I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism, at the age of 27. I have been an advocate ever since. Autism has never caused me any pain or suffering, but enduring the stigma and social exclusion and facing the societal pressure to conform to non-autistic behaviours definitely did.
Before my diagnosis, I spent an enormous amount of time and energy trying to be “normal”, trying to fit in and be the person others expected me to be. I was going to social gatherings when in fact I just wanted to stay at home and read, surrounded by my four-legged friends. I was making small talks with my neighbours when I just wanted to run the other way. I even attended a business school, and worked four years in the private sector. I woke up each morning wondering how I could get through another day. I was exhausted, and literally dying inside. Until one day, my body shut down. I collapsed on the floor of my bathroom. I was shaking and I couldn’t breathe. Everything in my body was hurting, even my eyes. The feeling was so intense, I had to keep them closed.
It seems I experienced a serious burnout. It took me several months to recover. It didn’t make any sense : I was young, I had it all (a job, a boyfriend, money). I had seen many doctors and psychologists since I was 18, and all of them failed to see the bigger picture. They saw me as ‘anxious’ and ‘depressed’, when in fact those diagnoses were the trees that were hiding the forest. Finally, I stumbled across the testimony of an aspergirl online and everything began to make sense. A few months later I received a formal diagnosis and it felt amazing! I was so relieved…
Everything I had experienced now seemed completely “normal”. Knowing that I was autistic paradoxically made me feel normal for the first time in my life. I decided that from now on I would live the life I wanted to live and respect my boundaries. So I left my boyfriend, quit my job, and began a PhD in Social Psychology. I also started a blog and a YouTube channel. I became more and more interested in neurodiversity and the pathologising of difference. And for the first time ever, I was feeling happy! This feeling has stayed with me all along. I am now at peace with myself.
In the discussion of my doctoral dissertation I tried to explain that we could consider that it is in fact the system in which we live in (neoliberalism) that is pathological and pathogenic, and that people with autism – because they are resistant to social norms – may very well be the sanest of all people. I wanted to nourish the debate about the pathologising of difference. Reversing the stigma was a bold move, and it caused quite a debate during my oral examination: two members of the jury (out of five) insisted I had to rewrite my discussion entirely. I had no other option than to accept if I wanted to graduate. Far from discouraging me, this experience has reinforced my view that you cannot individualise problems that are in fact systemic. Now that neoliberalism has reached its paroxysm, psychiatry/psychology is more than ever a political enterprise. That is why we should spend less time trying to ‘cure’ autism, and more trying to reform our society. Autistic people are not sick, they do not need to be cured. Researchers should encourage an interdisciplinary approach (conducting research in anthropology, sociology and social psychology for instance) instead of almost solely focusing on the symptoms, treatments and causes of autism.
Perhaps, I’ll just end here and leave you with one of my favourite quotes from Maya Angelou: ‘If you are always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.’
Julie Dachez has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at the age of 27 and has been an activist ever since.