By Haley Brock

Imagine someone was born with malformed hips that prevent them from walking. Everyone says they are not disabled and refuses to label them as such. They have to wear traditional shoes, walk up and down stairs, and participate in PE. They are denied mobility aids, elevators, ramps, or any assistance devices that may help them with essential tasks like driving a car or going to the grocery store. The people around this person do not show compassion or help this individual who is stumbling, crashing, struggling to catch up with everyone else. And this individual, who was born with a disability that society fails to acknowledge, is blamed. This is the reality for a wide majority of autistic people. This is their reality. For the majority of my life, this was my reality. 

My last semester of college, I was blatantly discriminated against by my roommates and the residential director. I remember how it felt to be sitting in that office, being torn to shreds by my roommates and university staff for what I now know are neurodivergent traits. I felt voiceless. I felt like my needs and opinions were less important than those of others. I did not have the knowledge of my disability at the time or the tools in order to advocate for my needs. When I tried to speak up, I was silenced. As a result, I just “sucked it up” and told myself the reason I was this way was a character flaw. I would go through long periods of burnout just trying to keep up with everyone else. I was just socially awkward, inherently unlikeable, and my true self needed to change the moment eyes were on me if I wanted to make anything out of myself. On the inside, I was crumbling.  

My autism diagnosis at 23 saved my life. I finally had an understanding that the way my brain worked was different. That my needs do look slightly different from others but are still human needs. There are times where I grieve the person I could have been if I was given the accommodations and acceptance I needed sooner. A common discourse within society is that neurodivergence should not be “labeled” but what neurotypical parents fail to understand is that this does two very harmful things. The first thing this does is that it teaches children and other parents that the word “autism” is a dirty word that is meant to be feared instead of celebrated. The other thing it does is prevent neurodivergent children, like me, from getting the proper diagnosis and accommodations that I needed. 

Neurodivergent children will get labels, as it is just the way of society. Autistic children will be labeled as “weird,” “creepy,” “lazy,” “stupid,” “sensitive,” etc. The r-slur, in particular, is one that was hurled at me throughout middle and high school and followed me well into my years in the workforce. What has always made this frustrating for me, before I saw this slur as a disrespect to the humanity of disabled people, is that it just wasn’t true. I am an intelligent and capable person. What I struggle with is processing speed, especially when it comes to language processing. I have difficulty understanding long strands of verbal commands, which made it very difficult for me to maintain jobs in childcare and entry-level jobs in service industries. I had to give up several pieces of myself that made me who I am, just to function and not cause problems for others. My brain works on a “lag” when I speak, so I cannot say my point nearly as articulate as how I think of it in my head. That made it very easy for others to talk over me or shut down my opinion. 

And yet, people still listen to me more than they do other autistic individuals because I am an attractive white woman with low support needs. The autism advocacy space is full of individuals like me for this reason. I still present an “ideal” that is rooted in ableism. Since I am high masking, people often do not know that I am autistic from one conversation with me. Since I have learned to make my voice strong on subjects that I care about, people listen. Since I have a talent to convey exactly what I think and feel through my writing, people see my disability as a “superpower” instead of it as a disability. There are several individuals on the spectrum who cannot voice their innermost thoughts, feelings, and opinions in the same way I can. They do not have the platform that I have been given. They may have higher support needs, an inability to communicate verbally, and not be given the proper accommodations in order to make their voices heard. That does not mean their voices are not worth listening to. Different communication such as AAC devices, sign language, and communication cards does not mean one’s words have less value, although society often sees it this way. 

Autistic voices do not only deserve to be heard, but they need to be heard. Some of the most brilliant, creative, compassionate, and innovative voices belong to the minds of those who, by definition, do not think like everyone else. This is something that should be highly valued and celebrated within society, as opposed to fear-mongered or shunned by politicians and corporations. My mission within my work as an author, an editor, and activist is to create a space for autistic people of all ability levels and support needs to express their voice, as opposed to having me speak for such a diverse community of individuals. “Ableism” is an ugly word that prevents us from seeing humanity within each other. Autistic people are beautifully diverse individuals, and we should be represented within our media and society as we truly are. As a society we still have a long way to go, but with any hope, we will get there. 

Author Bio

Haley Brock is an author, comedian, and activist living in Boston. She is currently an MFA student of Creative Writing at Emerson College. She is originally from Nashville, Tennessee. Her work as a novelist is focused on the representation of queer, neurodivergent youth in the South.