My Autism Acceptance Month Speech
The transcript for the speech I gave at my alma mater, "Autism and the Power of Music"!
Hello all, and thank you for coming.
Before I share my stories through parts of the soundtrack of my life, I want to clarify my preferred framing. I do not have autism. I do not live with autism. I simply am autistic. I used to not care about this distinction, and some autistic people do not, but I have found empowerment in treating “autistic” as just another adjective. Autism is not a disease that I live with, a crippling condition from which I need to be cured. The autism cannot be taken out of my life story without editing it to the point where it reads like one long redaction. Trying to take the autistic traits out of me is both pointless and harmful, so instead of treating me as a puzzle piece in need of being “fixed” to match with society’s puzzle, why not let me be a full puzzle on my own?! Why not make room for multiple puzzles?!
Because I am autistic, I am easily overwhelmed by the five senses. Smells are extra strong, lights are extra bright, etcetera. I cannot stand to be touched and get claustrophobic easily. I feel alarmed whenever an abrupt change in plans occurs, and routine is what grounds me. I have a busy inner world, so I sometimes struggle to process what is happening in my external world, making me come across as shy at best and snobby or mean at worst. With all this in mind, it makes sense to see autism as an eternal source of struggle. However, I still dislike framing autism as a disease, because once it is discussed that way, it flattens my experiences. Autism is an intrinsic aspect of my worldview, but it is not a dark cloud that has to hang over every story I tell. All too often, headlines about someone who “overcame” autism or achieved something “despite it” characterize being autistic as superseding or replacing all of someone’s other traits. Replace “autistic” with any other adjective, and a clear problem emerges. Viewing someone as athletic, intelligent, social, or having any other descriptor does not cancel out viewing them as something else too! People can be multiple things at once, and since being autistic becomes the sole topic of conversations about autistic people all too often, I detest the impact of the “has” and “with” wording.
If a student is bullied for acting “uncool,” should the parents and teachers blame the student, saying the student had it coming? Of course not! Scorn should go to the bully for not treating a fellow human being with respect. When autistic people like me display our “weirdness” in public and are told to knock it off, that hurts as much as a bully’s taunting, regardless of intent. Our hurt feelings shouldn’t be seen as coming with the territory; mistreatment is not something we bring upon ourselves with our very nature.
Do I struggle in life in ways I would not if it were not for being autistic? Yes, but the root cause of the struggle is in having to inhabit a world that was not designed for the neurodivergent. I have not learned to excel despite autism itself; I have learned to excel despite the roadblocks society puts in front of people like me.
I also take issue with headlines about “autism rates on the rise.” First of all, so what?! Should people be afraid of there being more of us? I hope not!
Second of all, an increase in officially reported diagnoses does not necessarily mean there is an increase in the actual rate of autism. An increase in reported “cases” of autism just means that more people are getting diagnosed, hopefully because the stigma of raising autistic children has lessened and the criteria for autism diagnoses have become more refined. Perhaps we have always been here in larger numbers than people assumed; more of us are just getting that official characterization. Neurotypical people have always coexisted with autistic people, and to suddenly put the distinction in writing ought to change nothing about how human each of us is considered to be.
I am delighted that Autism Awareness Month is now called Autism Acceptance Month. I frankly do not care if people understand me as long as they accept me! Awareness is fine, but acceptance is essential. Awareness is about the world we live in, whereas acceptance goes further and looks at what possible future we want to create. I will always be autistic, so rather than shameful and ultimately fruitless attempts to “cure” me, why not try to understand my unique outlook and how it can complement your own? Why not see the joy and value in diversity of thought?
The way I have been able to feel connected with the world around me is through music. I am in awe of musicians, who find ways to articulate complex feelings in short but powerful, multidimensional ways that resonate even with people like me, who agonize over how to communicate. Tonight’s stories, corresponding to the song titles I associate with them, show how music lifts the burden of trying to explain my place in the world. My stories shine a light both on what it’s like to be autistic and what it’s like to be just another human being.
