What I learned at Autreat

I attended a conference called Autreat this year as a presenter. It’s a conference run by autistic people, for autistic people. It’s such a safe space. My goal this year is to try and carry some of Autreat into the rest of my life.

I don’t have a lot of experience with autistic communities. Certainly not ones where the autistic person is encouraged to be their own true autistic self. Most groups I’ve found have been about trying to pass as “normal”. So I absolutely loved that at Autreat, I could interject musical theatre or Minecraft into almost every conversation I had and no one thought less of me for it. If I couldn’t look at you, that was fine. If there was a long silence, that was just part of the conversation. If I had to wear headphones, that wasn’t rude, and if I’d rather sit near the dance for most of the event instead of participating, I wasn’t called weird.

I realized a lot about how I communicate while I was at Autreat. I have been told by a few non-autistics that they wouldn’t have thought I was autistic because I seem to be so self aware.

I don’t think autistic people are NOT self aware. I just think we have trouble putting it into words.

Imagine having a conversation with someone. For non-autistics, most of it comes naturally. But an autistic person has to deal with understanding what the person has said, filter out background sound and visuals, figure out posture and non-verbal communication, deal with the other person expecting eye contact, and formulate an appropriate response. All of this has to be done quickly. When I’m in a conversation, I feel like a computer without enough memory – it’s impossible to process all these things at once so the system gets slowed down.

Most of my life I thought I was stupid, because most of the time I didn’t understand people when they talked to me. I have to work really hard to make sense of conversations. Autreat taught me that was all right.

I have to speak to a group of actors I’m working on a play with about my experiences, and I’ve asked the director if I can communicate this in writing. Maybe it’s time to stop forcing myself to communicate like everyone else, because that only leads to me feeling stupid. I am a fluent, evocative communicator through text, so why not try and show people the real me that way?

The more I discover about my autistic self, the more I realize that there is an incredibly interesting person waiting to come out. I only need to let him be autistic, instead of forcing him to appear “normal”. Thanks, Autreat.


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