By Gig Hope @giglet_media
I arrived an hour early at the Opera House. On top of being autistic I’m also ADHD and therefore have no sense of time. As such I take the approach of panickily arriving everywhere hours early, then getting caught up in doing something to pass the time, only to end up rushing around to get where I need to be … on time. A fabulous strategy, no?
Sweaty and out of breath, anxious and irritated due to sensory overload caused by the loud and crowds of Circular Quay, I took my seat in the concert hall as people filed in around me, mostly young females with one or two parents. Wearing glitter makeup, cat ear headbands and frilly dresses in the style of panellist Chloe Hayden, many were clutching copies of her book for the signing after.
The annual All About Women Festival was held at the Sydney Opera House from the 11th to the 13th of March. The festival hosts a series of panels and talks about issues that relate to women surviving and thriving in modern Australia.
One panel that held particular interest was Actually Autistic. Amy Thunig (she/they) an academic and author of Tell me Again would moderate a discussion with Grace Tame (she/her) former Australian of the Year, artist, activist and author of The Ninth Life of a Diamond Miner; Jac Den Houting (they/them) an academic and researcher; and Chloe Hayden actor, activist, social media influencer and author of Different Not Less: A neurodivergent’s guide to embracing your true self and finding your happily ever after.
All participants were ‘actually autistic’ and would discuss living life with autism and the importance of listening to the autistic community to understand their needs and desires.
This talk seemed like a perfect first foray into cultural reporting. I’m a woman, I follow Chloe Hayden on social media, Garce Tame is a rockstar … and I’m quietly “proudly” autistic. Perfect.
I thought how sweet, all these girls dressed in their pretty dresses with their sensory toys and ear plugs buzzing and fidgeting with excitement on a day out with their families to see their autistic superheroes. I was feeling a smug sense of being all in this together, like we were going to break into inclusive song and dance, High School Musical-style.
Before I could get too far into my patronising fantasy the panellists took the stage and unpicked my decades-long perception of what my autism meant.
This is where I admit to something shameful. When we were let out of the auditorium, I had a terrible feeling of discomfort at seeing so many people openly engaging in self-regulatory stimming behaviors like rocking, using noise-cancelling headphones and hand flapping.
All behaviors that are totally expected and essential for people with autistic brains.
After much reflection it is clear to me that my discomfort is born of jealousy.
You see I have never, and I mean never disclosed my autism in a meaningful way. I have only ever, and in secrecy, set up vital accommodations for myself. I stim but in private, I melt down and shutdown but only around my family who know what to expect and how to handle it. I info dump about special interests, but only to myself in my mind.
I do all of this because of what the panel has highlighted and articulately voiced to me. I have wrongheadedly and detrimentally been conditioned to believe that I am “high functioning”.
The Actually Autistic panel has prompted a life-changing shift in my mentality. I am an autistic person. My brain is different and needs to be accommodated.
I am not “high functioning”. Just because I am seemingly capable does not mean I am not entitled to and shouldn’t demand necessary, simple accommodations be made so that I may live safely and comfortably in a world that is not designed for me.
So I will no longer be suppressing my need to stim. I will be wearing the noise reducing earbuds that I am usually too subconscious to wear. I will freely remove myself from overwhelming situations. I will tell people that I am a person who needs some special considerations to survive and thrive in this world, because as Chloe Hayden put it, “our brains are magic”. There is no end to what we can do when we are not limited.
I will give myself grace, because as Grace Tame said, “autistic is not a slur”. Today I come out proudly as actually, autistic.
Featured image: Cassandra Hannagan, courtesy All About Women Festival