Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you” -George r.r. Martin, Game of Thrones
The first time I read the book, this quote struck me profoundly. I sat there stunned and read it again and again because it resonated with me. You see I was bullied at school so as I’m sure you can understand; I had many names thrown at me and many mockeries made of my physical disability and their perception of my “weirdness” (quoting them there) that was the foreshadowing to my diagnosis.
I remember that, eventually, they stopped using the word “cripple”. Why? Because I didn’t care. I used the word to describe myself. I made jokes about it: laughed at myself and casually declared myself to be one in jokes aimed at my own expense (amongst a sea of politically correct winces from those who heard me as they weren’t sure whether to laugh or apologise for my condition). They couldnt hurt me with the word because I redefined the word so that it wasnt a word to be hurt by. “Why you hobbling like a cripple?” Would be shouted through laughter followed by a crude mimicry, and I’d look at them and go “Because I am one?” And sometimes the laughter tried to continue but it was faltering and awkward: sounding like an echoing funeral bell as I shot the joke down dead and buried it. Medical labels, however, have a habit of rising in importance again when it comes to employment.
I am Autistic. Sure, that is one of my labels but it isn’t my only label- yet sometimes in job interviews it can feel like that’s the label they look at. Because I’ve seen people change when I say it and since I struggle with tones of voices and facial expressions then you know the changes are painfully obvious! I go into some interviews and I say that word and boom. My degree? Not important. My skills in writing? Cant remember them. My experience in research? Erased from existence. Why? Because now in that persons head they’re imagining some Sheldon Cooper-esque personality to burst from my chest like that scene in Alien and go “you’re in my spot”, and I walk out the interview already knowing that no i do not have that job, and in fact i don’t even have that call they promised me to let me know if I have that job or not. Because they heard Autism, and they saw negativity. The label is negative in their mind (most likely because they dont fully understand), and so my positive skills lost the race to employment.
The only answer to this is not to remove the label (after all, not disclosing also comes with it’s own set of problems sometimes) but to change it. We cant deny our autism anymore than we can deny any other part of us because it there, not the whole of us but a part of us. And we have no reason to deny it! Because it’s not bad: just the perception of it sometimes is. So we need to change that: if we dont like the label then we will change the label. Redefine it and show others a better perception of the label. And that has to start with us because if we as a community look down on that part of us then we cannot help those outside of the community to see it differently.
Think about Autism. Think about its traits, things that people on the spectrum tend to excel in such as critical thinking, attention to detail…theres so many! And you’ll realise that many of the traits are dubbed highly important in employment across a range of sectors. Maybe you have a keen eye for detail: a skill like that could work for security and police work, restoration and fashion work or things like research. Maybe you’re quick to notice patterns: well the field of psychology is full of patterns of behaviour! Or even the public sector for things like fraud investigation and marketing campaigns. Perhaps you like repetitive tasks well then my friend perhaps you could be a lab assistant, librarian or a computer technician? Our skills are only limited by the ideas that our autism only makes is suitable for “some work” because the job stereotypes go with the poor autism label. But the truth is we are suited for so many possibilities and by connecting our traits to the jobs we’re attempting to apply for we can change the label and it will become an asset in the employers eyes, and let’s face it that word: asset is a golden word in many applications. If we can show them that Autism= Asset we can begin to change the label for ourselves, for everyone. Temple Grandin took her special interest and all the honed skills she has, some of which started classed as “Autism Traits” and revolutionised her field of work with them. We are stronger people than we realise and if we reject the negative labels and say to the world “no. I am me and this is my label” we can change everything: for Autism. For us. For the better.
So. Are you ready to change that label?