I recognize that there are A LOT of people out there who believe we should stop using labels and simply embrace each other as we are. That’s a lovely thought, but it hasn’t played out in my life in any positive way. The trouble, as I see it, is that our differences make us stronger, therefore, ignoring difference hurts us all. Labels are neutral categories that help us figure out our identities. We keep adding new ones to accommodate differences and that’s ok. Then we assign morality to them. That’s why the meanings behind labels can change over time.
So, how do labels save lives? I’ll give you one way. Labels serve to neatly categorize huge ideas into compact spaces. If I were to ask, “what is autism?” that’s a big question. But, if I offer a list of human traits and ask you to label them as a group, it might be easier. Think about things like sensitivity to stimuli that is neither respected nor understood by the general population because it comes across as too much or too little, focus on more concrete thinking that is straightforward and genuine, and the tendency to experience the double empathy problem. I could make a checklist and say, if you check off 90% of these items, you might just be Autistic. The label is Autistic and the traits are the evidence that point to the label being accurate.
My story is much like that of other late-diagnosed Autistic adults. My parents knew I was Autistic from a young age but could not access diagnostic services for me. So, they ignored it, suppressing my traits through behaviorism. I grew up thinking something was terribly wrong with me. I suffered through bouts of suicidal ideology from a very young age. It felt like no one understood me. I was just too different. So little about my life actually made sense until I went through the autism evaluation process as a parent. The questions that the doctor asked made me realize how many Autistic traits I had possessed all my life. I sought out my own evaluation and ultimately received a diagnosis. I was Autistic. I am Autistic!
This affirmation of my entire life and being changed everything. I knew why I thought the way I did. I knew why I was always a step apart from what others were doing, feeling like some sort of bystander to my own life, manufacturing a façade that allowed me to be the alien behind the mask. I started to join groups for Autistic adults and learned even more about myself. I found camaraderie and purpose. I embraced the social model of disability, noting all the points in my life where forces outside of myself stood in the way of my progress. I recognized the symptoms of trauma within my psyche and came to understand that this trauma was the source of my debilitating anxiety – anxiety, in fact, that I didn’t realize I had until other Autistic people described what anxiety looks like in day-to-day life. Then, I started medication. Finally. After decades of misdiagnoses and drugs that never helped, I got the right medication and the right support.
And, you know what? I no longer descend into suicidal ideation the way I once did. I don’t dwell on the troubling parts of my life and do battle against the little voice in my head telling me it would be easier on me, and everyone else, if I weren’t here. Recently, I had an especially difficult week. One evening, while lying in bed trying to fall asleep, it hit me that I wasn’t perseverating on suicide. It was like there was a bottom under me. I had caught a ledge in my mind and I wasn’t sinking any further. I can’t remember anytime in my life when I’ve felt like this.
So, yes, I fully embrace the labels that describe who I am. I use them in healthy ways to understand myself and connect with the communities that have become literal lifelines for me. And, I reject the idea that labels are bad for us. I hope you understand why.