Allow me to tell you a story. I assure you, it’s one you’ve heard before. More times than you may realize.
Once upon a time, there was a Little Princess. The Little Princess was born with the magical gift of intensity. She used this intensity of spirit to create breathtakingly beautiful creations and accomplish feats of epic proportion. As a child, her eyes sparkled with wonder and excitement; her beautiful, melodic voice captivated the hearts of all who encountered her. It was clear that she would go on to do incredible things in this world (including, for example, becoming the star of a world-famous movie and the hero of millions of kids).
The thing is, the Little Princess’ intensity had its trade-offs, you see. Just as this intensity allowed the princess to create sparkling magic ice castles and magical dresses (just some examples), her nervous system was overwhelmed by the intensity of the world around her: loud sounds, the visual and auditory assault of crowds, pressure to perform. (Note: The little princess lacked a background in neuroscience, so all she knew was that she felt overwhelmed and didn’t want to attend Coronation parties — you know, just for example). The Little Princess’ intensity was also evident in the “behaviors” she communicated her big, intense feelings. Her fight/flight/”freeze” behaviors came out in the context of this intense dysregulation; sometimes people accidentally got hurt (icicle to the heart, for example).
The Little Princess experienced the physical and emotional pain of her dysregulation intensely — and rather than empower her with sensory and emotional support tools, the Little Princess was shamed. She was told to “mask” her true self, to hide her magical gifts from the world. “Conceal, don’t feel” — with full-length gloves, if you will. Stuff your feelings, hide your identity. Act like all the other princesses, and fake it so much that it becomes subconscious.
Had the Little Princess grown up in an actually inclusive kingdom, she would have been taught that all little princess/prince brains are different. She would have been taught that there is no one right way to feel, no one right way to play, no one right way to think or learn or communicate. Some princesses speak, some princesses sing, some princesses use gestures/signs, some princesses use AAC devices via buttons or typing. Some princesses mix and match communication mechanisms. Some princesses “build a snowman” with friends; some play side by side. In summary, she would have been taught that there is no right way to be a princess.
Except our Little Princess grew up in a kingdom laden with occult ableism. It looked all joyful and community-ish and even had the illusion of inclusion (trolls, anyone?), but it most certainly was not. And the longer that the people in the Little Princess’ life invalidated her emotional experience — in fact, invalidated the fundamental core of her being — the more dysregulated she became. She withdrew from her family, from her community. Then one day, in the context of extreme intense work pressure (being promoted to Queen, for example), the Little Princess became so dysregulated that she eloped to a far-away mountain. There, in the comfort of her sensory preferences, she pulled off her “gloves” and created a sparkling, glistening castle of beauty — and began the beautiful journey of discovering her True Self and her life’s meaning and purpose.
And the thing is, this storyline that I describe (which may or may not be the plot of a 1.3 billion dollar animated motion picture) celebrates this un-masking and self-discovery. This character embodies fairly obvious sensory processing, regulation, and communication differences. And yet, at NO TIME, is the character “Othered” by the writers. In my mind, the story is clearly written in such a way to criticize the way the princess’ parents forced her to mask. At no time is the Little Princess diagnosed with a medical disorder. At no time was it glorified that she receive behavioral management interventions. At no time was she represented to be broken. Instead, she is depicted as beautiful, resourceful, creative, talented, and universally loved by her family and her community. Because she IS all those things. The Little Princess’ journey toward self-discovery and self-actualization is CELEBRATED. Right now, there are millions of kids (of all neurotypes) dressed up in blue dresses and tiaras singing her anthem.
I share this analogy as an example of what could be, if we shift the narrative on autism.
As a primary care physician, every day I see the impact of what happens when society tells little princesses and princes during their formative years that they are fundamentally “not ok” and need to conform and comply with some arbitrary “default.” That their behavior, their feelings, their “social skills” or “play skills” are “wrong.” That the way they innately show up in the world needs to be corrected.
When a human being is chronically invalidated by their environments/people in their lives, that human being goes on to feel not valid. And we wonder why so many kids (and the adults they eventually become) go on to have intensely complex mental health struggles. We wonder why so many adults have not yet acquired a lens, a narrative, to understand their True Selves — or how their identity formation (or lack thereof) was invariably shaped (squashed) by all the ableist, deficit-based systems that chronically “Othered” them.
And so today, on Autistic Pride Day 2021, I invite you to reflect on all the little princesses and princes in your lives who need a new narrative. It’s never too late to learn how to love your brain. Or the ones whose narrative has not yet been contaminated. We have a chance to protect their destiny.
I’ll finish up with one more story. It’s not the plot of a $1.3 billion-grossing animated film that is so OBVIOUSLY relevant to the topic of autistic identity (I wish people would talk about this!), but it’s a good story nonetheless.
Once upon a time, there was an almost 40 year old who discovered her True Self, as yet another example of how autism is so much more than the stereotypes and misinformation propagated by professionals who don’t know better. And in so doing, she began her journey toward the pursuit of a proud autistic identity. Through books and blogs and webinars, she soaked up the wisdom of other autistic people (i.e., the real experts), and tapped into her own. And today, on Autistic Pride Day, she shared her True Self with a 4 year old who can already wax prophetic on neurodiversity, sensory processing, monotropism, and self-advocacy, because this is all he has ever known. Whose eyes sparkled with wonder and excitement. “Happy ‘Love My Brain Day,'” he said.
And then they baked celebratory “I Love Our Brains” cookies, and lived happily ever after.