For autistic adults
For my autistic self
Because I dream of a better future
For everyone who is neurodivergent

I don’t want to be a token
I want people to see the autism spectrum
In all its beauty
In all its variations
In all its strength and fragility
And work to include us
With us

April Marie Mai

Being Autistic

“Lift” by April Marie Mai. A horizontal rectangle landscape impasto thick paint acrylic abstract painting with teal, blue, indigo, purple, pink, yellow, coral red, and white combining in an expressive palette knife movement style that makes little rainbows of different colors. The bottom right and left areas are mainly darker blue, and the top part is primarily teal with all of the colors swirling. In some spots they interact to create green. It feels like being inside a tornado of color. Each swipe of the palette knife is different and contains multiple colors. It is 30 inches by 40 inches, creating a somewhat immersive experience.