‘I’m done with apologising for being autistic’
THERE are many reasons why I might apologise, but being autistic is not one of them.
Autism defines how I perceive the world. It's how my brain is wired, and it creates the structure of every relationship, thought, feeling, day-to-day activity, physical sensation, and dream that I have. So if I were to say sorry for being autistic, I would be saying sorry for who I am. And I'm not.
However, this hasn't always been the case.
Throughout my life, I've spent a lot of time trying to become someone that I'm not. I've attempted to adapt and change in order to fit in, and it's only ever led me to depression, anxiety, frustration, and loneliness. The more I've tried to meet others' social expectations, at the expense of all else, the more they've had unrealistic expectations of me - and the more I've had unrealistic expectations of myself.
When pleasing others became the focus of my life, I didn't know why I was alive. I didn't think that I had any value. All I knew is that if I didn't do certain things in certain ways at certain times with certain tones of voice using certain kinds of gestures, I may lose love, support, and connection. The irony being that I wasn't truly supported, or loved. Nor was I connecting with others because I was living a lie.
I wasn't being true to my values or beliefs. I was replying to people quickly, and spending time with them in their preferred ways - at parties, at crowded lunch spots, at over stimulating shopping centres - and interacting on social media, and desperately trying to keep up, and pretending I understood things that I didn't, and feeling too frightened to ask for help, and saying please, and thank you, and hello, and goodbye, and making eye contact, and talking on the phone, and finding parking places, and rushing, and refusing to stop, and consider what truly felt good and nourishing.
I was sucking all of the energy and meaning out of my life. I felt like a fraud, because underneath all of these choices was an apology I wish I'd never made, and that was: I'm sorry for being who I am. I'm sorry for being different, and for having different needs. I hope that if I smile, and say yes, and follow your orders, without question, that you can forgive me.
Suffice to say, no one did. Not really.
On a superficial level I was liked and thought well of. But whenever I dropped the ball, it was a shock. It was confusing. Others didn't know how to respond. They'd fall silent, or tell me that I'd "changed", or that I was acting "too cool".
As I got older, I began dropping the ball more and more, until I couldn't grasp it all. I started to see just how much energy both big and small interactions required of me, and how drained, overwhelmed and alienated I felt most of the time.
So I moved to the country. I deleted social media. I started taking my time responding to emails, and texts. My partner and I adopted animals, and became plant-based. My family and I started therapy together (as distinct from me going to therapy on my own, which I've been doing for more than a decade). I began writing. I was officially diagnosed as autistic.
And I'm glad. Oh so very glad.
Through slowing down and finally meeting my own needs, I live a more honest and unapologetic life. And because I'm offering myself more, I have more to offer others. Everyday is about celebrating my autistic nature, rather than denying, or apologising for it. And if anyone has a problem with that: that's their problem. Their expectations are theirs. Sometimes I can meet them, sometimes I can't. And, sometimes, expectations need to shift in order for everyone to be happy.
It might mean slowing down, and explaining things in a different way. It might mean being open to communicating via email, rather than on the phone. It might mean being more honest, and upfront. It might mean allowing more time to think, reflect, and process feelings. It might mean sitting outside at a cafe, rather than inside. It might mean making time to exercise. It might mean working when I have the energy to work, and not a moment before. But above all, it means no apologies. Not anymore.
Madeleine Ryan is an Australian writer.