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.