Yesterday a very cool thing happened on Twitter. A couple people were talking about posting selfies, in order to overcome the biases about ActuallyAutistic people. We see so much misinformation, which triggers abject despair on the hearts and minds of parents of autistic children everywhere. And frankly, it’s a poor way to think about things. It’s under-informed. It’s half-truth — if there’s any truth to it, at all. And it’s unfair, both to the parents who want to do right by their kids, as well as the children who are saddled with a crappy prognosis for life, from the point of their diagnosis, on.
Overcoming that disinformation campaign (which certainly serves the needs of “helper” organizations who want your money) is so, so important. I was hesitant about joining in, at first, because I prize my anonymity and I don’t want people in my offline life to connect the dots. If Trump becomes president (and there’s actually no 100% guarantee that he will), my situation could become pretty dire, if people realize I’m autistic and start to act towards me the same way that DJT acts towards disabled people. Plus, he’s on the “vaccines cause autism” bandwagon, and … well, I can’t even…
Anyway, people started posting selfies with the hashtags #ActuallyAutistpic and #ActuallyAutisticpic, and all these really great photos started showing up. I wanted to participate by sharing photos of myself earlier in life, which don’t show me as-I-am right now (I need my anonymity). So, I started looking back through my old photos, and I came up with some cool ones.
Here’s me at age 7:
And at age 10:
And as I was combing through my old photos, it occurred to me that – gosh! – I was a pretty cute kid! As I got older, I got even better looking, too. I was absolutely struck by how much natural beauty I’d had, and how amazing I looked. I’m not being vain. It’s a simple fact.
An old college friend of mine told me once that she was star-struck by me, and she thought I was the most beautiful person she’d ever met. When she told me that, I was taken aback. All during my growing-up years and my early adulthood, I never really thought of myself as attractive. At all. But clearly, logically, looking at the pictures now, I can see plainly that I was, in fact, a pretty hot ticket. Some of my high school pictures and college-age pictures make me do a double-take. Holy smokes, I was extremely hot! Again, that’s not a vanity thing. It’s an objective fact, verified and validated by my partner of 26 years, who exclaimed with admiration a number of times, while I was showing her some of my old pictures.
No wonder I was popular. Especially with guys. No wonder some girls in my junior class got nervous around me… shades of homoeroticism among 16-year-olds… My guy-friends fortunately (and perhaps unexpectedly) were often well-behaved around me and didn’t pressure me for sex or other intimate contact. Some guys got flustered and nasty around me, and I could never understand why. Now, I look back and think that perhaps they were attracted to me, and they didn’t know what to do with that “energy’.
And yet, all during my life, I had absolutely no awareness of just how attractive I was. It wasn’t on my radar, and I couldn’t read the reactions of other people at all. I couldn’t understand why people wanted to be around me, since I was obviously such a dunce and an idiot, for not being able to follow conversations or get along socially. I got distracted. I said things that offended people. I had twitches and tics that made others uncomfortable and made me the butt of their jokes. I’d been bullied throughout my school years. And people loved to laugh at me when I was clueless about what was going on. They still do, at times.
All those years of being made the butt of others’ jokes, being told (and thinking to myself) I was a stupid dunce who would never amount to anything… Small wonder, I had no awareness of how attractive I really was. Or how smart I was. Or how much I had going for me.
So, there I was, a teen-aged female… and then a young woman… with almost preternatural beauty, without a clue about what social signals meant. Plus, I was drinking heavily, so that I could handle social situations (or felt like I could, anyway), and that blurred my perceptions even more. I hung out with people who drank… whose inhibitions melted away… leaving me exposed to their whims and desires. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I have very little memory of a lot of those interactions. I do know that I lost my virginity in a blackout. Before the evening of heavy drinking, I was a virgin. The next morning, I wasn’t. Surprise! And it was a surprise for me, because I had just a few dim recollections of the evening before, and none of them had enough detail to let me reconstruct the evening. I do know that I wasn’t raped, so I guess that’s a plus.
Even so, when I think back on how my life was, how exposed and unprotected I was as a young, beautiful, socially clueless woman, all alone in the hungry, needy, take-what-you-will world… Yeah, I was pretty vulnerable and exposed. And it wasn’t good. I was actually almost abducted and sold into white slavery, while I was traveling in Europe in 1985. Of course, I didn’t realize it at the time. But years later, it occurred to me that there was a reason that a friendly young man had struck up a conversation with me and brought me to his brother’s bar on the far edge of Zurich, in a sketchy neighborhood. He’d insisted on bringing me my drinks for me… and there was a reason I started to feel weird when I drank those beers (can you say, “mickey”?), and he led me to a back room to lie down… and locked the door so I couldn’t get out. There was a reason, all those men down at the other end of the table in the bar kept looking at me like I was a piece of meat, and kept talking amongst themselves and insisted I not sit near them, while they were talking.
Holy shit… But I was clueless at the time. I literally had no idea about what any of it meant. I just thought it was weird. I never suspected anything nefarious. Even when I was locked in the room. I was young, beautiful, energetic, engaging, and I wanted to experience life. Well, mission accomplished. I did exactly that. I did it over and over and over again, getting into scrapes and near-misses and actual problems that resulted in ongoing legal problems, restraining orders (against me, not against my attacker, ironically), and years of being terrified to leave my home without a specific destination to be reached along a specific route I mapped out meticulously in my head beforehand. And I developed a nasty case of PTSD in the process.
So it goes, when you’re in my shoes.
And all this just makes me more adamant that autistic / Aspergian girls especially need to be diagnosed earlier, and provided with the proper supports and information to help us get through life without getting raped, exploited, abducted, abused, neglected, and treated to the full range of shitheaded behavior that ravenous, angry, take-what-I-want people rain down on us.
Also, autistic girls need to told they’re beautiful. They/we need to be taught how to handle that, what to look out for, what to be careful of. Hans Asperger himself remarked “the ethereal beauty of his patients almost as if it were a diagnostic symptom“. The Guardian actually has a piece about the beauty of Aspergers kids, which I find problematic in a number of ways, not least of which is the language… and that implicit assumption that as long as their autistic kids are attractive, parents can find comfort that offsets the distress that comes with raising an autistic child. Then again, the article is 15 years old, so… But it does touch on some important points. So, I recommend giving it a quick look (with a grain of salt).
Anyway, poorly informed news articles don’t change the fact that a whole lot of autistic people are attractive to others, but we’re unaware…. and we don’t know what to do with / about it. What’s more, our own striking beauty is often not even on our radar — we have physical ideals we don’t live up to, so we think we’re ugly. We all have our reasons for overlooking our own beauty — mine was a real deficit in reading people socially from early on, along with a lifetime of being told I was stupid and a hindrance and a problem somebody else had to solve, not to mention the ongoing distress at not doing as well in life as I so desperately wanted to.
So, yeah. Perfect storm indeed. Only now, decades later, can I fully appreciate my own beauty of years gone by. I like to think it isn’t gone completely… I tell myself what I must, in order to keep the grief at bay… the soul-raking grief of never having had the means or the opportunity to enjoy such an essential aspect of myself, while I still could.