Meet Nalini Asha. She’s a talented artist, a passionate advocate for social justice issues, a beloved doctoral student at UCSD, a committed partner, and a San Diego native. On January 1st, 2016, Nalini came out to friends and family on Facebook as Autistic. Nalini is one of the growing numbers of adult Autistic people who is challenging the prevailing belief that autism and other forms of neurodiversity* are disorders. Instead, she says, we should embrace Autism as part of a broader spectrum of normal neurological human diversity.
To me, Nalini’s choice to come out on Facebook was an act of activism. For many who are unfamiliar with less stereotypical depictions of autism, it was a learning moment. So, shortly after Nalini recently came out, I reached out to her to see if I could interview her. I learned a lot from what she shared, and I hope that you do, too.
Tell us about yourself/what do you want us to know about you?
I identify as neuroqueer. To most people I say that I identify as Autistic, and sometimes even say that I’m 70/30 Autistic/ADHD, but the reason neuroqueer is more accurate is that all these diagnostic terms become less useful when talking about women and girls, especially with ‘high IQs’ who are ‘functional’ in the world. My research at UCSD examines the history of these kinds of words, especially Autism, and how the practices used to ‘discover’ them were and still are very biased practices.
I announced on January 1st 2016 on Facebook that I am Autistic. I did it online, on Facebook, because somehow this felt the most ‘real’…. Neuroqueer people often experience closer and more intimate social relations online. This is a major sticking point with us: stop berating non-face-to-face interaction as less valuable! That’s your neuro-privilege talking. That’s neuro-normativity. So saying it on Facebook let me breathe; it let me claim myself as myself, and reject normative standards once and for all, and ever since then I’ve been flying!
What do you feel is one of the greatest myths about Autism?
There’s still a common belief that to be Autistic you have to act and appear like the stereotypes, that you can’t be a ‘functional’ person because you must be so disabled (by your brain) that you can’t ‘function.’ I do feel disabled, but by society, and the social expectations we have that humans are supposed to all experience the world the same way. Again, most people will deny this but in practice they absolutely follow this expectation, especially in terms of social niceties: how you carry yourself, your tone of voice, what kinds of interests you ‘should’ have and to what extent, and the physical markers for empathy and friendship. I say that I identify as neuroqueer because not only am I disabled on a daily basis by these expectations that require me to deny my own feelings and pretend to act like a different person but I also adamantly reject this normativity. We in The Neurodiversity Movement call this neuro-normativity: the oppressive but dominant practice of policing how people experience and share the world.
When did you realize you were Autistic?
I’ve always felt this way, but I didn’t know that my version of this experience was aligned with Autistic experiences until I began researching more radical Autistic blogs who also reject these norms. We’re in a moment in history when the first generations of children who grew up with the label of Autism and who experienced Applied Behavioral Analysis to force them to act ‘normal’ are becoming adults, with voices, and angry about how they have been treated their whole lives. While most depictions of Autism are from parents and families, often making it about their pain, frustration, and anger at not having a typical child (again, they will deny this but this is very much how their testimonials and films and blogs sound to us), finally there’s starting to be a wealth of discourse from ACTUAL Autistic people. It was through studying their perspectives that I realized I am one of them.
How should society look different to better embrace neurodiversity?
We have social constructions of obsession vs interest, of empathy vs non-empathy, of what ‘humanity” means. My favorite example in pop culture of this is Spock, who is a big Autistic icon because he’s coded Autistic even if it’s never said. He is puzzled by ’emotional’ reasoning, by ‘illogical’ practices while he tries to understand them. Like many Autistic people, he’s called an alien, and treated as not fully human. Yet his best friend Kirk is the archetype of humanity for all its supposed faults: emotional, impetuous, risk-taking, passionate. These are all ways, and there are more, that people seem to enjoy talking about the supposed faults of humanity that make us who we are. But are they? Neurodiversity argues that yes, some of us have these ways of being, but some of us are like Spock, and find them to be puzzling and unnecessary downsides to certain personalities. Some of us don’t make decisions based on familial ties, based on emotional reasons, based on faith-like-experiences. We’re human too. Humanity means diversity, not conformity.
This comes up on a daily basis for me, and for anyone who identifies as neuroqueer. Many people who are disabled by Autistic and/or ADHD (and other stuff!) don’t know it. They are often women, very smart, ‘functional,’ and feel like they’re just always getting things wrong. I always assumed I was ‘normal’ (because I assumed there was a normal!) but I was just bad at it. I’ve gotten REALLY good at apologizing because there’s ALWAYS someone who out of nowhere tells me I’ve done something super offensive, when I had no idea. Being female and a person of color, I HAVE to apologize and show deep contrition even though I’m utterly baffled, often because I don’t see how what happened could have been offensive! Why? Because through my experience of the world things like tone, truthful critiques, and having a strong opinion are all ‘neutral’ acts; as long as two people have an established respect they are totally fine, and never hurtful or offensive! Most people will totally deny they judge people for these practices, but they do.
What advice would you give for supporting a friend or family member who comes out as Autistic?
If someone you know comes out as Autistic, it’s very important to take care in your response. Fortunately many people I know live in a culture where they’ve experienced their gay and trans friends coming out, so follow the guidelines they ask for: offer acceptance and joy and support, but never ask them why, if they are sure, or ever tell them how surprised you are because of how well they blended in. This isn’t a compliment. Masking as Neurotypical is a painful and frustrating thing, and often a “double edged sword” because while we feel disabled by expectations, the better we mask the less likely people believe us when we need help! Those words really hurt. NEVER start listing traditional DSM diagnostic criteria as either supporting us or rejecting our coming out, because most of us actually reject a medial conception of Autism (or other neurodivergent ways of being) and instead use a more phenomenological approach to our experiences. What that means is that we most likely denied being Autistic our whole lives because we thought if we didn’t ascribe to that limited set of criteria (which only works on young children, namely white boys), then we were ‘normal’ but just bad at it. The best thing you can say is: that’s wonderful, congratulations, and I support you as ever, or something like that. Even saying you’re brave can feel a little icky…at least it does for me because it implies that you have to be courageous to be yourself. Obviously this is true in an unequal society, but I didn’t come out because I was trying to be brave. I did it because I can’t live a lie any more. Once I realized who I was wasn’t broken and abnormal, I had no alternative but to speak the truth, because I’m Autistic… that’s what I do! When I’m really being myself, I have no filter! But just ask… maybe someone wants to have bravery acknowledged… I can’t speak for others.
What resources would you share for people wanting to educate themselves on this issue?
For anyone else considering these ideas and disturbed by their own experiences with functionality in an Allistic world, I’ve found a lot of friends on Tumblr, in particular NeuroWonderful. The Neuroqueer blog by Nick Walker is pretty good for an intro: http://neuroqueer.blogspot.com/2015/05/neuroqueer-introduction-by-nick-walker.html
Tania Marshall also writes books on Aspiengirl and Aspienwoman, which has been really great too. You can’t go wrong with simply reading blogs and posts by people who identify as Autistic… we are diverse and present! I can’t speak for all of us nor do any of us want to… it’s probably the only thing we all have in common.