Thursday, November 1, 2012

An Unforgettable Smile

Liam, or @autistliam on Twitter, has written An Unforgettable Smile

I don't think I will ever forget that smile. The way her face suddenly just illuminated, like sunshine was pouring out of her. The little squeaking noise she made in her happy surprise. My young friend Anna* when I told her that around one in every eighty-eight people is autistic. Like her. Like me.

Her worldview had shifted in seconds from one in which she and I were rarities, with all the loneliness that entails, to one where we were two among hundreds of thousands, even millions. People who think and feel and move and are like us.

I'll never forget that smile.

I sometimes wonder whether there are people who've never felt the extreme loneliness of being fairly sure that there is no one else in the world who is really like you. Maybe twins don't feel like that? Maybe most neurotypical people don't feel it for more than a few seconds or minutes at a time. Most autistic adults and teens I know would recognise it instantly as a dominant feeling throughout their childhoods and even for some for much of their adult lives. A persistent feeling that no one else could actually understand us, that other people are, for the most part, fundamentally very different to us. It's very lonely.

I know autistic people who were convinced that they were aliens, stranded on Earth as babies like Superman or stuck without a ship like Ford Prefect. They needed something to explain why nowhere ever felt like home, why no one they met ever felt like “their people”. I know adults who loved sci fi as a child because they could recognise themselves in every person visiting a strange planet or strange time. For us autistics, it's not just the past but also the world outside our bedrooms that is a strange world – they do things differently there.

For many autistics, we are perpetually strangers in strange lands, navigating a culture and a language that isn't ours. We are a nation without a homeland, immigrants everywhere.

And yet. That need not be lonely. Even the knowledge of thousands of others just waiting to be met is enough to make a child smile and drop years of worrying and apprehension. One in eighty-eight, spread across the globe means Anna and I will be able to find fellow autistics wherever we go.

I know autistic people across the world and autistic people where I live and a wonderful autistic woman I want to spend the rest of my life with. Every day I talk to autistic adults and teens across the UK and around the world. Every day I am reminded that I am never ever alone.

I will always be able to find someone who will just sit with me and say nothing, someone who will wave their arms in excitement with me in our local railway museum, someone who will think nothing of communicating by type only, someone who won't want me to stay somewhere overstimulating. I know I will always be able to find someone who understands me – and so will Anna.

Because through things like today and through social media and in person groups and through making our autism known to our friends, us autistics always find a way to find each other. We don't need a home land for Autistic Nation – we can have everywhere so long as we keep reaching out to our fellow autistics and helping them know that they are never, never, not even for a second, alone.

* Anna is not her actual name.

My name is Liam and I am @autistliam on twitter. I am an autistic adult living in the UK.

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