It’s ‘autism awareness week’ – or as I like to call it ‘autism acceptance week’ – so I thought it would be appropriate to discuss autism in this week’s blog. In my last post, I spoke about why I want to write about physics more on this blog. But today I want to talk about why I think that discussing my experiences as an autistic physics researcher openly is also important to me.
One thing I am very aware of is that I have some quite stereotypical autistic interests. Physics is one of the things that I certainly thought of prior to my diagnosis when I thought about what ‘autistic special interests’ were. I want to emphasise that this is indeed just a stereotype and that there are autistic people in a whole range of fields with many different interests from art to sociology! We’re not all STEM enthusiasts, but some of us are and I want to help make STEM more accessible for autistic people as that is where I sit career-wise and where I think I can make the most difference.
If you are curious about my diagnosis and how being autistic impacts me personally, I have an FAQ about it that you can check out. I highly encourage you to search for perspectives from a variety of autistic people as we are all different and I can only speak on my own experience. There is such wide diversity in the autistic population, as there is in the allistic population which is beautiful. My voice is just one of many in the autistic community – I don’t speak for all of us, just me.
So, here are five reasons why I’m openly autistic:
1. Being autistic is an integral part of my experiences
First and foremost, I’m just Daisy. I’m a physicist… but I’m also autistic. I think about identity a lot, especially with regard to being in a neurominority and this is where my thinking is at the moment: this is a blog to share my experiences in physics research and a place to share my musings on physics. So of course I’m going to talk about being autistic because it is a big part of my life and impacts my ability to function in academia and the science workplace.
Now, this isn’t to say I want to be essentialised. That is the opposite of what I want. However, autism is something that physically impacts how my brain is wired and it’s so inherent to who I am as a person. The truth is, I wouldn’t be Daisy if I didn’t have this brain- I would be a different person altogether. Being autistic does define me in some ways, but it doesn’t overshadow other aspects of me and my identity. Sure, I can mask my autistic traits (at great detriment to my mental wellbeing) but it doesn’t change the fact that there’s evidence that the autistic brain has different neuroanatomy to the general population (side-note: reading articles and papers about autism as an autistic person isn’t particularly fun, especially as it is often so pathologized and they like to talk about ‘treatment’ and ‘intervening early’ lot rather than gaining an understanding how changing environmental factors can accommodate autistic people, but this is for another post I think).
The fact that I am autistic does not in any way make me superior or inferior to allistic people. I am not here to compete about who is the most oppressed. That’s not constructive at all. I don’t put ‘autistic’ in my social media profiles for ‘clout’ or attention. I do it so that other autistic people can identify me as someone who they can talk to without fear of being judged and who can empathise with them. And they do. I get so many amazing messages from autistic people from all sorts of fields, but especially aspiring physicists. This makes me super happy. Autistic culture is such a wonderful part of my life and I want other autistic people to be able to relate to someone like them. I know that when I was approaching my diagnostic assessment, reading the blogs of other autistic people’s experiences was a lifeline for me. It helped me feel understood and like I was not broken. I want to be one of those many voices that helped me back then for other people who are exploring the possibility that they might too be autistic.
2. I want to help challenge public perception of autism
There is still so much stigma associated with being autistic. People treat the word ‘autism’ like it’s the worst thing in the world. The same thing goes for ‘disability’. I’m not some sort of disgusting aberration- I’m just a human with a certain way of experiencing the world that differs from the general population. I’m so so tired of people’s misconceptions about autism and the fact that not many organizations that are focused on autism actually have autistic people in leadership and decision making roles. Now, I’m not saying that we’re homogenous (because the autistic population is far from it), but I do think that more autistic people should be consulted on matters that concern us.
And that’s one of the problems. Many people seem to think that all autistic people are exactly the same. The number of times I’ve heard ‘but you don’t look autistic’. What does that even mean? I know people mean it as a compliment but it really isn’t, it’s denying my experiences and casting doubt upon the team of professionals who diagnosed me. I think this comes along with the fact that autism is an invisible disability and as such, it’s not really on people’s radar that someone they know might be autistic (which is actually fairly likely).
The best way to challenge stigma is to share our stories. I think that neurodiversity as a topic is gradually becoming more mainstream which is great. I’m driven to share my experiences openly to help foster the kind of understanding we need to make real change for neurominorities in the world. I know that I am just one tiny voice out of many, but the more people are talking, the more likely we are to reach people.
3. I want future employers to accommodate my disability
I get so many comments from people saying that I shouldn’t publicise that I’m autistic because I will damage my job prospects. When I apply for jobs after I finish my PhD, I will disclose that I’m autistic upfront in the application process. I will need reasonable adjustments for interviews so it makes sense for me to do so. This means there’s absolutely no reason for me to hide the fact that I’m autistic. When I started my PhD, I tried non-disclosure and it didn’t go too well. I was masking so much all the time that my energy and mood were at an all-time low and I needed to be open in order to get the support I needed. I want to avoid autistic burnout as much as possible from now on as it’s horrible and stops my ability to work in its tracks. Being autistic is often disabling in the modern workplace, but it doesn’t have to be. Reasonable adjustments can make such a huge difference (and they’re a legal requirement) so I will be loudly requesting them wherever I work.
I’m also in the very lucky position that I have a formal diagnosis. The trouble with reasonable adjustments at the moment is that they do require ‘evidence’ of disability which of course excludes those who cannot access diagnosis for any number of reasons (e.g. the ridiculous waiting times, and expense of private assessment). I long for a world where evidence is not required and we adjust working practices based on the individual, disabled or not, so that everyone can function at their best. I know this is wishful thinking but maybe we will have more workplaces that have universal design principles at their core someday.
4. It might make a difference, however small
I know that I only have a modest audience and I’m not going to change the world by discussing being autistic openly. But I do know that I have already made a difference to some people because of the lovely messages I sometimes receive expressing that I help other autistic people feel less alone. Just this reason is enough for me to continue discussing autism-related experiences. I also know that I have helped implement some changes locally at my university by setting precedent for various things- such as having my confirmation viva in a sensory-appropriate room for me and other reasonable adjustments specific to me that hasn’t been explored at the uni before.
I’m sure the same will happen when I enter the workplace properly. By forging a path, my hope is that it makes things easier for autistic people in the future to follow a similar path. I have to do a lot of educating about being autistic in my day-to-day life as a physicist but it drains a lot of my energy do to so. The more people I encourage to read up on autism and explore a variety of autistic experiences, the less educating those up-and-coming autistic physicists will have to do. I want to see more people like me thriving in physics on our own terms through appropriate support.
5. I’m proud to be autistic
I really am. Since discovering I was autistic, I don’t think of myself as defective anymore. Every day, I’m working on embracing myself as I am rather than trying desperately to fit in with society’s norms. The past few years have been so freeing in that sense. I’ve learned so much about myself- how I communicate best, how my sensory profile looks and how it fluctuates, how to notice when I’m getting overloaded, the list goes on. I’m at a place now where I have more energy than I can remember having and I’m pretty sure it’s because I’m more in touch with myself and make sure to rest when I need to. I would never have made these discoveries if I didn’t engage with the autistic community online and saw the sorts of things other people do to manage functioning in this neurotypical world. Being autistic is awesome. That’s what I think anyway.
Interested in learning more? Here’s a list of autistic bloggers from a range of backgrounds and identities to peruse: https://anautismobserver.wordpress.com/
If you like my work, I’d love your support!