“Fishing In The Dark” by Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
This was the song that was, for reasons unknown, chosen for my very first dance recital. I was four years old in a class with a bunch of other preschool-aged kids. We ended up just standing there on stage, some playing with their fake fishing poles, others trying to find and wave to their parents in the crowd. Remembering the dance itself seemed to not be top of mind for anyone but me, so I just stood there too, not dancing for fear of the attention that would come from being the only one. While others were thinking, “Oooh, pretty toy!” or “OMG, hi mom!,” I was busy wondering, “What is the point of all this fuss?! I just wanna dance!” I wasn’t forced into classes; I had a genuine passion for dance. The extra details made to excite little kids - the corny props, the sparkly outfits, the chance to face the bright lights on a big stage - were weird and unnecessary to me. I was so analytical as a kid and kept thinking about, ironically, how much I didn’t like the performative aspects of a dance performance! I wanted to cut to the chase and focus on how I felt while in movement. Arbitrary finishing touches felt like just a stressful distraction, especially because I danced to tune out my surroundings and focus on a singular task. This is hard for autistic minds like my own to do, and the outside stimulation while trying to just let the music course through me was a nuisance.
This is one of my earliest memories of externally experiencing a situation in a way that resembled everyone else’s, while that could not be further from the truth internally. I too was not following the dance teacher’s instructions, but for a very different reason. The other dancers were having too much fun, while I was contemplating what constitutes “fun” in the first place! I came to realize later in life that not everyone has a mind that works like this, with multiple trains of thought barrelling ahead at the same time in a way that cannot be regulated.
“7 Things” by Miley Cyrus
This was a staple in elementary school at sleepovers, which I kept going to even though I hated them. My sense of obligation to say “yes” to the rare invite that I got seems odd in hindsight, but when you're a little kid trying to fit in, if the cool kids invite you over, you go, even if you personally find their forms of entertainment silly, uninteresting, and/or overwhelming on a sensory level. I did not know how else to satisfy the innate human need for connection. If I didn’t go to those parties and pretend to have a good time, how else could I bond with peers? If everyone seemed to enjoy frenetic energy, I should and could learn to love it too, right? The answer was “no,” and I learned many years later that my behavior at the sleepovers had been attempts at “masking.” “Masking” is when autistic people hide their autistic traits in public. It is a way to avoid scrutiny but comes at the expense of mental well-being. For example, I tried making eye contact at sleepovers with other guests, but doing so never got easier. There was never a moment when their eyes staring back at me suddenly did NOT feel like they were burning right through my skull. Similarly, consciously not rocking back and forth or flapping my arms around was something I was able to do for hours at a time, but that compounded my severe anxiety and discomfort. In a world that makes autistic kids like myself fear mockery to the point of hiding who we are, it’s no wonder a significant number of us have anxiety disorders.
“Black or White” by Michael Jackson
This was the song I performed to at a dance recital, once I was finally with a group of other dancers who shared my serious and passionate approach to dance. I was in the company of a lot of people who grew up dancing just for fun, so it was refreshing to finally be with a group of mature girls who were on my same wavelength. We had great synergy and pulled off a polished routine amid countless halfhearted ones. We moved as a unit, which gave me the satisfied feeling from dancing that I craved. It even gave me the energy boost to spend more time under the bright lights than necessary; I took an offer to perform a solo transition into the next act!
After the show, as parents picked up their kids backstage, I overheard several comments praising the “Black or White” performance and even my solo moment! Overhearing people talking about me was both validating and terrifying, for reasons I will explain after the next story.
“Over The Rainbow” by Judy Garland
By eighth grade, I had been bullied and felt very lonely, excluded, and uncool. I was still into “little kid” interests, which is not uncommon for autistic people to never grow out of or grow out of later than most. I also continued to struggle in social environments in ways that “masking” only exacerbated. What other middle schoolers looked forward to were the things I dreaded.
