On Thanksgiving Day 2015, I am thankful for the following.
Growing up, it seemed like everyone rejected me as an oddball. If I didn’t correctly read the thoughts and emotions people attempted to communicate through their facial expressions and body language, I was weird and rude. When I talked too much about subjects that the people around me didn’t find interesting, it was because I was “Motormouth Matthew.” Anytime I drew attention to how I was being bullied because of my unorthodox mannerisms and tics, I was admonished for being a “tattle” and told that I should “just ignore” my tormentors.
Make no mistake about it, things haven’t improved that much for autistic people. Every day I see news stories about someone with Asperger’s Syndrome being picked on by his or her peers. Most of my close autistic friends continue to live in fear that their jobs and personal relationships will be cruelly, unexpectedly terminated. If anyone says that things are good for autistic people today (much less ideal), they are either deluding themselves or determined to diminish other people’s problems.
Having said all of that, one thing is undeniably true: Unlike my early years, now I have a language with which I can discuss being autistic with others.
Without question, the worst part of growing up on the spectrum was not being able to explain my situation to other people – or, for that matter, to myself. My formative years were spent believing that there was something intrinsically wrong with me, that I was ineffably different and would never be able to connect with other people. It’s bad enough to be marginalized and lonely, but the emotional brutality of that condition is exponentially worsened when you genuinely believe yourself to be a freak. Perhaps there was the incidental advantage of me learning to empathize with others who feel like outcasts, but I would like to believe I could have acquired the same empathetic capacity without the traumatic experiences.
Either way, there is little question that both I and other autistics like me now have a vocabulary that allows us to understand ourselves and demand that others accept us on our own terms. The struggle for full social equality is still more ahead of than behind us, but this is an important first step. It means that, instead of feeling like aliens, we can embrace our own unique corner of the human experience.
For this I am endlessly thankful, and this is the thought I will keep in my mind and heart as I celebrate Thanksgiving with my family.