Lighting Candles

Dear T-ssem,

I’ve spent most of the time I allocated for writing this post debating a title. I thought about calling it “Letter to an Autistic Celebrity,” but the thing is, I don’t know definitively that you are. And I’ve always been taught, in my experiences as a disabled activist, that armchair diagnoses are wrong. That it’s the height of rudeness to pin a label on someone who may neither want it nor merit it. Labels can both ruin and save lives, and they shouldn’t be used lightly. I don’t want to be arrogant. I don’t want to put someone in a box as so many have tried to do to me. It’s unfair and it can be perceived as insulting.

However, three factors made me write this post anyway. And I think they’re all applicable to a wider truth about autism and autistic people.

(1) You are, at least in your home country, a celebrity. People stop you on the street. That doesn’t mean armchair diagnosis is okay, but it does mean that we see a lot more of your natural mannerisms and behaviors than we would most people’s. Even when we’re trying to stifle emotions, our natural coping mechanisms come through – that’s what stimming is, after all.

(2) Autie-dar is a thing. It may be a popular myth, but I do genuinely believe that autistic people can smell our own, so to speak. I see the same mannerisms in others that I do in myself, and I see how often they are repeated, and well. I wish someone would do research on pattern recognition in autistic adults, because anecdotally, we do it better than the average neurotypical. (We’ve had to, to avoid incidents of abuse and/or mistreatment.) To discount my own observational ability entirely feels like gaslighting myself.

(3) It’s possible to talk about behavior and plausibility without slapping a label on someone. I would never presume to know someone else completely regardless of neurology, but it’s not unreasonable to make an educated guess as long as one is clear that that’s what it is.

So. With those caveats in place, I still wanted to write this post, for a very simple reason.

To thank you.

Because even if you aren’t on the spectrum, there are times where I see myself in your eyes. I see the lack of patience with the extroverts who never flip the off switch; I see the confusion about how best to handle a social situation you may never have encountered before. I see the subtle stimmy behaviors with sweater sleeves and headphone cords. I hear the literal words you like to use. And God, my expertise in your language is too limited to adequately express what all that means to me.

[Image description: an old, somewhat broken-down upright piano made of light brown wood graying with age. The black keys appear to be missing. It sits in a room with walls and floor covered in wood of a similar light brown, decaying color.]

[Image description: an old, somewhat broken-down upright piano made of light brown wood graying with age. The black keys appear to be missing. It sits in a room with walls and floor covered in wood of a similar light brown, decaying color.]

You are, by anyone’s measure, successful. You’re known throughout the continent and arguably the world. You’re attractive, sporty, you dress well, you have an angel’s smile and are so, so talented – you have a voice that genuinely moves me and millions of others. And yet, you’re shy, reserved, and you act like me a lot.

Maybe it’s pathetic, but God, it gives me hope.

I don’t want to be you, and I don’t have any delusions about ever being able to tell you this in person. But I think it’s important to talk about this kind of thing, because  very often, autistic people aren’t allowed to have role models. Or if we do, we’re seen as sad or pathetic for ever daring to aspire to be like someone so shining and beautiful. We are seen as half-used candles, with awkward wicks subsumed in wax, while neurotypicals are fresh off the shelf. Whole.

Autistic people are so often labeled, most often by “functioning level.” Never mind that functioning isn’t static; never mind that ability changes over time and to write off a child’s ability to do anything before they come of age is pessimistic and hurtful beyond belief. But one extra-corrosive effect of a “low functioning” label is that the person’s dreams are denied to them. You can’t learn to play music, you’re low-functioning, goes the ableist line of thought. You can’t like music or understand it, you can’t even speak.

It is human to dream. And having role models and people we admire is half the battle in learning to dream.

I have a lot of dreams, and right now in my life, all of them seem to be stalled. Not necessarily gone, but stalled. There are days I do feel like I wander in the dark. But I have studied Chinese characters, and I’m just superstitious enough to like that your name means “bright.”

I don’t owe you my life or anything, but I’ve smiled a lot more lately because of you. And that’s precious. When someone gives me something precious, I feel obligated to say thank you. It’s just that this time, I mean it with all my heart.

Thank you for helping me to feel human. Even if telling you so in person would send you scrambling for cover. Wink.

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