Disabled, Not Different
For a very long time I used to think I was different.
I wasn’t disabled. God, no, I was super good at math and hey, I read the unabridged version of Les Miserables when I was 12! I skipped eighth grade! I would be perfectly fine if people would stop just poking me all the time.
I was just different, they said, and they said it was cool and maybe a little edgy and it made me special and it meant that I was just as good as everyone else. I was different, see, that’s why I didn’t think that I had toes if I couldn’t see them, that’s why I spent the whole hour-and-a-half of geometry seeing how high I could count by 15’s, that’s why I knew when everyone’s birthday was.
No big deal.
I was just different, see, and so I felt things differently from my peers, and different things happened to me, and things had different meanings. I was different, and my world was different. That was okay.
Except for the part where it wasn’t at all.
See, here’s the thing. There is an acceptable margin of difference allowed a person, and an acceptable range of ways to be different within that margin, and anyone who pushes beyond that gets pushed into the Uncanny Valley. People in the Uncanny Valley are neither wholly human nor entirely nonhuman, which means we get the human treatment sometimes, and other times we get beat up until the uncanny parts of us are sufficiently chipped off.
As an Uncanny Valley girl, I can trick people sometimes—kind of a lot, sometimes. So people got really, really mad when they went to sit next to me and I punched them for being too close, because what the hell, that is not what a human does. I was a bad person, tricking them like that.
So I got punished.
When the beating was over, when they let go of my wrist or told me I could maybe come to the next party, I was always, always offered an out. There is a list, somewhere, of the acceptable ways to be different, and they would suggest that maybe I could fit myself safely into one of those boxes, chip off the bad edges off myself on my own, and be a proper human. Give them a break, you know. Help myself out.
I would like the record to show that I tried.
I could be gifted, right? I took graduate courses in psychology at Stanford during my sixteenth summer, that should seal the deal—but none of the other students had their A’s dropped to B’s solely because they hid under their bed, wracked with panic attacks, instead of going to class.
I could be a theater nerd, surely. I loved to mimic people, I loved plays and theaters, I could sing, I stage-managed like no one else—but you had to know how to control your body on stage, and maybe more importantly, you had to participate in the massage trains in the green room, so being in theater was immediately out of the question for me.
I could be a manic-pixie-dream-girl, right? That was like the epitome of different, and I was so very, very different. I only wore skirts, and I said strange things and repeated things over and over and scratched patterns out on my skin. Surely I just needed love, friendship, someone to save me who also needed me to save them.
I discovered, though, that manic-pixie-dream-girls don’t bang their heads, and when someone touches them they know how to let themselves be touched. They see the world differently, but it’s an endearing and quirky and acceptable and unremittingly real view, not one that is confused and forgetful and blurred and above all fleeting. They use words differently, but they use the same words as everyone else and they seem to mean the same things.
People like manic-pixie-dream-girls. Some people even like nerds, and gifted students, and kids who spend their Saturdays painting sets.
People didn’t like me.
They were so nice to me, carefully working at smoothing out my edges until I fit into one or another of the acceptable differences they offered me, and I was so ungrateful and selfish and obsessive, not cooperating with any of it. Where did I get off, saying I wanted to kill myself, failing tests, waving my arms around, saying things that just no one says, looking over their shoulders instead of into their eyes? Fine. If I didn’t want their help, I wouldn’t get it. See how I liked it then.
See, sometimes being different isn’t the best thing about you. Sometimes it isn’t allowed. Sometimes, if you grab onto that label too much, it gets ripped away from you. Sometimes, if you say you are different too often, you get to hear, over and over and over and over again, how everyone is exactly like you.
So you get mad, and you take them at their word, and you start asking awkward questions. Were they nicknamed Droolia? Did they get sexually abused when they wiped the drool away on their collar one too many times? Did they get denied medical treatment for their broken wrist because they didn’t cry enough to be in real pain? Can they look at a person’s entire face at once and see it all? Do they come home from school and lie under a blanket for two hours until their head stops echoing from the hallways? Do they know how to mix 50 mg of liquid Zoloft into 8 oz of orange-pineapple juice so the taste is perfectly hidden? How many friends do they have, and do they see any of them outside of Honors English? Can they scream, or do their vocal cords paralyze at the first flash of any significant emotion? Have they ever completed an entire test in physics perfectly, except for the part where every number—every single one—written down on their work papers was different from those given on the exam?
Oh. It turns out that was just me.
I guess I really am different, then.
No shit. Get out of here.
The moment when the Uncanny Valley mask slips and people realize you really are just hideously outside the acceptable range of different is not a fun one. It stays very Not Fun. It extends past a moment and into a lifetime. The question is asked: if you’re not even allowed to fake being an acceptable human, what are you?
I’m disabled. I’m not different at all, really, I’m much, much more like you than anything else—but that’s not seen, that’s not allowed, and so I am disabled. My Autism is not a cute, acceptable, or advantageous difference. It’s a disability. I was not born configured for this world, and it fell to me to make up that difference, and there were so many places where I could not close the gap.
I am disabled, and I will never, never be content to call myself “different” again. When you are different it’s okay for you to not quite meet up with the rest of the world here and there, because most of the time, when it matters, everything syncs up. When you are disabled you don’t have that luxury. When you are disabled you have to prove, over and over again, that you are a real person—and then someone forgets, or you meet someone new, and you have to start again.
That’s not a difference. That’s a disability.
My name is Julia and I’m Autistic. I’m not different; I’m disabled. I can say it now.
But then, I didn’t have much of a choice.