I attended a profoundly life-changing assembly in middle school. The speaker ended his talk by saying something to the effect of, “Statistically, someone here has been bullied. We're not leaving this room until someone comes forward to make things right. We’ll sit here all day if we have to.” There were a few very, very, very long and awkward minutes of silence, as everyone fidgeted in their seats. Eventually, someone did approach the microphone and mumbled a few words of regret. The speaker coaxed the volunteer to be more specific, and a lengthy confession and apology eventually came out of him. Suddenly, like a faucet that could not be turned back off, a steady stream of students volunteered to go to the floor and apologize. Some gave just vague statements about their desire to be more considerate and friendly going forward, while others shared moving and personal anecdotes about times they wished a fellow student had been treated better. There was a mix of confessionals and reprimands, and the emotional openness to taking it all in was astonishing.
“Over the Rainbow” played as we filtered out of the gymnasium, while all sorts of people talked to and even hugged each other. Labels and cliques dissolved that day.
One peer, who I only knew in passing, said my name while at the microphone. Long story short, she eloquently expressed her wish for more people to treat me as an equal. I was both touched and scared at seeing concern directed towards me and shocked at someone's genuine desire to look out for me.
It is a funny twist of fate that stories about color-themed songs would share space in my memory! But besides the accidental surface-level compatibility, these stories share deeper themes. Both instances provoked in me simultaneous desires: the yearning to be seen, heard, and appreciated, and the urge to fly under the radar, living life unseen. Being noticed in both instances was as rewarding as it was nerve-wracking.
I loved dance but despised the environment in which I had to do it. I loved school but despised that environment too, at least before the culture-shifting assembly. Seeds were planted in my mind after the recital and assembly: Maybe the environments were what needed changing, not my preferences. Maybe there was hope for me yet to find a way to both feel connected to others and not live with such discomfort; maybe I could form connections without sacrificing my personal needs or pretending not to have them.
“Cheerleader” by OMI
For the sake of privacy, I changed the name of this story’s main character to a pseudonym, Aidan.
This was a favorite song of Aidan’s; it brought him joy and strength during his cancer treatments. It even became a topic in speeches at his funeral.
I connected with Aidan in high school in ways that were new for me, and although I actually never learned if he was autistic, my radar went off around him! I would be shocked if I learned he was NOT autistic! So much could stay unexplained; we understood each other without needing to pry. We never talked about being autistic; we spoke the same metaphorical language and therefore never had a reason to bring it up in conversation.
How we hung out was new to me too. I realized other people out there like to just… chill! To just be together in peaceful silence, doing homework or reading during study halls. I didn’t have to be a “normal kid” who enjoyed going to parties; other people also preferred introvert-favoring situations!
My relationship with Aidan planted more seeds in my mind about the problem not being my unique needs, but being treated like an outcast while navigating a world that does not appreciate those needs.
Aidan also taught me not to underestimate the power of a song to bring joy even in a cruel world.
My Introduction to Rap
Songs continued to define my memories throughout college, when I turned to certain artists’ work more than ever for a mental reprieve. College was very, very rough. I spent every day surrounded by people, sensory overload triggers, anxiety boosters, and emotionally taxing social routines.
I am NOT speaking in technical terms, but I view my neurons as having a harder time getting into an orderly formation than neurotypical people’s! My typical mental state is like a bunch of scrambled neurons! I view my senses as an iPhone with the volume and brightness up, with no ability to lower them.
Processing my surroundings is a draining and tedious ordeal, which is why I burn out and need alone time to recharge quicker than neurotypical people. In college, that recharge time (plus walks between nerve-wracking scheduled events) was spent listening to and memorizing raps. College was much more bearable when I could literally tune out some of the activity around me. It took the power of music to get my neurons to focus and cooperate! My brain cells finally took on some semblance of order after being instructed to memorize and recite raps.
I was particularly hooked on Big Sean’s post-2013 albums and Kendrick Lamar’s whole discography. J. Cole and Chance the Rapper were also in my rotation. They introduced me to a new side of rap, one that was not about the stereotypical parties and instead contained substantive, thoughtful reflections. I saw rap as essentially poetry set to music. I was fascinated by the ways rappers found sounds and cadences to fit and send the messages that got through to me, as if the external distractions that often block messages from fully getting through to me finally let something pass through a sieve. Kendrick Lamar’s work most affected me and became the soundtrack of the days with my biggest “collision courses” between the noisy external and internal worlds in which I co-occupy. Going from discombobulated to singularly focused left me in an unfamiliar state of peace.
