That’s just your autism talking (and other phrases that shouldn’t appear in an autism essay)

During my second week as a new faculty member, I was involuntarily committed to the psych ward at the university hospital. I would say that I make this statement against my better judgment, but such a sentiment presupposes that I have better judgment. (Which, according to my ex-doctors, I don’t.)

My commitment had a slow-motion feel to it. As it was happening, I couldn’t believe that it was happening — I was daydreaming, or I was watching a poorly written Lifetime biopic, or I had eaten moldy leftovers that triggered hallucinations, or something, anything but reality. But, no. This was my reality, and my reality soon spiraled into the progressive tense, into something like this:

— They were strapping me down on a gurney.

— They were wheeling me out of an academic building and into the parking lot, onlookers gawking.

— They were forcing me into an ambulance.

— They were dragging me, still on the gurney, into the psych ER, which resembled a TV prison — brisk security guards, cheap wall paint, steel-enforced doors, cameras that aren’t supposed to look like cameras but inevitably do look like cameras. They were dragging me in there. There.

— Soon, they were vigorously frisking me, and they were dumping out the contents of my backpack, and they were treating me like I was a criminal because I carried a bottle of Tylenol and a 3-inch autistic pride button, and they were shoving me, now shoeless and sweaterless, into a doorless room with hard-backed chairs, and they were prohibiting me from making any phone calls unless I did so via speakerphone, and they were threatening me with overnight and multiple-day stays and refusing to let me wear my headphones, and they were mixing up my diagnoses while periodically asking, How are you doing, sweetie? — As if they really cared. As if I were a sweetie.

Before the EMTs bundled me, pig-in-a-blanket style, into the ambulance, my former therapist asked me why being committed was such a “bad” thing. “If you have to ask that question,” I fumed, “then you really don’t have a clue.”

That pre-ambulance moment, to the best of my memory, is when their ventriloquism started. Suddenly, the experts claimed, I wasn’t talking. God, no. That’s your depression talking, they explained. That’s your autism talking. That’s your anxiety talking. Really, it’s anything but you talking.

Hours later, I sat in the psych ward, shaking, rocking, stimming, ticcing — anything to prevent epic meltdown mode.  I was disembodied. Objectified. Powerless. I was freezing, hunkered up against the wall in my new doorless home, watching an eight-year-old kid being forcibly removed from his parents. How do I not headbang? How do I not bite myself? How do they not see our humanity?

I have gotten used to not existing, rhetorically speaking. I study rhetoric for a living. I teach it. I have a PhD in it. I breathe it. Rhetoric is everything and everywhere, many of my colleagues say. The exception to rhetoric’s everythingness and everywhereness is, of course, autism.

I’ve reached a point in my adult life where articles on autism and perspective-taking inspire me — inspire me to commit self-injury, that is. Rhetoric is about audience and autism isn’t, these articles say. Autistic people are mindblind; autistic people are masked by a cloud of social solitude; autistic people are self-centered and shrouded by their neurological misery. I grossly paraphrase here, but not really.

And so, I have gotten used to not existing, rhetorically speaking. I will say something about autism, and someone will assert that nothing I’ve said matters or applies to anything. Because I’m self-centered. Because I don’t have the capacity to intuit other minds or understand others’ life experiences. Because it’s just my autism talking.

How can one have autism and have something to say? Autistic voice is the ultimate oxymoron. If they don’t want to hear it, then we haven’t spoken. We don’t matter because we don’t exist. We’re just a bunch of absent sweeties waiting to be strapped onto their gurneys.

That’s just your autism talking, they respond.

It is weeks later. I’ve been working, shaky and paranoid, scraping by in an already rough semester, a semester made rougher by male orderlies who find sensory overload amusing.

I am teaching a disability studies course, and it’s now November. We’re reading Dawn Prince-Hughes’ Songs of the Gorilla Nation, an autiebiography. I’ve never had a full class read it before, and I approach the class discussion with an excitement that I haven’t felt since my pre-commitment days.

Something transpires in this discussion, a something that jars me. Some of the students don’t think there’s a plot to Prince-Hughes’ book, that it’s too bogged down in details. Some of them wonder whether her autism made her write this way — some of them doubt her intentionality, her rhetoricity, her capacity to understand writing and audience and perspective-taking. In short, they wonder who’s really talking: Is it her or her autism?

