Cadence Chung on being autistic, and the problems with clinicalising human experiences.
I have been in so many waiting rooms in my life that existence sometimes feels like a lobby. You sit on the cheap chairs and observe the hand sanitiser slowly dripping gel from its plastic mouth, the debatably fake plants with their verdant green shine. The receptionist’s keyboard clicking and clattering through endless people all asking the same question ‒ what is wrong with me? Perhaps it is wrong in a small way ‒ which extra bacteria in their throat makes it ache, and what fungus has blistered their skin. Maybe wrong in a bigger sense ‒ wrong in the way that I was always asking. What is wrong with me,the concept of me, this mess of nerve endings and synapses that calls itself a human?
This is your life, and it’s ending one name-call at a time, or something like that.
I was 13 when I first suspected I was autistic, though when I look back, I think I always knew that I was strange in some way
I was 13 when I first suspected I was autistic, though when I look back, I think I always knew that I was strange in some way. The thing was, it was something to praise for a long time. One of my earliest memories is writing a short story through a nosebleed, not realising that I was bleeding until the droplets started falling onto the page. Even then, I don’t think I stopped until the teacher had to wrench the paper away from me and hand me a tissue. She turned to the boy next to me and said, “Cadence has written three pages even with a nosebleed. What’s your excuse?” I felt so special. It was a source of great pride to me, my ability to create so readily, to concentrate so absolutely. It was this pride that, unfortunately, sometimes led me to be a snobbish child. I never told him, but I used to silently judge the boy who sat next to me for his crude, wonky letters that he spent the whole lesson trying to form while I was asking for extra paper. When I look back, he may have had dyslexia, and could have been autistic too. But I learnt from that early validation that my scholarliness was my redeeming quality. I used it to pull myself away from any question of otherness, which included separating myself from those deemed ‘inferior’.
I learnt the parts of myself to keep, which also meant knowing which parts to discard. My eagerness to learn, my excited listening in class, my insatiable urge to write and my unwavering focus ‒ those were all things to keep. My lack of eye contact, my shyness, my confusion at others’ jokes, my panicked hiding at loud interactive museums ‒ those were things to crush deep down into my sinew until they didn’t seem like a part of me. When I was around eight, I learnt that flapping your hands when you’re happy is only cute until you reach a certain age, so I stopped. I taught myself to try and stare into people’s eyes, although it’s almost painful to even now.
The terminology that autistic people often use to describe the struggle of pretending to be ‘normal’ is masking
Even with all of this, when I think back to those primary-school days, I see myself uninhibited by the constant questioning that comes with my present social interactions. In many ways, I wish I could go back to the child I was. People now call me an introvert, and I agree with that ‒ but I wasn’t then. Children aren’t expected to fit their thoughts around the rigid form of small talk like adults are. I would memorise bits from my favourite novels and recite them, or make up these elaborate stories that had all of my friends laughing. It seems strange to me now that I could talk that much. That I hadn’t learned to be embarrassed yet.
The terminology that autistic people often use to describe the struggle of pretending to be ‘normal’ is masking ‒ that the mirroring of neurotypical traits is much akin to wearing a mask. But I think it’s almost more than that. It’s like wearing a mask and, at the same time, asking yourself if the paint is just right. If it’s sitting against your face at the right angle ‒ if the porcelain lips are placed in a perfect semi-circle smile. Being autistic makes you hyper-analyse every aspect of interaction.
During my high-school years I went to about three parties, completely sober at all of them. I watched everyone around me get drunk, all knitted together so tightly in their little circles, dancing so effortlessly, their bodies moving exactly how they wanted them to. At one of the parties, there were strobe lights, and the music was loud enough to vibrate through the bottoms of my shoes. For 20 minutes, I had the time of my life – when we all sat outside in the cold and talked in the silent, starry night ‒ but inevitably, they all wanted to dance and went back inside.
Being different is okay as long as you don’t tell anyone. If you don’t let anyone catch on
I stood there in the glittery makeup I’d done, especially for the occasion, wearing a scratchy waistcoat and dangly earrings and lipstick and everything, looking and feeling like some alien creature under the lights, too visceral to ever be able to slip into these people’s lives. The birthday girl told one of the boys, “You’re annoyingly sober. Drink some more.” When he protested that I hadn’t drunk anything either, she said, “Yeah, but at least she’s quiet about it.” I thought that was a funny idea. That I was quiet about it. That being different is okay as long as you don’t tell anyone. If you don’t let anyone catch on.
