Autistic Pride

On 18 June I’m very excited to be going to London for my first ever Autistic Pride. Well, excited and a little scared. I’m not new to Prides – I went to my first Gay Pride in London in 1993 age 22. I identified as bisexual at the time, although I hadn’t had any kind of relationship and actually had no idea what I was. Three of us travelled up from Cambridge for the weekend; myself, a woman from the animal rights group and a young professor who was very active in the LGBT and feminist scene. I didn’t really know either of them but thought they were the coolest people and by hanging out with them some of their coolness would rub off on me! It was quite clear from the start I was the extra third party. They went round holding hands, although at least one was allegedly going out with a man at the time, and I tagged along behind. The whole experience was overwhelming: the noise, the crowds, the confusion. It was hard seeing happy people in couples and friendship groups. I didn’t feel I fit in with any of it. But I went again the next year, alone, travelling down from the north where I was now living. By this time I’d had some experience with men, and still believed I was bisexual. I got a little enterprise going selling homemade vegan banana cakes to the marchers. It was pretty successful. Having something to do helped a little, but I still couldn’t wait to leave. Someone suggested I stay on to the after-party. Er, thanks but no thanks. When the whole day had been an endurance test, I didn’t want more of the same.
For many years I didn’t attend another Pride. I came out as lesbian in 1997. I went to Manchester Pride, well mainly just the march part, in ’99 with my girlfriend at the time. It felt good to finally be properly out and with a same-sex lover, but again there was this feeling I couldn’t cope – the noise, the crowds, the drunkenness and bad behaviour, so we left early.
Fast forward a few years, and my home city, like many other parts of the UK, started its own Pride which I wanted to support. I even got to perform at it last year, my own songs, with my soon-to-be wife on bass. We were in a small tent with hardly any audience but it was still a great honour. In the last 3 years we’ve also been to Prides at Brighton and Manchester twice, to hear my favourite singer – but have decided, no more. I love the idea of Gay Pride: being in a majority for one day instead of a sexual minority, standing up as one against the homophobic atrocities that still happen in all parts of the world, seeing people being themselves and being happy. But the reality is that most Prides are the opposite of autism-friendly, and I’d rather avoid total sensory overload and shutdown.
So this year the only Pride I will be going to is Autistic Pride. Some people might ask: why would anyone be proud to be autistic? After all, many see it as a deficiency or disorder. I don’t; I see it as a neurological difference. The opposite of pride is shame, and countless times we are made to feel ashamed because we are different from the majority. The roots of the word shame come from “to cover” & hide who we really are. Shame reduces our ability to be true to ourselves and connect with others. Why should I be ashamed of who I am? I am hoping that, by standing up and saying, yes I’m autistic and proud, others who maybe are just stating their journeys towards diagnosis and/or self-acceptance will see us and say, yes I have this difference but I don’t need to be ashamed. Many of us were bullied at school and have had a hard time forging friendships. Many of us have suffered from low self-esteem and poor mental health as a result. We don’t need to resign ourselves to saying, this is just how it is. We can be the change we want to see. It feels like a political act to attend Pride, any sort of Pride. In an ideal world, no minority groups would need a Pride because we would not be oppressed. But we are so far from that ideal.
Autistic Pride may not be right for me. I can’t assume I’ll feel comfortable there because they are “my” people. I don’t know how welcoming they’ll be of quiet, late-diagnosed, middle-aged lesbians. I may not fit in at all. There aren’t many places where I do fit – but I’m willing to give it a go. Happy Pride!
(With thanks to Vicky Beeching and Phyll Opoku-Gyimah for their very insightful articles on Pride in the June edition of Diva magazine)

On Being a Happy Aspie :)

I am , for the most part, a happy person. This seems quite rare among autistic people, and it saddens me the number of us who suffer mental health problems, especially women. I read the other day on social media that “if you are an autistic woman with no mental health issues, you must have been living on a desert island.” I realise I am incredibly fortunate in my overall good mental health, I do not take it for granted or assume that will be the case throughout my life. So I’d like to share a few insights.

I had a very positive upbringing. I was always loved and valued unconditionally. As my dad is certainly an (undiagnosed) Aspie, my mum has several of the traits and various other relatives are at different points on the spectrum, I was always viewed as normal within my family. My quirks and special interests were celebrated. I was undiagnosed then, in fact Aspergers in girls was unheard of when I was a child, so I never saw myself as having any kind of special needs or disability. There was never any doubt that I would go on to higher education and would succeed at whatever I put my mind to. I believe all these things are fundamental to a person’s mental wellbeing.

Having said that, my teenage years were not an easy time at all. Dad moved out when I was 12, leaving a general cloud of sadness over our house that didn’t shift for several years. The few friends I had made at the start of secondary school, abandoned me when they realised how different I was, and after around 14 I had literally no one. I stopped eating properly for about a year. This was the nearest I have come to having a mental health problem. I was never actually treated for anorexia but when I saw it on the doctor’s notes I realised I had to do something about it. It was always a dark cloud but I didn’t let it drag me down. This is because, as well as unconditional love from my family, I realised I had intelligence and talents. Academic work was never a problem for me, I threw myself into it and was lucky to have excellent teachers in my favourite subjects. Music was always my strongest area, and my piano teacher believed in me wholeheartedly. Religion was important to me too at this time, and when I was given the opportunity to learn the church organ and accompany services, I was thrilled. This led to me going on to study music at university, and later make a career in it.

I am incredibly lucky now in that I have a very supportive partner (soon to be my wife,) I have a good job in my area of special interest and we are financially secure.

Anxiety tends to be a big issue for us Aspies. I can’t pretend I don’t suffer from it at times, but it is mild and short-lived. I get sweaty palms and butterflies whenever I have to do something in public, deliver an important message or speak to an authority figure. But I rarely lie awake worrying about stuff. I don’t have a problem with journeys of any kind, shopping, crowds, medical appointments or many other situations that Aspies seem to worry about. That’s just me. Yes, I frequently get tired and overwhelmed due to not having many filters on my senses and having to work harder than most to process conversations. So I take rests, take time to re-set myself then I’m OK again. I’m not saying it’s easy. Apart from my partner, I  have few others who really understand me. At times I feel I’m on the brink of mental difficulties, and one little thing could push me over, but I always seem to manage to pull myself back.

I’m not someone who experiences meltdowns. Yes, I get agitated at times but it’s more a quiet agitation. I do have shutdowns, mostly after being around people too long, then I go mute and blank and just need to leave. I now know that I need to take social breaks. Social media can also be a trigger: although I love reading Twitter and Facebook I often feel bombarded by it, especially all the negativity on there. The solution is simple; just switch it off for a day each week at least.

I’m not good at knowing my own emotions: most of the time I couldn’t tell you what I’m feeling, except when I am happy, then I am ecstatically happy. Those who know me, know I grin from ear to ear, jump up and down like Tigger and clap my hands whenever anything really good happens. It feels like my body is filled with bubbles, and I don’t need drugs or alcohol to induce it! I wouldn’t want to be in this state for too long as it’s exhausting and out of step with most people around me, but I’m glad I experience this at times. My hope for other Aspies is that they too can find their niche, pursue their special interests, avoid what triggers meltdowns and depression, and find one or two people who truly understand them 🙂