Passing in the Context of Disability

I’m the little cutie on the right

The lived experiences of disabled people are often shaped by a sense that our existence is a burden. Even when we have amazing and supportive families like I do, it cannot fully fill the hole inside our psyches. Our own sense of worth is often harmed by the act of navigating this world. Those of us who have the complicated luxury of “passing” in most settings often still observe how people like us are treated and it is profoundly painful to witness.

Although we may read as normative in a lot of situations, we also see some unspeakably ableist violence perpetrated against others on a regular basis. Much of this violence is widely accepted within our society. It often takes the form of what I call social violence, which amounts to neurotypical people mercilessly attacking disabled people for how our appearance and behavior varies from social norms.

As an autistic person, I’m especially sensitive to these kinds of dynamics. I have spent my whole life trying to please others — constantly struggling against a sense that my mere presence is a burden for others. Thanks to the intense therapy and conditioning I received at an early age, I’m able to pass in a lot of contexts and navigate most social situations without experiencing explicitly ableist violence.

But no one should have to train like an Olympic athlete growing up — and engage in the constant sacrifice of pleasing and satisfying neurotypical people around them — just to be accepted. This burden is profoundly unfair, and the ability to pass is often not possible without access to immense privilege and intense training. Consequently, within our social order, many neurovariant people are left behind and discarded, and systematically prevented from living dignified and fulfilling lives.

I understand how this feels, because I did not pass for much of my childhood. There’s so much I struggle to remember about this time in my life. Still, I remember a sense of foreignness and alienation being palpable. I remember my third grade music teacher screaming at me in front of the whole class, because I could not figure out how to play the recorder. She thought I was being lazy, but my brain simply could not perform the action of translating notes on sheet music into the correct set of hand gestures at the right time. As she continued to berate me, I began to sob uncontrollably. I felt immensely frustrated and humiliated, and I knew the weeks ahead would be filled with taunting and condescending remarks from my peers. The teacher’s aid assigned to accompany me throughout the school day eventually whisked me out of the room, dried my tears, and said comforting words to me.

I had these types of meltdowns all the time. The actions and motives of others around me felt so strange and mysterious. The slightest change in my routine would destabilize the delicate understanding of reality I had constructed for myself. During this time in my life, I responded to these types of ableist traumas by creating two paths for myself: one was to find freedom through retreating into myself and the other was to mold myself into the most acceptable version of myself. I vividly imagined worlds where I felt free, safe, and empowered. I created narratives in my highly visual mind involving cosmic battles waged between the forces of good and evil. These fictional universes were blessed escapes from a reality that made little sense to me, because I was born into a world that, in a sense, wasn’t built for me. Events like this also conditioned me to monitor myself relentlessly to blend into neurotypical society. Although I never learned the recorder or any instrument for that matter, I learned how to navigate social situations and control my emotions with iron discipline. This ability to pass helps give me qualified safety and security under the violent systems of ableism we live under.

However, this luxury does come at a cost. It makes me privy to social situations where I see neurotypical people ostracize and attack others merely for being a little socially awkward or possessing other variant traits. Although many awkward people are not neurovariant and many neurovariant people are not socially awkward, people who manifest a set of mannerisms that read as “visibly autistic” are punished harshly by our ableist society. These traits include a lack of eye contact, an unawareness of subtle signals in a social setting, uncertainty about how to engage others, and deep anxiety regarding social complexity.

There is nothing inherently wrong or inadequate about handling social interactions in this manner. But these characteristics are shamed, because ableism’s violent structures delineate that these qualities operate outside the norms of mainstream society through a manufactured and artificial social construction process. Due to my training and conditioning, I’m able to constantly monitor myself to avoid performing these variant behaviors and analytically monitor underlying social dynamics to avoid messing up a social interaction.

This iteration of social violence can and should be obliterated. To act in solidarity and incrementally combat this dynamic on a micro level, you must dismantle and unlearn your own understandings of normalcy and what constitutes socially acceptable behavior. Although we as autistic people should absolutely be held accountable for our actions, the mere act of social awkwardness is not violent or hurtful. While someone’s awkwardness may make you feel uncomfortable, this discomfort alone should not prevent you from seeing another person’s value and humanity.

When you see a socially awkward person struggling in a social situation, be that person who helps them feel comfortable without being condescending. If you see that person missing a crucial social cue or see a certain behavior that’s the source of the underlying ostracization, consider pulling that person aside, checking in, and providing some quick advice as equals. Whenever I have been on the receiving end of this kind of solidarity, I have always been immensely thankful. However, it is often difficult for me to perform in that capacity for others, because I’m not the one creating the ableist social dynamics at work.

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