My Introduction to K-Pop
Every time I have been exposed to a new piece of pop culture, I am reminded of the power it has to make people feel like they are a part of something, or to even embolden them to mimic what inspired them. I certainly did that, escaping into SEVENTEEN’s discography and starting a podcast and Substack where I interpreted their work! Their ability to convey meaning through everything from their music videos’ color schemes to choreography gave me an “A-ha!” moment: so this is how other people see the world! SEVENTEEN, as well as the work of other K-pop artists, became my ultimate source of escapism. I am usually overwhelmed when multiple senses need to be used at once, but adding music changes the equation. K-pop songs contain more melodic layering and fun genre-blending qualities than western pop songs; they were engaging to listen to in a way that felt new to me. K-pop further engrossed me with its mesmerizing dance routines and eye-popping music videos. K-pop showed me new levels of cinematic and aesthetic heights, compelling me to sink into the storylines. The external world that is usually relentlessly coming for my attention span suddenly stopped existing when I watched a K-pop video. It was a relief and a gift to discover artists like SEVENTEEN, with work so engrossing that my mind had no space left for processing unrelated stressors for the time being.
Other K-pop artists whose music was my therapy in college included BTS, who helped me break out of my shell. I surprised myself by voluntarily talking with other students about our mutual love of the group! They also provided me with a therapeutic, multi-sensory, multimedia experience through book recommendations. They frequently suggested to fans what to read that corresponded to the philosophical and/or cultural themes in their latest musical era. I fell in love with many books that I never would have picked up were it not for their endorsements, and I firmly believe in the power of books to educate and inspire. Through literature and music alike, BTS opened up doors for me to new worlds of expression, solace, and community.
Other K-pop artists for which I am so grateful include Stray Kids and NCT. Their catalogs became shining examples of the upsides to experiencing sights and sounds so intensely. I internalize painful media at a deeper level than most, but I also get an abnormal high from soaking in the media that hits all the right buttons in my brain! These artists’ immersive soundscapes and eye-popping, eventful music videos left me euphoric enough to stop “masking” in some situations. It was huge when I started to crave the natural high of their discographies enough to surpass my concern with being judged. For example, I could no longer stop myself from rocking back and forth with headphones on in the library, or from humming or nodding along while walking through the dorm halls.
While BTS helped me break out of my shell around people, NCT and Stray Kids helped me break out of my shell around hypothetical people! The fear of judgment paled in comparison to relishing a new source of internal peace their music provoked.
Lately, the K-pop act I have been the most profoundly impacted by is TXT. TXT’s music has always touched me, but The Name Chapter: TEMPTATION has been a remarkable moment of personal clarity. There is so much more to this phenomenal album than what meets the eye. On its surface, it appears to tell the story of Peter Pan and Neverland, but it is really about the joys and pitfalls of eternal youth and the hidden dangers in falling for Peter Pan’s offer of living in a frozen-in-time paradise. It is thematically rich and lyrically relatable, and it has resonated so much with me that I wrote a full Substack essay and made several podcast episodes dissecting it!
While unintentional, their commentary on childhood parallels how I characterize my life as an autistic person. Autistic people like myself have a lot of childish traits: we can come across as self-centered, not responsive in socially acceptable ways. We struggle to read people and understand certain mannerisms. We fear changes to our daily schedules and fear the future because of the unknowns. But we also hold onto the best qualities of children: we are not jaded. We have boundless energy and joy for certain topics that we can’t wait to gush about to anyone who will listen! We react in an outsized way to the littlest joys and do not take any moment of peace for granted. We prioritize our needs in the present moment. We can get so giddy that we rock back and forth or show other external indicators of uncontained delight! Our daydreams, our inner worlds, are so vivid and real to us. We still have a spark in us, a pure vision that leaves us overflowing in untapped potential and unique ways to reinterpret this world, should neurotypical people give us that chance.
I have also learned so much about myself through TXT’s album through its message of leaving Neverland and not falling for its false promises. The final song on the album is called “Farewell, Neverland,” and it is about choosing to step into the scary, unpredictable, overwhelming world of adulthood with the faith that it will be worth the challenges. There is no strength without struggle, and autistic people can forget that while being preoccupied with just getting through the present moment. As someone who fears change and sometimes wants to stay the same age forever, being reminded of what could go right if I enter a bigger and scarier world strikes a chord.
