Internalised ableism, and how neurodiversity has helped me

I’ve always had low self-esteem. But when I was a teenager it became an intense, burning hatred for myself. I believed there was something terribly wrong with me and I wished I was someone else.

Now I know about autism I can see that a lot of the things I hated about myself were my autistic traits. I was deeply ashamed of how I could barely sustain a conversation with people I didn’t know, of the number of times I’d tried and failed to make a friend, of my awkwardness and the way other people seemed to become awkward around me, of how I couldn’t cope with loud noises. My face and posture didn’t look right, and I hated the sound of my voice. It sounded thick and flat and unclear. It sounded disabled.

I’m not sure of exactly where this internalised ableism came from. I was bullied. I went to some special needs classes and children never said ‘special needs’ without at least a small amount of scorn or pity. When I told people about the things I found difficult they said I needed to have more confidence or to like myself more or to meet more people, and when things didn’t change maybe I thought it was because I hadn’t tried hard enough. Maybe there’s something in my culture, or in human nature, that made me assume that being different meant there was something wrong with me.

Almost immediately after I got my Asperger’s diagnosis I felt some self-hatred lift. These things aren’t my fault, I thought, because I have a condition. The thing that was wrong with me was Asperger’s, which was a lot less bad than the things I’d thought previously.

Neurodiversity is the idea that neurological differences such as the autism spectrum, ADHD and dyslexia are not disorders but a part of natural human variation, and should be accommodated, not cured. Neurological disabilities are associated with strengths as well as weaknesses, but neurodiversity says all types of brain are of value not only because of this but also because they provide different perspectives that would be missing if all brains worked in the same way.

I came across neurodiversity on an Autism forum not long after my diagnosis and generally agreed with it, because I thought it made little sense that the majority neurology was assumed to be the only correct one. But it took me a while to apply this to myself and realise that all brains having value included my brain too.

Agreeing with neurodiversity forced me to accept myself. Autism is a part of me and is inseparable from everything else that makes me who I am. So if autism is ok and should exist then I’m ok and I should exist. Hating my autistic traits began to feel like I was letting other Autistic people down, because Autism is a part of them too. When I thought something bad about my autisticness I remembered this and I corrected myself. And reading people say they’re proud to be Autistic made me able to feel pride in myself in a way that thinking it’s not my fault because I have a condition never can.

I still struggle with my self-esteem, but I’ve made a lot of progress. Hoping I could be cured of autism would be undoing this progress, going back to hating myself and wishing I was someone else.

Having self-esteem as low as mine was extremely painful. This is why the way we talk about autism matters. When people say the way we are is a symptom of a disorder that needs to be cured or beaten, it does us harm. We get this from all angles and it threatens to push the vulnerable amongst us back to how I was as a teenager.

But I’m so happy sometimes that I know I’m Autistic and I have the Autistic community and there are people who value my brain.