Having an invisible disability isn’t something that you choose. It’s not something you can just switch off and on again dependent on what your day is like. It’s the same as having a disability that others can see, and in fact, sometimes it’s worse, because people don’t believe that you actually have something wrong.
You may be wondering what it is that I have, because when most people look at me, or even get to know me well, they often don’t realise that I am actually disabled. When I was thirteen I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. Now, before you ask, yes it’s a real condition, yes I have been vaccinated, no my vaccinations did not cause it, and yes, I have a big family history of the disease. Now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s continue…
There are a lot of misconceptions out there about what it’s like to be on the Autism Spectrum, and before we continue, I’ll forgive you if your only experience of it has been from TV characters such as Sherlock, or Sheldon. I want to share my experience of having an invisible disability, and also debunk all the stereotypes and stigma around Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).
When I tell people that I am on the Autistic spectrum, one of the first things that they ask me is whether or not I’m really good at maths or science. Generally my answer goes along the lines of “not even close”, which is ‘apparently’ surprising. People tend to assume that having Asperger’s or Autism means that you are immediately an Einstein level genius when it comes to maths and science, but in my case, this isn’t the case at all, and I’ve had several people (including teachers) ask what’s wrong with me; which, frankly, I find really insulting.
For years after my diagnosis I wondered what WAS wrong with me. I couldn’t understand maths, and every time I tried to learn algebra it was like trying to drink water with a fork. I spent years convincing myself that I ‘loved maths’ and ‘wanted to be a scientist’ because that’s what Autistic people were supposed to want. It destroyed me, and has taken me years to come to terms with the fact that that I am just not cut out for them.
Whilst I didn’t understand maths or science, I did understand music, and in June of 2012 (year nine) I started learning to play the cello. Within six weeks I had finished the three beginner books that my teacher had asked me to buy. Within six months I had finished grade two AMEB (which, for the non-musos out there, is extremely quick if you’ve never played an instrument before). Within a year I was playing in intermediate orchestras as associate principal, and last year (three years into playing cello) I was playing for the Queensland Conservatorium of Music’s’ Youth Symphony orchestra. I ended up going on tour as principal cellist with this orchestra and by the end of last year I was able to pick up LMUS graded repertoire and play it within a week.
Autism for me, it would seem, is not mathematically or science based, but centred on music. Autism has given me an innate understanding of music, and an understanding of how sound fits together so innate that it has been described as insane (in a good way). My final music assignment for year twelve, a music composition, was requested to be played by a symphony orchestra and was given feedback, which changed my life.
It hasn’t all been fun and games for me though. Throughout primary and secondary school I was always treated differently, and insults ranged from “weird”, to “freakish”, to at one point being told that I was not worth the dirt on someone’s shoes. It didn’t help that I didn’t actually have a diagnosis for the majority of my schooling, with teachers always viewing me as the ‘problem-child’ who couldn’t pay attention in class, was too smart for their own good, and, by their own admission ‘refused to get along with other children’. In actual fact, the other children refused to associate with me, believe me, I tried everything.
There’s a lot of stigma that goes with having Autism, and I’ve had some pretty horrible experiences as a student and with other people. I’ve had teachers deliberately separate and ban me from talking to my only friend so that person would not become unpopular, and I’ve had classmates and teachers deliberately engage in mindgames with me – apparently they were funny because I take everything literally – which left me panicking and unable to function for three weeks straight. I have been driven to the point, where at one time, I was self-harming in the middle of class, in full view of teachers and students, while no one talked to me or did anything to stop it. I had teachers tell me I was worthless, would never amount to anything, would never be a good student and was pretty much going to be a failure for the rest of my life – I proved them wrong though when I got accepted into Law in my home state and turned it down to come to ANU and study International Relations.
However, the worst discrimination (and I don’t use that term lightly) that I have experienced, and where the title of this piece comes from, happened in November of 2014. I had moved schools and states, and finally everything seemed like it was starting to pick up for me. Nobody at my new school knew that I was autistic (aside from the teachers, who didn’t care or make a fuss, which was how I wanted it). I had finally gotten up the courage to tell my closest friends that I was an Aspie (the colloquial term for someone with Asperger’s) and I hoped that it would go well, for my sake at least. It didn’t. Her exact response when I said that I had Asperger’s was (and I’m quoting directly); “You don’t have Asperger’s, I would know, I’ve done a two week online psychology course.” I was furious, and expressed this to her, but she continued along the lines of “you can’t go around making up stuff for attention, you’re not Autistic so just stop, it’s embarrassing.” I ended the conversation by threatening to present the fifty-page report detailing the fact that I am, and also ended the friendship at the same time.
If you were wondering why I was remaining anonymous at the beginning of this article, I hope you can now understand why I have chosen not to reveal my name. I don’t want my identity to take away from the gravity of how people with invisible disabilities (particularly ASD) are treated. I also wanted you to realise that I could be anyone among you. My disability is invisible, but that doesn’t mean I am.