Growing up, there were two great influences that shaped my life. The first was that my father was in the army, which meant we moved around quite a bit. Anyone who was raised in a military family knows about this experience. The second is that my father was also a pastor. Both of these things shaped my life in profound ways, because at a very early age I was subconsciously taught to allow my life to be completely absorbed by something far greater than me. My only source of identity came from either the military or the ministry. As a child, I was unable to identify the boundary between those influences and the real me.
For years, I lived an unrealistic life ― a life that pushed me well beyond my human limitations. Every struggle that I had socially or educationally was the result of my lack of strength ― at least that’s what I believed. The life I learned to live was one that had no limitations, no boundaries, and even in the midst of obvious struggles, I was characterized as weak, weird, or just plain wrong.
The most troubling part of living this way is that it eventually eats away at your humanity. When we teach our children not to notice their weaknesses, we teach them not to be human. When we forget that we are human, we forget that we are human. When we dismiss our own humanity we create a breeding ground for all sorts of heinous acts against humanity. We teach ourselves and our children not to feel. We teach ourselves and our children to do away with our basic human instinct to have compassion and empathy for the weak and oppressed. We teach ourselves and our children to ignore our duty to the world around us. The absence of boundaries breeds a culture that lacks humility, and a lack of humility always results in a lack of humanity.
When I was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at age 36, I understood perhaps for the first time that I was human. I understood that my years of struggling with certain issues weren’t due to a lack of perfection but an abundance of humanity. I learned that I did have some boundaries and some limitations and that I was indeed human.
Since my diagnosis two years ago, I have slowly learned to embrace my humanity. When I need to spend some time alone away from the sensory overloaded world that I encounter every day, I remind myself that I am not weak ― I am human. When I misunderstand someone or have difficulty understanding what they are trying to communicate to me, I remind myself that I am not weird ― I am human. When I get nervous and anxious about meeting new people or interacting and conversing with someone I don’t know, I remind myself that I am not broken ― I am human.
Embracing my own humanity has given me the insight and intent to learn to more consistently embrace the humanity of others. Learning that I am autistic has liberated me from the prison of conformity and persuaded me to extend the same grace and love to others who are also human, who make mistakes, and who live with their own limits, and yet are no weaker than I, they too are human.
The autism community is as vast as the spectrum itself. On any given day you will meet an advocate who has a distinct and passionate perspective about how to engage autism. There are all types of debates found in this spectrum, ranging from the use of terms and labels to the causes and cures for autism. What I’ve found since entering into the autism community is that there is a beautiful mess that takes place inside the boundaries of autism, and the fact that there are so many differences is what brings hope to humanity. I have discovered that different does not equal deficient, limitations don’t equal liability, and boundaries don’t always have to translate to burdens.
We are different, but we are human, and the more the autism community injects this message into mainstream culture, the greater our chances are of restoring our sense of humanity into our lives so that we can learn to co-exist with those who live on the other end of our racial, gender, political, economic and ethnic spectrum and see them as human and learn to live in the grace that is needed to treat them as such.
My autism is restoring my faith in humanity because I’m learning how to be human, how to hurt, how to seek help, how to heal, how to hope, and more importantly how to hunt for the best in others who are also in desperate need of having their humanity recognized, respected, and celebrated with grace, love, and acceptance.
A version of this post also appears on autismpastor.com.