“House Party” by Sam Hunt
I will back up in the timeline for this next story, which is a tough one to relive but has a happy ending that will make retelling it worthwhile!
My college orientation weekend was designed for the most extroverted of extroverts, making it an autistic person’s nightmare. It was a nonstop social gathering, a bad flashback to previous “masking” occasions. I had to deal with even more nerves than I had anticipated, because I had hundreds of eyes on me. For an unknown reason, the first night of events involved a quasi-graduation ceremony of sorts, where the incoming freshmen sat on folding chairs in the gym while our parents sat on the bleachers to watch this rite of passage. We spent a long time being put into single-file lines in cramped and noisy hallways. We were then led into the blindingly bright and piercingly loud (at least the way I experienced it) gym. I was assigned a seat right next to the drums! I was overwhelmed to the point of tears but held them back; I feared making a scene. One of the band members kept staring at me, probably wondering why I was practically crying, and the staring just made me want to cry harder!
Day two included ropes courses, trust falls, and other “team-building exercises” in nature. Nearly every activity required being touched and/or being in the middle of the kind of stimuli that overwhelm my senses easily. The instructor was completely ignorant and dismissive of my needs, questioning me, criticizing me for flat-out leaving the area at one point because it was all too much to handle, and getting into a heated discussion with my aid about how much I was presumably flaking out and not being a team player.
The more caring tone he took after talking with my aid was almost worse! He gathered everyone around us to give a patronizing PSA, explaining why I would be staying on the sidelines due to my “issues.” He said something to the effect of, “This is Hope, and she’ll be skipping some of today’s events due to her special needs, so no need to try to get her to participate.” Instead of just letting my non-participation stay unnoticed, he made me the center of attention and took away my opportunity to disclose my differences on my own terms. I was not angry that he implied I am autistic; I was angry that my peers’ first impression of me was not up to me to decide. “Autistic” became my defining trait, and the school year hadn’t even officially started yet.
Later, as if being alarmed at being touched was something I had recovered from after a short break, the instructor went back to urging me to participate. He practically started chanting “Do it! Do it!” when it was time for group-wide trust falls! I did not participate, but I seriously considered doing so just to get the spotlight off of me that he seemed intent on keeping there.
The weekend ended with a banquet-style dinner and slideshow presentation, featuring the song “House Party.” Interestingly, I had never wanted to go home more!
Here comes the good part of the story that I promised! After that weekend, us freshmen had to write an essay about our experiences. I knew the gist of what the essay was supposed to be: a corny assessment of the ways “team-building activities” helped me develop close bonds with my peers and learn values like leadership and trust. I almost wrote an essay like that, just saying what I knew the teachers wanted to hear. But instead, I decided to mentally retrace my steps and relive that terrible weekend while writing about it candidly. I laid out all the ways orientation weekend was clearly not made with neurodiverse needs in mind, and I admitted my treatment had been othering and hostile.
With my permission, the paper was passed around and got in the hands of the planning committee. The next year, the orientation weekend had a makeover. The activities I had raised concerns about were made optional, and I was surprised by the feedback teachers relayed to me. A diverse range of students had expressed gratitude at the ability to opt out, for a far wider variety of reasons than anticipated. For example, not having to be touched was appreciated by people suffering from PTSD.
In sharing my story, I had hoped to make life easier for future autistic freshmen, but I ended up making the welcome ceremony feel truly welcome for all kinds of people. This experience encouraged me to keep advocating for myself, because that in turn advocated for others. I learned that my issues are intrinsically linked to the fight for a more equal world for a lot of other people, and that helping de-stigmatize autism also helps de-stigmatize other conditions that can make students feel like the squeaky wheels in group activities. I became determined to use my voice to make sure people who share my apprehensions do not feel like they are the problem.
The stories I shared today are all just human stories about someone who happens to be autistic. At the same time, these stories would not be stories at all if the autistic aspects of them were omitted. Being autistic is an inherent part of my worldview that colors everything I see, feel, and remember.
