I'm frequently hearing "I'm not autistic, but this is really useful to me." I'm really glad to hear that this generalizes to other neuroatypicalities.
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Here’s an incomplete list of permissions I gave myself along the way:
- permission to take my time
- permission to write characters who think and act like I do
- permission to write what flows right now
- permission not to finish
- permission to finish
- permission to experiment
- permission to follow comforting patterns
- permission to try again and again
- permission to give up
- permission to change my mind about giving up
- permission to talk about being different from neurotypical people
- permission to figure out my own patterns
- permission to trust that it’s ok for my patterns to change
- permission to hyperfocus
- permission not to follow a strict schedule
- permission to ask for what I need
- permission to accept help
- permission to say, "no," “this is not for me,” and “I am not trying this right now”
- permission to struggle with all of this
- permission to be autistic - without guilt or shame
- permission not to write
Permission not to write? Doesn’t this negate the purpose of a series of essays about writing?
No - on the contrary - but this needs more unpacking.
I already discussed in the first installment how our lives as autistics are often full of admonitions: do this, or else. Some NTs love issuing such admonitions, and they can sound very convincing, and they often also have power. It can be confusing and often hurtful, because as autistic people we often like rules, but the rules/admonitions may be contradictory, or not work for us at all.
Both doing something (writing, following advice) and not doing (not writing, not following advice) are threatening. We are often so eager to prove our worth to the world our own endeavor can begin to feel dehumanizing. If only I can be successful at this writing thing, I will show them that I am not a complete failure! Very quickly, permission to write turns into an obligation we feel we cannot turn down. An obligation to prove our life’s validity through writing and publishing.
This sense of obligation, often acutely felt if not articulated clearly, takes your agency and your will and your needs away and subjugates them to face needs of other people - often NTs, often well-meaning and just as often abusive - in your life. It makes the stakes impossibly high - not your creativity, but your humanity is at stake. That’s often too much to carry. The stakes are so huge, the very real possibility of failure so threatening, that it’s blocking.
I strongly feel that the permission to write and the permission not to write are the two sides of the same coin. Freedom is in the ability to both write and not write. Freedom is in both starting and stopping. Freedom is in the ability to make a choice, and then make a different choice. Choices are often taken from us and denied to us as autistic people. A part of my self-empowerment was in embracing my ability to choose: to embrace my right to choice, and to allow myself choices.
The permission to write and the permission not to write
For me, giving myself permission to write was revolutionary, but it was a revolution that unfolded in slow motion over my whole adult life. I was abused around my writing since early childhood. My mother perceived queer content in my very first publication (in Russian at age 14) and was so scandalized by it that she declared I was shaming the family. I was forbidden to write, and if I wanted to write, I had to do so under a pen name and in secret, so that not to cover the family name with shame.
It was seventeen years before I wrote again. I wrote deeply queer stuff when I was still very closeted, and I was uncomfortable and traumatized and I carried so much shame. I was an ESL writer and did not believe my English was any good (it was certainly not standard). Stil,l I wrote. I wrote for myself first, then - encouraged by others - for publication, but I wrote because of a deep necessity for voice, a voice which had been denied to me and which I myself could not access.
On that journey I found friends and community, supported many people, fell out with other people, came out of the closet repeatedly on various aspects of my queerness, transness, and disability. I co-edited a small magazine and a number of anthologies. I wrote a book that did not sell, and many stories that did. I left a bad relationship and divorced, found the love of my life and remarried. I was doing all this while ultimately not feeling solid in my writing, certainly not balanced in my process, more fearful than curious, more ashamed than proud of myself. I wrote in fits and starts, I blamed myself for every real and imagined error, I self-rejected, I wrote about self-rejection. I was and continue to be supported by my community and friends. I took long pauses, I almost walked away many times, I had and still have no idea how to go about the social side of the writing business without utterly wrecking myself and still getting nowhere fast. I wrote and continue to write while autistic.
That, ultimately, is where I found myself, at the juncture where I realized that I do not write like neurotypical people, I do not organize my time like neurotypical people, I do not live like neurotypical people, and it is not something that needs correction. My autistic brain does not need fixing. What it needs is a framework.
This framework already existed here and there, in bits and pieces, in essays by other autistics, in conversations I kept having with my autistic writer friends. This framework is what I am trying to create here, and what I hope others will keep creating, communally and individually - because at this juncture, even saying you are autistic and that is ok, you do not need fixing feels revolutionary, feels like pushing against a rising tide of dehumanization and eugenics and cure narratives that are only the tip of our society’s collective abusive iceberg that is ready to crush anyone who does not conform.
Here’s the thing: Your writing is not here to validate your existence in the NT world and/or prove your usefulness to NTs and earn you a place in their world. It’s a crushing world, and judging yourself by its metrics is crushing. But there is a different path, which is valid and real and yours to claim.
Writing is a choice. You write because you want to write. If you don’t want to do this anymore, you can stop.
You can write endlessly and without pause; you can also take breaks and come back when you’re ready. Whatever works for you is fine.
The stakes do not need to be so high. You can write for any reason whatsoever. Your life’s meaning does not hang in the balance. Your life as an autistic person is already meaningful, and has always been meaningful.