I Used to Feel Ashamed of My Autism: Here’s What I Feel Now
Josh Friedberg shares his self-acceptance journey.
When it comes to my life, the part of my identity that I feel the strongest attachment to is my love of music. I couldn’t have learned so much about music history without Autism. I can name a musical event from every year between 1909 and today, and the fact is, most people’s brains are not wired to memorize that much about anything. When I was a kid, I memorized birthdays and later the order of the U.S. presidents. None of this, of course, helped me make friends, but even then, I had pride in things I could do that nobody else that I knew could.
I was diagnosed officially as on the Autistic spectrum around age 11, and up to that point, it was clear that something was different about me. I had no coordination, meaning gym class was hell; I was hypersensitive about everything; my understanding of language was hyper-literal, and I didn’t engage with others in conversation, only talking at people in a monotone about my interests.
It was also clear that despite my social difficulties, I exhibited enormous potential as a student. I had skipped third grade; my music teacher called me “a music whiz kid” in a report card; and despite difficulties with figurative language, I showed potential as a writer, though I didn’t always know it.
And I spent a good chunk of my childhood using my brain to memorize music facts from the radio and from television and magazine lists; to this day, I’m guessing that if you named a number up to 100, I could probably name the corresponding entry on VH1’s 100 Greatest Albums countdown from 2001 (#1 was the Beatles’ Revolver.)
As you might imagine, none of this made me very socially apt around others, so I grew up without friends. And as I’ve written about elsewhere, people close to me were feeding chronic eating disorders because of how hard it was for them to watch me go through all of that pain with no recourse, especially at school.
So, for a long time, I wasn’t exactly proud of myself, and indeed, I felt a lot of shame with my Autism. For years I blamed myself for friendships that didn’t work out due to others’ ignorance or intolerance. There was a shift, though, at college. It’s not ideal when you learn from others that you are worth something, as a lot of the process of realizing that has to come from within. Nonetheless, college was incredible for me for receiving validation, among other things.
I did some things I’ve regretted, especially academically, but I made real, close friendships for the first time in my life — with plenty of mistakes, to be sure. There were times when friends expressed gratitude for what I brought to their lives, and at least internally, my face was full of question marks.
I don’t want to blame myself for having had trouble processing compliments for years, but I remember when a dear friend told me how she’d felt like she couldn’t talk about herself around me, and as painful as that was to hear at the time, I took it to heart and have worked really hard since then to be a better listener. In some ways, the constructive criticism was easier to understand than outright praise.
College was difficult, including with me abstaining from drugs and alcohol, which was part necessity and part choice with circumstances that I deal with. But when I walked at graduation after four years, hundreds of people stood up and cheered for me. I was stunned. And I truly believe that I made the impact that I did on that campus because of my Autism: yes, I was still hyper-literal — and I ended up majoring in English, a discipline full of metaphors — but I think one of the gifts of my Autism is sincerity. I care about learning and I care about other people.
I made a difference. And I still do.
For a few years after college, I felt somewhat lost, but I didn’t give up because of my unwavering determination to grow and succeed in some way or another, as well as because of some outside help. Around 2014, I found a community of friends in Chicago that have helped me get through some rough times, and they embrace me for who I am. One of the lessons that I’ve learned from these experiences is that I would rather be who I am, accepted or not, than get more friends for acting like someone I’m not.
And in 2014, I also fulfilled a longtime dream when I got into graduate school. I wasn’t sure I ever could because time management and perfectionism affected my grades in college, but a public school in Chicago saw a lot of potential in me. I had some doubts because it was another English program — I remember talking to my advisor about how all I ever heard growing up about my confusion with language and metaphors was that I was “fucking retarded” — but I worked hard, applying my sincerity and not being afraid to make mistakes.
Since then, I’ve gotten multiple academic articles published, presented at multiple conferences, been a Graduate Assistant, tutored disabled students, received a 3.78 program GPA in that graduate program, and worked as a tutor/consultant in one of the most well-reputed college writing centers around where I live. Maybe I’ll end up teaching soon, but whatever may happen, I know that my Autism, which can appear as a roadblock, had a big part in getting me here.
I try to treat everything as a learning experience. It can be hard for me to not take things personally because, with Autism, I tend to intensely feel other people’s emotions, including if they’re frustrated with me. However, I’m learning one day at a time to work through different obstacles — I don’t want to say “overcome” because some things I can’t overcome, and if my Autism appears like an obstacle to others, today I see it as an asset that I don’t need to overcome. It made me who I am.
Today I hear a lot of negative messages in different media that assume that Autism is a problem. Simply put, fuck that. I get that for many parents, children being “antisocial” and “disruptive” (whether or not those perceptions are legitimate) can be difficult, because I remember what my parents had to experience before I found friends and gained some “neurotypical-like” social skills. But Autistic people need acceptance, much more than we need awareness.
What can we all do to promote acceptance of Autistic people? We can listen to Autistic people, for one, rather than listening to an organization like Autism Speaks that has rarely had Autistic people on their Board and thus has no right to call itself Autism Speaks. (And for the record, vaccines do not cause Autism, and even if they did, if you’re more afraid of Autism than of dying from some easily curable disease, check your ableism.)
One of the ways to listen to Autistic people is to respect how we want to be addressed: most disabled people, as we call ourselves, that I’ve talked to and heard from do not like person-first language (i.e., “people with Autism,” as opposed to “Autistic people” and what’s called identity-first language). For me, person-first language denies the difference that disabilities make in my life.
Whether or not our stories are “inspirational,” I and other Autistic people have struggled with self-acceptance, and my hope is that Autistic people will keep coming forward and sharing both our struggles and successes — on our terms. If I still struggle with shame, I should be allowed to express it without being tone-policed or labeled as “too sensitive.” As I wrote about in another piece for the Good Men Project, I am more sensitive because of my Autism, and fuck anyone who acts like I need to apologize for it.
I began by discussing music, and in my brain’s encyclopedic database of song lyrics, I was trying to think of one that, with or without context, would fit how I feel about my Autism. Perhaps this is a misappropriation, but a song that I learned from Mavis Staples, “I Like the Things About Me,” which was written specifically about African Americans’ struggles with body image, seems to fit best: “I like the things about me that I once despised.”
I like the Autism that I once despised.
This story was previously published on The Good Men Project.