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icon ribbon on Autism awareness day.

When I tell someone I’m autistic, their first words are “I’m sorry.”

I was diagnosed at age two and my parents were always open about it, which means there is no time in my memory where I wasn’t blatantly autistic. The first time I remember it being anything that made me different was first grade. A neighborhood friend was being too loud and my grandmother told him about my autism to explain why I couldn’t handle the noise like every other kid. Even at that age, he knew to treat me differently after that.

At sixteen, I have seen more therapists than most people see dentists during their lifetime. Therapists for speech, movement, behavior, emotions — anything to help me survive in a place not meant for me.

In elementary school, we had to begin a notebook where the teacher wrote everything we did that day because anxiety kept me from sleeping. In middle school, I was given primary-colored cards to indicate how I was doing because I couldn’t raise my hand to use the restroom. In high school, I had my lunch period coordinated with my friend’s because I was terrified of having nowhere to sit. But during no time have I ever wished I weren’t autistic.

When I tell someone I’m autistic, their first words are “I had no idea.”

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For all the activism I support online and self-love I declare at home, I didn’t tell anyone at school I was autistic until a few months ago, during my sophomore year. I like to say it was to make things easier or to avoid harassment but, every once in a while, the truth slips into my mind: I was ashamed. I was ashamed to be the true identity of this word people so often used as an insult, a synonym for less-than.

In the autistic community, masking is the term for the active hiding of autistic traits — something many of us feel is necessary for survival in this world. I know what happens to people that don’t fit other’s ideas of normal and for all I want to pretend not, it scares me. So I do not stim in public, I do not let a shutdown take hold, I do not avoid everyone’s eyes. I don’t fully exist in public. At least, not until things change.

When I tell someone I’m autistic, their first words are “But you’re so smart!”

According to media representation, there are two types of autistic people: the Sheldon Coopers, geniuses who have no emotions, and the burdens, whose disability limits their loved one from ever finding happiness. How is autism ever going to be accepted when no one can understand it? I can spread all the social media accounts and true stories I want, but nothing will get better unless harmful stereotypes stop capturing attention.

So what’s the point of all this? Why care about what a teenager from a nothing town has to say about acceptance? If you’re asking that, it’s already too far gone.

FlipSide is the Charleston Gazette-Mail’s teen publication. You can read more stories at wvflipside.com.

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