‘Can I join in please??’ – belonging and Autism

I am currently in the middle of an amazing weekend. I have the launch of my – and Dr Emma Goodall and Dr Jane Nugent’s – latest book, the Guide to Good Mental Health on the Autism Spectrum on Monday and  a few of my Autism advocate friends are here in Canberra for the event. Last night as movie night and today I spent most of the day with my friend Penny – who is here from Melbourne and my friend Tori – who lives in Canberra but is unable to attend the book launch due to work commitments so caught up with us today.I have been reflecting a lot on the value of Autistic community – or any community which is supportive and positive for that matter.

I had issues wiht belonging for many years and joined a number of peer groups which were very unhelpful – socialists, criminals and drug users. The reason for this goes right back to my schooldays where I was the vicim of bullying and abuse. I lost any sense of self worth or pride in who I was. I hated everything about me, even to the point that I sought out negative things. The concept that anyone would like me for who I was was entirely alien. I thought I would only be accepted by a group with defined views and attitudes. I joined the socialists.

My wish to be accepted led to me befriending a man I met through the socialists who was a criminal. Belonging to his horrible group – which comprised the two of us and his anger, bitterness and violence – had some worse consequences than arguing wiht some right wing type at the socialist paper sale. We did criminal acts – me because by then I was terrified of what this man would do if I declined. We went to prison and life got more and more challenging. When I was released I become a drug addict through self-medicating  to manage my damaged emotions. In prison I had been given the diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome but I hated this and ran as far as I could from those words which seemed to me the school bullies worst insult. My Autism was my worst fear realised. It took me seven years before I could accept it.

When I was released from prison in 1995 I spent a lot of time with two women I met in jail.They were not particularly dangerous – just hapless and lacking in too much of a sense of being part of society. One woman stole cars more for fun than anything else and the other had spent one term in jail for defrauding her ex-husband or something. I spent many nights in their house smoking weed and drinking. Sometimes we would go to the pub and get roaring drink. The younger woman would get angry and drunk and threaten people and then attempt to drive home. We drove all over Melbourne in the early hours of the morning. Sometimes we would get totally lost because we were all drunk! The fact that we managed not to get killed several times over amazes me even now. My friends ‘bought’ my TV and VCR from me for $50 each which they never paid.  My two  friends from prison came over one night and gave me valium and other pills. I drank some wine and the mix of the two drugs put me to sleep. My friends had been asking me to ‘sell’ them my very good stereo for some time. When I woke up from my drugegd sleep I found my stereo had gone I never saw my ‘friends’ again. Not the most supportive of peer groups,

Contrast this to yesterday. I had a horrible day. Loads of things went wrong. Somebody called me at 7:20 am about a thing which could easily have waited until lunchtime. I got charged twice for the same  online purchase and had to call the bank and the day was filled with all sorts of irritations. I got home and was really stressed and annoyed. It was movie night so a few of my friends from my women’s group got together, as we do, to watch movies. We had a guest come along too – my friend Penny Robinson who is an amazing advocate and does work for the I CAN Network and Yellow Ladybugs in Melbourne. I explained to everyone I had an unpleasant day and they all understood. We watched a movie called Jack of the Red Hearts about a young woman with a difficult past working with an Autistic girl. It brought up all sorts of difficult past-type thoughts in me but it was great. As always, we were all ‘ourselves’ – something Autistic people can struggle with in the non-autistic world. By the time everyone left at 1 am I felt a lot less stressed. Today I spent a great day with some great friends. We went to the National Museum of Australia and saw an exhibit of 50 years of the TV show Play School. It was lovely and we did some of the interactive things and really enjoyed it. Then we saw an interactive video installation of a chamber orchestra playing various pieces of music in a darkened room. The musicians were video projections around the walls and each of their parts was scrolling past in musical score. I studied piano when I was younger so had a great time seeing the different score for the cello, double bass, violins and violas. The music was lovely too and the whole experience very contemplative. I could have stayed in there all day.

I reflected to my friends how great it was that we now have this community of Autistic friends and colleagues around the world. When I was a child this community didn’t exist in the same way it does now, Young Autistic people often – like me-  had no diagnosis and therefore no support. We felt alien and isolated. Not like the rest of the world, different, less, broken. And now we have the opportunity to belong to a community that states we are ‘different, not less’, that we are ‘infinitely Ausome’, neurodivergent and perfectly wonderful Autistic people. When I was younger I was so hated and invalidated that it took me seven years to accept my Autism. All I could see was the hateful world and how it saw me. I could not be proud of my Autism because I did not like who I was and thought accepting my diagnosis confined me to a world of deficits and abise forever. Now I know that does not need to be the case . In fact the opposite is true. Not only do I not mind at all if people see me out and about and think ‘that lady is a bit different.’ I will actually tell people all over the place about my life as an Autistic woman and author and how much I love our Autistic community. Certainly like all communities, ours is not perfect but it is far better than having to belong to socialists or criminals just because I wanted to be accepted. While I didn;t have the chance to belong to such a community when I was younger,  young people and adults do now and that is something which makes me very happy.

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