“But you don’t seem autistic!”
It was a statistics professor who first said those words to me, after she was being inappropriately pushy about wanting to know exactly why I had disability-related accommodations. I try to reassure this professor that I am indeed autistic, though I’m put-off by her congratulatory tone. Is she suggesting that it’s a good thing that I don’t seem autistic?
“But you’re clearly so high-functioning!”
That same professor continues. I was probably staring at her blankly, trying to formulate a response to what seemed to be both a compliment and an insult, unsure just how to react. I wondered why she felt that she was an authority on my diagnosis and functioning-level after having me in class for only a few fifty-minute periods.
“But you’re in college!”
The issue becomes a little clearer. I’m not meeting her mental picture of an autistic person because I’m too intelligent and articulate. I’m neither at the moment, as I stammer out some sort of response, whatever words will end this encounter and give me time to process exactly what’s going on.
No matter how well-intentioned such statements are, they are problematic. They show a limited understanding of what autism is. They assume that not seeming autistic is a good thing. They minimize my experiences as an autistic person. They assume a high degree of knowledge about who I am and usually come from someone who doesn’t know much about autism at all.
I inhabit some uncomfortable space between being seen as autistic and being seen as neurotypical. Some days I pass for neurotypical with apparent ease, and some days I look at behavior and think “that’s such an autistic thing to do.” I’m never sure how I’m coming across, if my body is being read as autistic. Some people pick up on my autism in minutes, others know me for years without figuring it out.
There is not one way that autism looks. There are stereotypes: the savant, the train-obsessed boy, the geeky know-it-all who’s socially clueless. I’m none of these. No person, autistic or otherwise, is so very one-dimensional (though these are completely valid components of some people’s experiences). Autism looks different from person to person, and from circumstance to circumstance. I might not seem autistic in one moment, but that is not a reason to question my identity. If anything, it means we need more diverse ideas about what autism is.