I offer this moment not to reflect poorly on my students — my students are students, people who are kind, receptive, bright, and willing to learn. Rather, I offer this moment because it is iconic and pervasive, because students (and faculty, and parents, and clinicians, and, shit, most people) have learned this response from those who came before them. I offer this moment because I’m pissed off at those who taught them this. I offer this moment because, after it transpired, I flashbacked to my commitment and my forced disembodiment. I offer this moment because I am me, because I am an autistic me, because my autism is not a synonym for demon possession. I offer this moment because I locked myself in a bathroom stall and began cutting my leg with my 3-inch autistic pride button.

I recently dreamed that I was forced into a special education class for assistant professors, my 3-inch button affixed to my backpack, bloodstained and visible. This was a waking dream, an unrestful dream, a dream filled with groans and body twitches. The button was how I knew I had a body; the wakefulness was how I knew I had a voice.

But that’s probably just my autism talking.

23 thoughts on “That’s just your autism talking (and other phrases that shouldn’t appear in an autism essay)”

  1. It sounds to me like none of the professionals have a freaking clue about what’s going on. I am so sorry that you had to go through this ordeal, but it also sheds light into the possible future of my children if something doesn’t change immediately. Thanks for sharing your experience with the rest of us.

  2. I have been there, and long long ago before my autism was known or could be. You write it so well. And Sarah is correct, none of the professionals have a clue, making them all the more dangerous…..and their condescension all the more deafening.

  3. Thanks for writing. Thank you for claiming your person-hood, your own uniqueness, your right to connect person-to-person rather than through intermediary, reductive labels. Thanks for rejecting categories and presumptions and assumptions that get in the way of human communication. I imagine it might be as if those who surround you now have put on their paradigmatic blinders. When and where did we ever begin to believe that wearing them was a good idea? Keep writing.

  4. The sucks in too many ways.
    I’m sorry that that was even possible.
    Here is to…. breaking the cycle of bad perspective taking on the part of NTs…. to questioning what we have been taught….. to starting to listen to eachother.
    Thank you so much for sharing this.

  5. Thank you for writing about your experience. I realize i know very little about real people with autism. At 15 I entered a psych hohspital voluntarily but found out leaving was not my decision to make. That was over 50 years ago, just before people started talking about patient rights. I’m afraid things haven’t changed much.

  6. Having a voice doesn’t depend on who is speaking. It depends on who is listening. In other words, communication only takes place when the same message is received that was conveyed. If people hear you say something you never said, it’s their communication impairment, not yours.

  7. This is such a fear of mine. I have a head injury that makes others say “that is your brain talking, not you” – I am sure you can imagine how much that irritates me. I am a professional – you can believe me when I tell you about the policy or the regulation surrounding services – but if you and I differ on a conversation that happened the other day – then it is my brain that has the problem. It can’t be that we have different perceptions of what happened. Nope, you are right and I am wrong – because (and only because) I have a head injury. Great. What argument can I have to that logic?

  8. And we supposedly live in a modern enlightened age—NOT! Keep on writing and standing up for all of us. We are all with you!

  9. I’m almost as speechless after reading this tonight as I was the night you posted it. I hate that this happened to you, that this happens to many autistic persons. Thank you for sharing your story; it will probably always stay with me. May your courage–especially to share your experience and understanding despite the majority who will not listen–inspire us all to work for change in our communities!

  10. Melanie–This is a stunning, amazing, and incredibly powerful piece of writing. I hear your voice loud and very, very clear, and I am thrilled to be in the same profession as you and excited that you have a lifetime of composing more it. (Also sickened by all things “mental heatlh” [and sometimes not so much] “professionals”)

  11. Thank you. I’m just going to piggyback on Alanna’s post. Loud and Clear and excited to hear this voice in our field.

  12. I read the description of your committal with sheer horror and the feeling of being there having it happen to me. I’m not sure if that’s because of the clarity of your description or that it engaged my own memories of forced/unwanted medical intervention(s) at a time(s) when I was ‘altered’.

    I’ve seen those looks from observers – Felt the cold detachment from what’s physically happening to my body – Felt the inability to connect thought and motion – Heard the people replacing MY voice – Suffered the indignity of having my ‘self’ devalued – tremoring(stimming) because it’s all I could do to stay calm throughout the terror.

    Left to sit on a bed I could not understand the concept of, in a hospital room I could not fathom. Had my intellect ignored and been medically treated with no attempts at explanation, or even receiving the recognition one would give a friendly cat.

