I did not have a formal diagnosis growing up. This means that I avoided a lot of the more toxic ‘therapies’ that autistic kids are subjected to. I was not treated like a dog while being trained to perform normalcy tricks for rewards. I was never told to touch my nose or whatever else have you. In that way, I am lucky.
But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t expected to perform normalcy. I was. “Use your words” was common when I couldn’t talk. “Spit it out!” was common when I stuttered. “Don’t do that, you look r******” was common when I flapped or toe walked. “What are you doing?” was common, with the screwed-up disgust face (one of the only facial expressions I can recongize with any accuracy, because it was so necessary to my survival growing up), when I stimmed or twirled or did anything too obviously weird in polite company. When I was bullied, I was assured that it was my fault. If I would “just” dress better or fit in more or show more interest in normal things or stop talking about weather or Tamora Pierce novels or whatever have you – if I would just follow the million and one complicated and seemingly self-contradictory rules* of normalcy, I wouldn’t be bullied. Humane treatment wasn’t a right, it was a privilege, contingent on performing normalcy acceptably.
For a while – a long while – I did my best to put on a good performance. At one point, I studied body language and ettiquette voraciously, certain that if I just learned enough, book knowledge could make up for a lack of ability. I just needed to read more. Study more. Learn more. Then I would know enough and be able to fake it. I made up flow charts, and I practiced. I practiced alone, because I knew by then that having to practice normalcy was on its own breaking the performance. I hid the stress and anxiety and despair it caused me to perform normalcy and hide my true self in such a way, because normal kids don’t feel like that, and therefore I had to hide it. When I finally hit a point where my mental health issues were life-threatening and told someone because, as miserable as I was, I didn’t want to die, per se, I just wanted the world to quit sucking so damn much for me, they were shocked. “You always seem so cheery! Why didn’t you say something before?”
When I left for university, I made a decision. I’d spent much of my schooling trying and failing and failing and failing again to be normal. I knew, from experience, how miserable that performance made me. I decided to stop trying to be normal. At that point, I wasn’t quite ready to embrace my own self. I was just at the point where I recognized that the performance of normal was killing me, and I couldn’t do it anymore.
I’d always been told that if I didn’t act normal, I wouldn’t have friends. Weirdos get ostracized because they’re weird. But I found out that this was a lie. Sure, the sorority types wanted nothing to do with me, but that was nothing new. I made friends with my fellow weirdos over common interests, and found actual companionship in friendships that didn’t have the wall of my normal performance between us. Because I was honest in how I acted, we were able to build trust and become friends.
These friends – one of whom is now my partner – and others I’ve made online since taught me to accept me for who I am, weirdness and all. They taught me weird is what makes me, me, and those who would change that don’t actually like me, they like who they think I should be. They taught me to embrace the weird, and in so doing, they taught me to be happy.
Don’t try to perform normal. Embrace the weird. You will be happier for it.
*like how “honesty is the best policy” but “white lies make people feel better”, as just one example.