I’m starting to dread Friday dress down days. When my work administration first announced them, everyone rejoiced; one teacher even gave a standing ovation. But there’s only so many casual work-appropriate outfits you can buy on a teacher’s salary, so we started recycling clothes. That’s when it became obvious that one specific type of shirt was insanely popular with my fellow teachers.
I turn the corner out of the faculty lounge and –BOOM!—there’s rainbow puzzle pieces forming the word AUTISM. Or maybe it’s the science teacher’s “I Love Someone with Autism” lanyard. Or it’s the kindergarten teacher sporting her Light It Up Blue shirt as she leads her little ones like a line of ducklings.
It’s a strange existence, being an autistic adult in a profession overflowing with autism mommy-ism and misinformation. Within these walls, everyone means well. Everyone wants to show their “support” and help raise “tolerance.” And everyone, for the most part, gets it wrong.
It’s really starting to get to me.
When I see one of my well-meaning coworkers wearing those dang puzzle pieces, I want to pull them aside and say, as politely as possible, “Autistic people don’t like puzzle pieces, because it implies that there’s a piece of us missing.”
But, of course, I don’t.
I’m dreading April. To be specific, I’m dreading the April memo asking for donations to Autism Speaks, because “we should all do our part to raise awareness.” I want to scream a long and drawn out, Darth Vader style, “NOOOO!” I want to yell loud and clear that Autism Speaks is a borderline hate group that wants to erase people like me from existence.
But I don’t.
I want to tell my special education coworkers to let A stim, because it’s not distracting anyone, and it helps him focus.
But, surprise surprise, I don’t.
I’m sure you’re starting to notice the pattern here.
Maybe I’m a coward, I don’t know. I just can’t figure out how to counter, “Well, I’m a specially trained expert with x years of experience,” with anything other than, “Well, I’m actually autistic so I have a better idea of how autistic people’s brains work.”
Call me crazy, but I’ve become accustomed to being able to feed my family. I’m scared that ableist prejudice will get me fired if I come out to the wider school community.
That’s not to say that I’m completely in the closet, so to speak. I’ve told my education team, the people who are closest to me at work. That’s helped a lot, and not just because they all told me how awesome I am. Now I get to have conversations like this one:
“One time I was talking about a student,” my teammate said, “and I called him autistic. The spec ed teacher got really mad and told me I should say child with autism.”
“You were right the first time,” I said. “Most of us would rather be called autistic.”
“Okay, good. It’s just so confusing because some people say one thing, and I don’t want to offend anybody.”
I smiled. “Trust me, autistic people aren’t offended if you call us autistic. We already got the memo. We don’t forget we’re people just because you said ‘person’ second.”
I like conversations like that one. It makes me feel like I’m helping in my own small way. Especially since there are other, dark times when I feel like my silence is selling out the autistic students at my school.
Take M, for example. One time, I observed her in her mainstream classroom. Most of the students weren’t paying attention to the math lesson, but not M. Her hand shot straight into the air, not just to answer the question, but to give a detailed explanation why.
“Stop talking so much,” her neighbor whined. “You keep saying the same stuff.”
Looking at M’s face was like looking in the mirror. I know what it feels like when someone said, “You’re repeating yourself.” M was confused because in her mind she wasn’t talking too much—she was answering the question (and I agreed with her; her answer was on point). I empathized with M. I could feel her disappointment and hurt as deeply as a physical wound, because I’ve been there, too.
At the risk of sounding arrogant, I highly doubt that my allistic coworkers would’ve spotted this blink-and-you’ll-miss-it flicker across her face. They probably thought she was fine, because she wasn’t melting down. But I saw it immediately.
Autistic children need autistic role models and mentors. They need autistic adults to help guide them through our crazy, beautiful, and often frightening world. That’s something that the “autism awareness” movement doesn’t seem to consider: the importance of autistic adults. The importance of us, the autistic folk, being the authors of our own narratives. Our role in the next generation.
I wish I could think of a solution. I love my job, and most of my colleagues, but it gets so lonely, sometimes, being autistic in this environment.