I've been bullied, I've dealt with a lot of mental health challenges (some I did not even have time to get into today), and I’ve dealt with the deaths of people close to me. Despite all of that, I graduated college. I published original research and writing. I started and grew a Substack newsletter, created my own website, and started two podcasts that share an audience spanning fifty countries and counting. I have turned my encyclopedic knowledge of the K-pop world and my insatiable curiosity into what I hope is a thought-provoking, refreshing interview style. Who would have thought I would start routinely interviewing people?! It frightens me every time, but I still do it and feel a rush of satisfaction every time I do. I do not let fear take precedence over my enthusiasm towards having music-themed conversations.
I have interviewed big names in K-pop, plus well-known songwriters, producers, authors, and influencers. I have even started attending South Korean press conferences virtually, have been invited to USA K-pop tours as in-person press, and checked off a big bucket list item: covering KCON! Attending that K-pop convention required navigating the airport, crowds, and many other stressors, but I plowed through all of them by focusing on the euphoria K-pop brings me.
Notice that I have done all this and am still autistic! I did not “overcome” autism to achieve these life goals. I overcame the obstacles put in autistic people’s paths. If autism was the root of the problem, no autistic person would still be autistic after finding success! Successful autistic people did not rid themselves of autism; they just found the right support and environments for them.
I started thriving personally and professionally when I stopped toning down who I am and started treating my “quirks” as my strengths. It is actually an asset to be able to stay laser-focused on one topic and/or assignment for a long period of time! It can be great to be obsessive about a particular area of interest! It is beneficial to feel music so deeply; it adds a unique twist to my reviews. Lastly, it is valuable to not like smalltalk! I ignore idle chit-chat and give all my energy to engaging in in-depth conversations, pleasing both my podcast listeners and the artists who are tired of the same generic questions.
This is my message for autistic kids: Do not grow up thinking you need to conceal parts of yourself to feel whole. Don’t spend your days trying to figure out why you have no spark in you. You do! It just takes time to find the place, time, people, and interests who will help you find that spark and light it. People will frame autism as a reason to feel bad for you or treat you like damaged goods, but you can and should prove them wrong. In many ways, being autistic is amazing! The struggles that come with being autistic are not from an inherent flaw in your genes, but from being unfairly expected to navigate a world that was not designed for us. If you aspire to go to college but worry you won’t be able to handle it, please think of me and know that you can, with the right support system and environment. If people act like your accommodations are expecting the world from them, don't internalize that judgment. Do not be ashamed to ask for what you need. You will find your passions not by “masking,” but by making the world accept you without a mask.
This is my message for anyone who wants to be a better ally to autistic people: All you need is an open mind and the willingness to lend an ear. There are two “L”s to remember: “Listen to us” and “Let us be who we are.”
As an autistic person, I go through life feeling like a passive observer, a curious onlooker who is invited to observe the spectacle that is human behavior but not given an unconditional pass to participate. However, every autistic person has a source of joy and passion that pulls them in, taking us from feeling out of place to feeling like we are right where we belong. For me, that source was and is music. It has given me my “Aha!” moments, my bursts of excitement at seeing my jumbled thoughts and feelings come into clear view. Music is the happy place that leaves me feeling understood and embraced. I struggle to read people, but the human condition suddenly makes sense to me when I listen to music. Every autistic person has something like that, a tool that helps them become full participants in society. Unlocking that potential just requires listening and letting us be ourselves.
Our only agenda is to show the world who we are without feeling like we are expected to conform in order to belong in it. Please do not make us dim our lights when there’s plenty of space for all kinds of minds to shine. Please do not crush our spirits when we have so much to offer. Any changes that you fear would come from creating a more autism-friendly world will actually create a more vibrant, welcoming world for us all. After all, when we talk about ways we can flourish, we are talking about expanding what is seen as possible in the same world that you live in too!
Please listen, please let us be who we are, and please get to know us both as autistic people and outside of that trait. We have unique, complex stories and perspectives, and all of you are invited to be part of our audience.
Thank you very much for your time and attention.
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