Writing While Autistic 8: The Identity Elephant
Sticky Note: I am an adult autistic writer. All text in Writing While Autistic is my personal reflections and thoughts, which are based on my experience alone. While I do make general statements and give advice, this does not constitute prescriptive advice: what I say is just one possibility in a sea of other advice. Please take what you need from this and ignore the rest. 

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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In Lois McMaster Bujold’s Memory, a novel in the Vorkosigan Saga, the main character, Miles, makes a terrible, misguided decision in order to keep his beloved job. The secret comes out, and he loses his job anyway. The book’s focus is on Miles’ internal journey after this life-altering event. 

At one point in the story goes fishing with his former boss, Simon Illyan. The two have a conversation about what people want. Money, sex, power…? Illyan tells a story about a diplomat whose heart’s desire was to own an elephant, who ends up getting an elephant, and is indeed very happy. The elephant story is odd and endearing and causes Miles to have an epiphany: 

“Identity. That's my elephant.”

What you were was what you did, Miles thinks, and all his life, Miles wanted to do things he could not do on his home planet because of his disability. His family was military, so he wanted to be military too, but his home planet’s entrenched ableism meant that he had to go off-world to become a mercenary general. He could not lose that. If he did, he became — what exactly? His identity as a military strategist and leader, something so hard-won, so painful, so huge for him - would be gone. He could not let that go. But then it was over anyway, and he had to figure out how to survive that major identity loss. Figure out, all over again, who he was.

I have many problems with Bujold’s work and with the Vorkosigan series in particular but Memory is one of the most important books I’ve read in adulthood. It helped me figure out something important: identity is my elephant, too. Identity is the elephant for so many of us who are neuroatypical and disabled.

Perhaps for people who have less disruptions and changes in life, who are supported in their selfhood, who are not routinely stripped of their humanity even by their own family, identity is not as embattled, not as constantly shifting, not as impossible to attain and to keep, not as huge, not as scary. Perhaps money, love, power, fame, and/or cookies are better elephants then. But I’m talking about identity today and probably will again, because it occupies me. So much.

As an autistic person who is also queer and NB and also a migrant and also physically sickly and also, not to mince words, fat, I constantly defied the identity paradigms offered to me by my family and culture(s). Being autistic was, is, and will be one of the major ways in which I stick out and do not conform. One of the biggest issues I have in life is dealing with NT people who set up benchmarks: do X, do Y and then we will accept you - and I end up doing X, Y (often at a great personal cost) but I am still not accepted, not because I failed at X or Y, but because X or Y were never the real goal. The unspoken [or spoken] goal was for me not to be autistic anymore - to be “normal”, to be “like other people.” No good behavior, excellent grades, publications, awards, accolades, jobs, and prestigious appointments would satisfy that. I was being set up to fail - to fail in my quest for identity and belonging - because the benchmarks I was given were not the real benchmarks.

Also there should not even be any benchmarks for being loved and accepted as a human being. Fuck that.

As autistic people we’re constantly normed by other people. We are constantly given impossible or inappropriate or irrelevant benchmarks. We are acculturated to want to reach these arbitrary benchmarks. And if we fail at these benchmarks, where does that leave us - our personhood - our sense of identity? Our arbitrary benchmarks are often some type of accomplishments. 

As writers, we are in a similar predicament. The writing industry is difficult, writing careers are difficult, and writing is so closely tied to identity - not just for autistic writers, for everyone. You are constantly being evaluated by others - readers, beta readers, editors - and you are being constantly rejected. This is a painful business, identity-wise, regardless of whether you are autistic or not. Your sense of identity is going to be tested. The stories into which you pour your life, your heart, your soul, your skill, your time get harsh rejections that devastate you. Most authors struggle with this regardless of neurotype.

Now we add to that roiling boil of emotion the fact that most autistic writers feel that we need to prove our very humanity to the world through accomplishments - because accomplishments are often the arbitrary benchmarks we are given to prove our humanity- and every rejection can feel a hit to our identity, to the very possibility of being treated as a human being. That’s a big fucking elephant.

I am, at this point in my life, actively looking for ways to restructure my thinking so that arbitrary accomplishments are no longer an identity need. I want to be solid in who I am and in what I do, and I want that to be enough. What I do is important to me. I am a creator. I cannot imagine my life without creating. But I want my identity to be “what I do” rather than “what I do as evaluated and validated by other people.” I want to find a place to stand in which my identity is no longer so dependent on needs, wants, and judgments of other people - most especially neurotypical power holders - in my life. And this means, for me, finding my own center, my own thing, on my own terms, and holding on to that. It’s hard, since I also want to put my work out in the world, I want it to have readers, I want to be open to reactions and suggestions from editors and readers, I want to be flexible and growing always in my work. But I do not want criticism - constructive or vicious - or any kind of evaluation to hurt me in my sense of who I am. This is the challenge, the hard work that I must do in myself.

And that is what I have to say today, but I am very much looking forward to your thoughts.