This “In Their Own Words” is by 23-year-old Dave Beukers, who was diagnosed with high-functioning autism in 1990. Dave serves on the committees of the Los Angeles and Orange County Walk Now for Autism Speaks events. He is a musician and a graduate of Chapman University in Orange, Calif.
I know it’s very much the standard terminology, and for all technical intents and purposes it’s probably correct. But I’ll admit I get a bit irked every time I hear that someone “has autism.” It’s a seemingly innocent phrase, and I know that no one thinks much of it, but I can’t help but dissect its connotations.
When one has something, one can “unhave” it just as easily, as it were. Say I have a ball, if I throw it away I no longer have a ball. It’s gone, outta here, sent to oblivion in my mind, and it no longer affects me or is my problem.
I find it interesting, a bit absurd even, that we use this same verb to talk about the autistic condition. It’s as if I were to say that I have “Caucasianism.” I could immerse myself as much as I like in any culture and become a functional member of that culture, but I haven’t really altered my DNA or my skin color. At the end of it all, despite the fact that I could be born in Japan, speak Japanese and celebrate the Emperor’s birthday every year, I’m still white. That is what I was given to work with, it’s a part of who I am.
“Having” autism, stretched to its extreme meanings, has kind of unfortunate implications. It implies the condition was put upon us solely by an external force. It presumes that taking the condition away, i.e. being typical, would make us unequivocally better, and it’s ever waiting for the “cure,” the magical panacea that will make everything hunky-dory.
Then again, it’s really all in how you look at it. For me, there was no real cure. It was simply work, time, and experiences that made me the person I am today. Sure, without autism, there are struggles I wouldn’t have had to endure. But I’m glad I did, and still occasionally continue to. Little by little, I learned to shove stimuli to the back of my mind, to make eye contact, to talk about something other than my favorite books, to read the nuances of conversation, to infer what someone is really thinking. I’m still not great at body language, among other things, to be honest. But some of my best qualities and personality traits are the direct result of my autism as well. I couldn’t imagine my life without autism. And I wouldn’t want to.
To me, it is not something I HAD and got rid of. It is something I AM and learned to channel.
It is this distinction in my mind between “having autism” and “being autistic,” this simple change in turn of phrase, where I personally determine my attitude towards it. As a possession, it seems simply thrust upon me as an unnecessary burden, one which I would be better off without. As a state of being, it is a lifelong journey, a beautiful cycle of try, fail, and try again from which I learn as much as I can, wherever that ends up taking me. It is this thought that has turned me from a victim to a victor and given me hope for my future, because as long as I “had” autism, autism actually had me.
Now I don’t expect to shake up everyone’s personal lexicons here, but I hope you are as intrigued as I am by the difference a word can make.
“In Their Own Words” is a series within the Autism Speaks blog which shares the voices of people who have autism, as well as their loved ones. If you have a story you wish to share about your personal experience with autism, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Autism Speaks reserves the right to edit contributions for space, style and content. Because of the volume of submissions, not all can be published on the site.