    For me the events were caused by; fever the first time, a major concussion with modified global amnesia the next, then traumatic physical injury inducing shock, more recently from the joys of paraneoplastic syndrome. They weren’t permanent conditions or likely to repeat.

    I look at those moments as somewhat of a gift. They let me experience what it’s like. They helped me to develop an exagerated empathy for, not just the ‘patient’, but more importantly for the unenlightened observers in such situations who presume to know – and presume that you can’t.

    But that’s probably just my talking.

  13. I always was able to avoid this… but being a professor myself the whole process is an aspie hell storm of overwhelmingness. Someday I’d like to arrange workshops to help aspie/autie teachers and academics. After 25 years teaching it gets no better, but I get better at surviving it.

    The aspies in my lab follow your work closely…. best of luck.

  14. A bit late to the party, as your blog doesn’t like to load on my own computer.

    I appreciate this article very much, and I’m appalled that this happened to you. I agree with Jason, and think we should think about creating a forum (not a literal internet forum, but a network) for Autistics in academia, either teaching K-12 or at the university level. Because I know there are many of you, and I may one day be one of you.

    By the way, what you describe is a perfect and horrifying and terrifying example of de-legitimization. Nothing you say matters anymore, because you can’t possibly understand or communicate, because, well, that’s just autism.

  15. Well I am back again to let my autism do the talking, it always does, autism speaks as they say 🙂 which reminds me of the time I had a run in with the academic powers that be, I hope they are not surveilling me now, as part of the terms I came to were an agreement not to post anything that could vicariously involve them in a lawsuit, after I posted something judged to be injudicious regarding an incident that occurred during my engagement as a visiting lecturer. Well you only have to look at my previous comment to realise that I may have been rather robust in some statements I made, enough to “frighten the horses” anyway, as if I were not well known for making robust statements of the kind in equally “inappropriate” places and times, which I am rather good at. Nonetheless although I have not been re-engaged as a visiting lecturer since, I think I am in academic good standing so far as my research goes, and I would say in good academic standing elsewhere despite of my “quirks”

    I don’t know what the processes were that brought the powers that be to excercise an academic hammer of the magnitude you have described in this excercise, they would seem to be outside my own experience at my current uni, where in the aftermath of my disciplinary experience never mind what offence I had caused the University had also failed to ensure that the incident did not happen because I had been given inadequate support at that time and a stalemate or gentleman’s agreement ensued.

    I have given a number of lectures now on autistic rights and the social model of disability, to various groups, sometimes it has been well received, sometimes less so, and that has as much to do with the different characteristics of the respective audiences than anything else I can think of. It is always my autism talking, I am my autism, it is me, it is MY autism not yours or anybody else’s, I’m not a stereotype or straw man I am my own particular expression of what I am, and that is the way it should be. To borrow a concept from last years Autscape Theme. I own my autism and it’s meaning, not those who would construct it to be something else and it speaks all over the place, both bidden and unbidden. It always has something to say that should be listened to.

    We simply should not be taking this bullshit from anywhere that privileges an NT cognition as being magically more authentic or correct than our own. An academia that does that, has by so doing relinquished all objectivity and credibility.

    It’s a long time since Francesca Happe, did an academic character assassination on Temple Grandin’s and Donna Williams writing, she would not do that now. She has heard my autism answer that. It’s progress of a kind.

  16. I notice this mainly when I make an observation about something that I wasn’t supposed to notice or start connecting pieces of everyday experience together and forming conclusions that nts don’t like. I have a feeling that it’s because 100 percent of the things I observe about nts pertain to the fact the they are and always have been full of shit, but one has to ask; why would I keep coming to this conclusion if it wasn’t in some way true? I’ve been observing them for a while now and…Oh, wait, an neurotypical has just informed me that I don’t mean what I’m saying because he looked deep within the recesses of my subconscious (because they can do that) and saw as a fact that what I really don’t see anything manipulative, hypocritical or delusional in anyway. Besides, god came to him in a dream and told him to tell me that all of this reasoning and free-thinking shit is just my ego’s way of clouding my vision and making me foolishly believe that what goes on around me everyday somehow relates more to reality then the things my conformist overlords make up.

    Sorry for this post. I know it isn’t nice to mock the retarded, but nts are such an easy target that sometimes I just can’t help myself. Forgive me.

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