Are you afraid of the dark?

This time of year can mess with my mind! Sometimes it’s exhaustion, sometimes depression. At the moment, apparently, I’m a child again – the idealised version: happy and eager, with the sort of “can do” attitude that comes from having no concept of limits. But as a child, I was afraid of the dark.

It’s strange, coming home in the night time. Turning off the main road and into my quiet side street, where the street lamps don’t work and the darkness looms like a yawning cave. Some of the houses have outdoor lights that switch on and off as I walk past.

Unlocking the front door, I turn on the lights. The house is silent.

I go inside. Flick the switch in every room. The dim brightness of artificial light is eerie in the empty quiet. There’s a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach. I switch on the radio to drown out the silence.

6 pm. It’s early, but the darkness says it’s late. I cook, eating dinner to the sound of the radio, the stove cooling noisily in the background. Closed blinds keep out the night.

7:30. I curl up on the sofa, watching TV. I’d like to read, but that would mean going back to the silence. Why is it this cold stillness, so welcome in the daytime, seems so threatening at night? I turn up the volume to fill the empty darkness.

11 pm. Lying in bed, I stare blankly up at the ceiling. Moonlight streams in through thin curtains. Wrapped warm under weighty covers, comfortable, I drift towards sleep.

Moving lights; and a shadow rises, suddenly, from beside the bed. I jolt awake, heart pounding. Focus. Switch on the bedroom light.

Of course, there’s nothing there. I hear the neighbours’ car, pulling slowly into their driveway.

I know it’s ridiculous. I go to sleep with the lights on.

When good (wo)men do nothing

“I’d never know if they were autistic or just being rude”.

To the person who said this to me, from a position of power, as an excuse for not putting into practise anything they’d learned: here is what I wish I’d been able to convey at the time.

As an initial aside: yes, you could know. They might even actually tell you; but otherwise, you’d just have to make an effort. Not unlike the effort I make with non-autistic people, every single day. If you’re needing some ideas: how about judging that person on what they’re trying to do, rather than how they “look” in the moment or the exact words that they say? You could try questioning those immediate, intuitive conclusions you jump to and ask yourself: did they really say what I’m reacting to, or did I interpolate that into the space between their lines? You could step back for a moment and consider: is it possible that what they said just now isn’t actually about me? Could I, perhaps, be reading too much into this? Should I be taking this so personally? I know that kind of thinking isn’t easy – it does take a bit of patience, and you might have to practise a few times before you get it right. But you can do it, if you try.

But what I really wanted to tell you is that your attitude, right there, is the reason that people like me need medication. It’s the reason we’re underemployed. It’s the reason we feel valueless, despite our unique skills. It’s the reason so many of us are driven to suicide.

Let’s think for a moment about what you just said. Your words said:

  • It’s more important for me, from my position of power, to judge, than it is for you and people like you to be treated fairly
  • I need to be able to label people as “rude” more than you need to be able to communicate
  • Upholding my neurotypical standards as the default in every interaction is important enough to justify ostracising anyone who cannot achieve them

And behind those words, in context – even as an autistic who struggles with implications – you’ve told me a whole lot more. You’ve told me that despite what you’ve learned about adult diagnosis rates and the stigma of disclosure, you still won’t treat anyone without an openly declared official diagnosis with anything other than prejudiced contempt. You’ve told me that you’ll continue to judge everyone according to those unwritten neurotypical “rules”, regardless of their ability or the impact of your judgements. Better that, after all, than to let someone “get away with” being “rude” to you. You’ve told me that in your “normal” social sphere, everyone is guilty until proven innocent.

One of the reasons I didn’t say anything at the time was because I know, deep down, that there is nothing I can do to change your mind. I know you know the facts – we went to the same training course on autism. I know that you went of your own volition, because you were interested in learning more. And yet I see that interest is skin deep for you: purely, trivially academic. You do not see that there are people in your world, like me, for whom this is a lived reality. You will not acknowledge that those affected by these issues are living and working invisibly, close beside you. And so you are incapable of putting the facts you’ve learned towards changing your behaviour or challenging your prejudices, to make us invisible people that tiny bit safer in an inhospitable world.

You are not the first. Nor will you be the last. Your attitude is as endemic as it is poisonous. People like you are the reason so many autistics suffer from anxiety; from depression; even from PTSD. Nice people; good people; decent people; who nonetheless ruthlessly perpetuate suffering by their quickness to judge and unwillingness to learn. Suffering that is all the more criminal for being so easily avoidable.

Someone once said, “the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing”. You heard the facts, you followed the implications, and you did nothing. You are complicit in this evil. You are responsible. You.