I remember the first time I heard “autistic” used as a slur. I was in tenth grade gym class, and one of my more athletic classmates had said it to a teammate who had messed up a play in baseball. I felt insulted; I knew he wasn’t trying to attack autistic people, but that’s essentially what he was doing. I thought, “Are people still that afraid of what they don’t know?” Given the current political climate in the US, where the President’s campaign was largely built on xenophobia, I can sadly say: yes. Yes, they are.

Fortunately, moments like these are the worst ableism I’ve ever faced. Some autistic people grow to hate themselves after being led to believe that autism is a disease. As someone with autism, it hurts to hear people spread myths that vaccines cause autism and therefore shouldn’t be used, because that’s basically saying you’d rather your child be dead than autistic. Even the world’s leading autism “activist” group, Autism Speaks, is a hate group that treats autism as a sickness and seeks to cure it. That’s persecution in my book, and is no less hateful than racism, sexism, or homophobia.

Autism is not some disease that needs to be cured. People who have it may seem different, but we’re still people. Ever since I’ve been able to give a name to my differences, I’ve had quite a unique experience with them. Here are some of the things that I’ve learned over the course of my life:

Sensory issues and trauma are not your fault

I’ve always been a picky eater. If someone made me a four-course dinner, they would be lucky if I ate the appetizer. I always brought my own lunch to school so I didn’t have to eat the cafeteria food, and I would fear going over to friends’ houses because I usually would not be able to stomach whatever their parents cooked for dinner. If a friend’s parent cooked me something I didn’t like, I could never directly refuse and I always tried to shovel it onto said friend’s plate when they weren’t looking. I try to eat what I can, but I’m not able to promise anything to anyone.

I used to think I was a spoiled brat for refusing, but then I realized it was because I was sensitive to unfamiliar tastes and textures. Whenever I go to an unfamiliar restaurant, I always get the blandest thing on the menu, so I won’t be bombarded with sensory overloads. I still have some work to do, but it’s a process, and I’m aware of where I am and what I’m capable of. That’s the first step.

Autistic people tend to be more impacted by traumatic events than neurotypical people

Research suggests that the amygdala, the trauma center of the brain, is more active in autistic kids. Therefore, bad experiences can be made that much more traumatic. For example, I got bit by a dog once when I was a kid, and now even though I know better, I still can’t get fully comfortable around dogs. Since sensations are amplified for autistic people (I am also very sensitive to pain), it makes sense that painful events like that would stick.

For those with autism, any sensation can be amplified to an uncomfortable degree. If this happens to someone, it’s not their fault and they’re not overreacting. If you get overwhelmed, the best you can do is tough it out as much as you can, and let someone you trust know when it’s getting to be too much. If they’re a good person, they’ll understand and help you out.

Special interests are a gift

I’ve always had a one-track mind, and have always been obsessed with something. When I was a kid, I was in love with Mario games. The fan website was pretty much my Bible, and drawings of the games and characters made up 90 percent of my sketchbooks. Although some people thought my special interest was silly, it inspired me to be creative. I wrote Mario fanfiction and discovered my love of writing. This got me into other creative pursuits like theatre, and now I’m a second-year student in the VIU Theatre Program.

Even when I felt unmotivated, I never gave up because I had a passion. Also, it’s a rewarding feeling when you can look back on something you’ve created and be proud of it. I recently wrote a one-act play for the Satyr Players’ One Act Festival, and the feeling I got when I saw it performed by some of the most talented actors in the program is indescribable. It really built my confidence. I wouldn’t trade that feeling for the world.

If you have a special interest, make the most of it. So what if other people say that it’s weird? If it brings you happiness, does it really matter what other people think?

You’re not broken, and you’re not alone

Social interaction was never really a problem for me in elementary and middle school. I was somewhat of an outcast, but I grew up on Lasqueti Island where everyone knew each other and all the kids were more or less friends. I took social interaction for granted. My parents knew I was nervous talking on the phone and often called up my friends for me. It was a nice gesture, but one that really stunted my social growth. When I moved to Qualicum and got into high school, I had to start over from scratch. That’s when socialization became a problem.

Romantic relationships were especially difficult for me, since I didn’t even know how to make regular friends. I had some stalker-like behaviours: I’d wait by their lockers and keep track of what class they’d get out of so I could intercept them. I told myself, “It’s not stalking if you plan on talking to them.” This didn’t make a lot of girls want to talk to me.

I knew what I was doing was wrong, but I just wanted love. I pined for the time when meaningful relationships were handed to me on a silver platter. The more I thought about those days, the more I yearned for them and the more I felt alone. I should have been proud of my autism, but in my worst moments it only made me feel broken.

Life got better for me when I started university. During my first year in the theatre program, I met people with common interests and I felt like I was a part of something for the first time. Each play I performed in gave me something new to take away. These days, I am inspired more than ever to be creative and do what I want to do. I wouldn’t even have written this article if my friend hadn’t convinced me to.

As much as autism can sometimes make life hard for me, I am lucky to be where I am in life, and I am where I am because of my autism. I have an amazing friend group, I love what I’m studying, and I feel like I’m actually growing up.

When you’re autistic, it can be hard to find a place for yourself, but there always is one. Just because you’re slower to learn certain concepts doesn’t mean you’re an idiot, or that you’re low-functioning. Don’t let ableist pricks tell you that you’re less than who you arethey’re the ones in the past, and you’re the one who has a future. Whenever somebody says, “What are you, autistic?” You can proudly respond, “Yes. Yes I am.”