Like many autists I appear younger than my age, in part because I don’t perform age. I don’t perform age, race or gender, either. I don’t perform. Yet people tend to think I’m performing, that my words have a hidden meaning, or that I’m trying to behave like someone of a certain age, race, or gender but need a little guidance. People often seem to think I don’t know how to perform and need instructions, guidance on how to behave like a “proper” human.
Autists are commonly seen as rude, and black people are commonly seen as angry. If I’m not treated as a mean person, I’m treated as timid and shy. I’m none of these things.
Still, whether or not I disclose my neurodivergence, I routinely experience bullying and infantilization, sometimes stalking, and am treated much younger than I am, often by people who are younger than me—people who address me with the voice they reserve for small children.
Intersectionality is complex because humans are complex individuals with ever changing identities. I’ve spent too much time living with deep confusion, self-hatred, and self-doubt because of bigotry, and I don’t need guidance on how to behave black, manly, straight, neurotypical, childlike, or whatever box someone wants to pack me into. A person’s identity is neither fixed nor easily understood—you can’t know a person simply by looking at them. Yet many people believe in stereotypes. Many people apply stereotypes to me.
When I think of stereotypes, I think of the Ted Talk “The Danger of a Single Story” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, wherein she asserts the need to avoid applying single stories to people because each life is made of multiple stories: “The single story creates stereotypes,” Adichie says, “and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
Stereotypes are single stories applied to people who have multiple stories. Everyone is made of multiple stories, yet people commonly apply a single story to another person based on that person’s appearance. I like myself, and I, like all humans, am a constantly evolving person.
People experience belonging when they are allowed to be themselves—to simply be. Would help tremendously if people would stop instructing neurodivergents on the proper ways to behave. We can enable belonging in society if rather than seeing people through a single lens we learn to accept the wide variations that exist within our species, approaching each other with open minds and a willingness to accept that we know nothing about a person until we’ve truly spent time with that person, have listened to that person.