This is an entry for the Blogging from A to Z Challenge. The entire month of April (except for Sundays) I will be blogging through the alphabet on autism-related topics to celebrate Autism Acceptance Month.
J is for Joke.
I am not a joke.
Autism awareness means more people know about us and can make mean jokes about us. I have seen and heard lots of people making fun of us. They wouldn’t do that if they weren’t aware of us. They also wouldn’t do it if they accepted us. This is why I will never work for autism awareness or disability awareness without acceptance automatically attached to it. Autism awareness is just awareness and leaves us exposed and vulnerable to mocking and abuse. Autism acceptance automatically includes autism awareness — because you can’t accept something without being aware of it — but autism acceptance goes a step further. Autism acceptance says not only that autism is real and everywhere around you, in roughly 1% of the population, but that Autistic people have value and should be treated with dignity, accommodation, and acceptance and not as a burden, a thing to fear, or a joke.
I was treated as a joke on Saturday because I do not move and talk the same way most people do. No one should be treated as a joke for being different. I was doing nothing wrong. I was trying to buy parts for a project I am building. I was hurting no one. Disability acceptance in general and autism acceptance specifically are movements that strive to teach others to be kind and understanding when they encounter those who look, sound, move, communicate, and live in ways that are different. I know I am not the only one who gets treated poorly for looking and sounding different. All the time, my friends are mentioning the ways they are treated for looking different, moving differently, using a wheelchair or an assistance animal.
I used to date a man with muscular dystrophy and when we would go out dancing, I would see people behind him pointing, laughing, imitating the way he danced. It made me angry and I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to tell him. I didn’t want to ruin our evening out. I couldn’t believe people would do that right in front of me, knowing I was with him. They hid their jokes from him but they didn’t bother to hide them from me. I never understood why people thought it was okay to make fun of my date right in front of me like that.
Saturday it was my turn to be mocked and the bullies didn’t bother to try to hide it from me. I was in a home improvement store, having a conversation with an employee about the materials I needed for my project, when two other employees approached, pushing carts of supplies. One of them turned to me and said, “is that a new dance you invented?” Then both of them did an exaggerated imitation of the way my body was moving while I was talking and they both laughed loudly. I was too shocked to respond. Did they think I would share their joke? Or were they really that cruel? It felt like being back in middle school again. I was horrified.
I tried to complete my shopping, but I felt humiliated and I felt shame because I was crying in public. I usually have a handkerchief but I’d forgotten to carry one that day so I ended up blowing my nose on my gloves. I put the materials I had intended to buy back on the shelves and left. I had to sit in my car and calm down before I could safely drive the few blocks to a competitor’s home improvement store where I was treated with kindness and acceptance. I was feeling particularly emotionally fragile, but everyone in the second store was kind to me and one of the employees who helped me was visibly disabled, making me feel like I was in a store that respects and values disabled people as employees and as customers. Being treated better at the second store helped restore some of my dignity, but still I didn’t sleep that night. I lay in bed, unable to chase away memories of being mocked for being different, unable to chase away tears of sorrow and shame.
Those men have probably long forgotten the “weird girl” they laughed at. I am still living with the emotional and physical consequences of the experience. I spent years trapped in schools full of bullies. There is a sort of complex PTSD that emerges from a childhood of being daily trapped in an environment of physical and emotional torment. Today I am exhausted, nauseated, and haunted by memories I had thought I’d put behind me. For them it was a moment’s amusement. For me it is days of recovery.
There were so many other J words on my list to choose from today and “joke” was not originally one of them. But at the last minute, I knew that this was my word today. I have been treated as a joke since childhood. No one should be treated as a joke! It is not okay to mock disabled people. Autism acceptance includes teaching people that we are not different on purpose and we do not deserve to be mocked for our differences. Making fun of us for the ways we don’t fit in will not teach us to fit in. It will only make us feel sad or angry and excluded. In those without a strong sense of self, it will make us feel bad and wrong about who we are. The world has enough pain and suffering in it already. Choose to bring light and happiness into the world. Choose to make others feel better about who they are, not worse. Do not make cruel jokes about the people around you. Choose acceptance.