Dear fellow autistics,
I am Jahnavi. As a child, growing up in India, I used to feel as if there was a glass wall separating me from other children, and I believed that the reason for the wall’s existence was that there was something essentially bad inside of me, so bad that it was immediately palpable to my peers, compelling them to stay away.
I did not (or dared not to) ask myself how someone could be bad without doing anything particularly bad, or even ask myself what bad really meant. I simply trusted that individuals became good or bad depending on how people around them responded to them.
I just fully believed in my badness because those around me seemed to not want to interact with me very much. I saw myself through their eyes and judged myself as being deficient and inadequate.
It is only now that I am beginning to realise that the problem does not actually lie inside of me but outside of me. The problem lies with the way things are ordered outside, in my environment. It is only now that I am starting to allow myself to feel unbad.
It is only now, and very slowly, that I am allowing myself to realise that the bad thing inside was not a bad thing at all; it was neutral— different from others, yes— but definitely not bad.
Had I realised this sooner, had someone talked to me or written letters like this one to me when I was growing up, I might have avoided a lot of anxiety and self-esteem issues, which have eventually resulted in post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – now as fundamental a part of me as is my autism.
But I had no such support system and was deeply lonely in my divergence from my typical peers. The reason for my loneliness was that I was not as lucky as you all inasmuch as I had not been seen as or diagnosed as autistic for the longest time.
In my desperation, I, like many autistic girls, had learnt to hide my ‘badness’ in whatever way I could. I observed and learnt “appropriateness” from people around me, but continued to feel miserably inappropriate inside.
I grew so adept at pretending, that I have been behaving appropriately on the outside and feeling inappropriate on the inside for 37 whole years. So that now, after my recent diagnosis, it is very difficult to peel back the layers and see my self clearly.
I am writing this letter not to ask you to feel sad for me, but to feel compassion for those around you who might be going through similar debilitating conflicts in secret.
This is an appeal to those young autistic people who are able to forge new connections, to keep an eye out for individuals who continue to hide simply because they have been conditioned to hide.
These hidden gems could very often be women and girls, and for generations have been women and girls, but they could also be from any of the many genders that enrich and diversify the world.
You and I may have broken free to some extent, but we are, nonetheless, all-too-familiar with the crippling loneliness of being different in standardised environments, so I would ask you all to turn up your brilliant sensitivities and dazzling perceptual abilities to identify those of us who are, wittingly or unwittingly, still suffering under the yoke of the typical standard.
An ‘odd’, overly-withdrawn person, a sensitive, lonely child – we all know the signs, and we all know that these signs may or may not be associated with autism in that particular person, but what they definitely signal is a person who needs to be heard.
The most we can do as masters of experiencing loneliness is to move a little closer and talk to them. To be seen and to be spoken to by another person who felt as awkward as me in the world was, perhaps, all that I needed as a hidden autistic. And that is all we can offer to others like me: a genuine, heart-to-heart (devoid of small talk), and a little friendship.
I’m not asking that you co-opt people into our community unthinkingly, of course, because we all know how stigmatised autism still is in many countries and cultures, but to lend an ear, bestow a (consensual) hug or warm smile, and be present for support whenever needed.