I love clothes. I invest a lot of time into my “look.” I am, by no means, any kind of comparison to a supermodel, but I care about what I look like. I find clothes I feel represent my quirky, flamboyant self, and I present as a confident, put-together person. I like to dress up; it gets me ready to conquer the day ahead. But somehow, this confuses the general public when I suddenly reveal I’m Autistic and have several mental health conditions.
When I was a child, my parents felt a lot of pressure to present me in a way that didn’t make me stand out more than I already did. Trust me, I get it. If I were a parent, and my kid was going to run away, cause problems in classes, and be seen as overall disruptive and misunderstood, then at least I could dress them up nicely. No one can fully hate your kid if they are dressed in adorable clothes, right? Clothes were something that could be controlled when my behavior and sensory difficulties could not be. Physically being able to blend in was the constant desire for both my parents and I.
No one believes me when I tell them I am Autistic. For some reason, it always comes off as a shock. Originally taken as a compliment, I thrived being told no one would ever be able to tell… until an incident happened, and that same person is then thrown off and doesn’t understand why I’d act a certain way… an “autistic” way. My outer-appearance is then no longer my safety net when trying to “pass” as neurotypical. My autistic, anxious, and ADD tendencies tend to make people very upset at me, because they don’t see it coming. Someone seemingly “normal” has just had some kind of episode and all credibility has gone to hell in their eyes. Story of my life.
This is not to say I do not discuss my autism, anxiety, or ADD. I have learned to be pretty open about it, hoping it will help people be more understanding of a trigger going off, or if I experience sensory overload. But I try not to broadcast it to the world the second I meet someone. I shouldn’t have to in order to convenience others. It really is, at the end of the day, no one’s business… that is, until, it is someone’s business (such as in a work environment, or school, or dating, etc.). Then, if I didn’t explain beforehand, I will get very rash, judgmental reactions because there wasn’t a prior knowledge of my disability. Oh, the struggle is so, so real.
There is a unique psychology behind how people with disabilities are perceived. There is often a stigma that disabilities are supposed to be visually identifiable. Society makes judgments about people’s economic, social, and mental health status based on how they dress and present themselves. So when someone sees me having a hard time, there is often a mental disconnect. “Someone like her couldn’t possibly be acting like that right now… what is wrong with her?” Caring about my appearance has caused a loophole in my believability. I spend more time proving I am disabled than I do proving my capabilities (which is its own kind of battle).
When I tell you I have these conditions and you say you don’t believe me, that isn’t a compliment. I don’t need to hear your surprise. I don’t need to be told that “no one would ever guess.” Because yes, they wouldn’t, and it sucks when they don’t at the same time. Being misunderstood is shaming. I am shamed when I have a panic attack. I am shamed when I don’t pay enough attention when expected to retain information by ear. I am shamed when I need repeated instructions, or need an extension on an assignment, or when the lights or sounds in the room are too bright and I need to leave. I cause deeper frustration for people because I don’t “appear” to need help.
As much as I hate admitting it and asking for it, I sometimes need help. I need to be listened to when trying to explain the different ways I function. I need to be heard. I don’t need you to necessarily “get it.” I don’t fully understand the way you work because I am not you. I can still acknowledge and accommodate your needs, but that doesn’t mean I know what it is like all the time. The way I dress should not be a substitute for knowledge of my conditions. I should be able to present however I want without being looked at weirdly because I am different mentally.
People with disabilities are not ugly. There isn’t a “look” to my mental health. I can not wear make-up and still be respected just the same as if I wear make-up. Society needs to stop judging with their eyes and love and understand from having an open mind — and ear.
About the Author
Rese Dugan was born and raised in the greater Seattle area. She describes herself as a neurodivergent artist seeking to enlighten the rest of the neurotypical world about mental diversity. She can be found on her Facebook page.