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  • Writer's pictureBecky Aten (they/she)

Autism Acceptance is Self-Acceptance

I was invited by the Autism Society of Southeastern Wisconsin to speak at the Governor's Proclamation presentation at the Wisconsin State Capitol for Autism Acceptance Month this April, 2022. I had never done anything like this before and only had a few days to prepare.

The day was emotional labor and I am still processing everything I witnessed and absorbed in the strange mixing of autistic and neurotypical culture that happens at these kind of events. I wanted my words to feel relevant to both worlds, and as a recovering people-pleaser, I also find myself caught between my own needs and everyone else's. I needed a bridge-- a way to give of myself authentically, without speaking for the experiences of other people. I found it in the theme of self-acceptance.

You can catch a glimpse of me in action via the video links at the bottom of this post. These are the words I chose:

For me, autism acceptance is self-acceptance. For most of my life, I didn’t understand why I was different, and I believed that something was fundamentally wrong me. Since age sixteen I have been prescribed over two dozen different psychotropic medications, I’ve worked with at least seventeen different psychotherapists and doctors, and I was hospitalized three times for suicidality. After two decades of mental health treatment in the pursuit of fixing whatever was wrong with my brain, I was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder at age 38. My autism diagnosis came with a profound feeling of relief. My life made sense. And this new understanding of myself as a person who was not broken, just different, was what allowed me to accept my nervous system and begin tending to it with careful and compassionate attention.

Neurodiversity means that all nervous systems are different. We all have different brains and different bodies and different needs. We are all special, or none of us are. We are all normal, or none of us are.

Each human being is a mind inside of a body having a totally unique experience of the world. Mine is an autistic experience. I have an immense capacity for connection, love, joy, and creativity. Mine is a rich experience, and sometimes it is also completely overwhelming to the point of disability. That is okay. I accept that.

You may believe, as I do, that autism is not a disorder or disease that needs to be fixed. Autism is a difference. Calling it a disorder represents a value judgment. It is also a disability, and it is unhelpful to pretend otherwise. But disability is situational. When I am in an environment that meets the needs of my nervous system– when I am feeling safe– I thrive. When I am in an environment that feels too bright, too loud, too fast, too confusing, I shut down. That doesn’t mean that something is wrong with me.

When we pathologize differences because we don’t understand them, we place a value judgment on the experiences of other human beings. We send the message that there is a right and a wrong way to think, and feel, and interact with the world. When we pathologize, we ask the question “what’s wrong with you?” before we ask “what support do you need?”

To accept autism is to accept that there is nothing wrong with being different, and to include your own brain and body and differences— all of your intersecting identities— in the embrace of acceptance. And the way that we tend to ourselves has a direct impact on the way that we show up for the people we care about. I care about my neurokin— my fellow autistics, and I care about myself, and I want to show up in a way that represents and models acceptance.

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