I’ve never been drunk before, but I’m not really opposed to it. It sounds ridiculous, but the main reason I don’t drink is that I don’t really know how. What am I meant to drink? How am I meant to hold the cup? And how much do I fill it up? And if it’s disposable, what am I meant to do when I’m done with it? Everything is another way for me to show my incompetence, so I eliminate that by doing none of it at all. I told one of my older white cousins once that Asians don’t often drink, trying to claim the ‘Asian flush’ as the reason that I didn’t like to drink. He asked, “Then what’s their vice?” That question struck me instantly ‒ the word vice. It seemed that everyone had a vice, a sin, a transgression, except for me, because I didn’t do anything that had even a chance of embarrassing me.
It is impossible to know what autistic joy would truly look like, uninhibited by cultural norms
It’s no wonder that many of my poems focus on curios, natural-history museums, and specimens. I often feel like a specimen myself. Some curio, each quirk to be laughed at or pondered over. I once told some friends in my music class that I’d never been able to ride one of those electric scooters ‒ I always fell off. They all thought it was hilarious, and it became a little joke, something to light-heartedly make fun of me for. I was this strange exhibit of a prim, proper girl in their eyes, and when I complained about the speakers being too loud, it was all part of my properness, my Victorian good-girl aesthetic. An acquaintance of mine recently asked if I’m British ‒ apparently, I’m so polite and proper that I seemed like I was a ‘Londinian’. If you like, I could list these characteristics from the diagnostic criteria ‒ lack of co-ordination, sensitivity to sensory input, unusual speech patterns and behaviour. But, just as easily, they can be considered simply different traits ‒ as indeed they have been by people throughout my life.
I almost wonder if much of this perception has stemmed from the changes in media surrounding representation. I’ve never seen Rain Man, nor do I intend to, but it seems that there is now a character type emerging – the emotionless savant, the quirky, awkward dork. One character that comes to mind is ‒ and you’ll have to forgive me for mentioning the Harry Potter universe ‒ Newt Scamander from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. He’s clumsy, incredibly focused on his creatures, terrible at interacting with others, and walks around with his eyes down, fiddling with his hands. He represents a digestible form of nonconformity, a lovable weirdo who compares his crush’s eyes to CGI lizards. Yet I watched that movie and loved him, so much so that I went online and searched to see if other people thought he was autistic. I instantly found people disproving anyone who dared claim so.
It’s no wonder that many of my poems focus on curios, natural-history museums, and specimens. I often feel like a specimen myself
A popular Reddit post stated that he was simply adopting the non-threatening position to animals, hence the lack of eye contact and hunched posture. He was too talkative to be autistic, people said. He was too intelligent. He didn’t struggle. You can’t diagnose a fictional character with a mental disorder, especially by observing him in a film. But, undeniably, I and many other autistic people saw ourselves in him. Does being autistic, or disabled in general, always have to equate with struggle? Why must my way of existing be thought of in this way ‒ a thing to diagnose, a thing to slap a label on, a disorder? Why can I not recognise that this character acts like me and I connect with him because of it? It seems that people only want to listen if you talk about struggle. And especially in a society with such a lack of accommodation for differences, many of us end up only ever talking about the struggle, because it is impossible to know what autistic joy would truly look like, uninhibited by cultural norms.
Yet this very logic also prevented me from getting a diagnosis for so long. I was diagnosed at 18 ‒ I knew at 13. When I first asked my GP all those years ago, she supposed it was possible, in a tone that leaned heavily towards rejection. She told me that autistic people can live happy lives, aren’t bad or broken, get married, have jobs and do everything normal people do. You’re functioning fine, she seemed to be saying, and you’ll go on to live a normal life. I remember thinking how redundant this all was ‒ of course, I knew that I could fit into the standard mould of suburbia like everyone else. But that wouldn’t change the constant alienation I would feel doing it.
In cultures other than this one, or even times other than the modern era, I might have been considered a changeling child, a mad genius, a strange recluse
I was rejected from the public system after that ‒ they claimed that I probably just had anxiety. I didn’t try again until my last year of high school, when I paid a private psychologist who finally diagnosed me. At the end of the session, she asked what I even wanted a diagnosis for. “It’s a part of you,” she said. “It just makes you a different sort of person, but I think it makes you a very interesting person to get to know.” Again, that reassurance ‒ that I was ‘normal’ enough for my autism to be a non-issue. If I didn’t need help with it, why would I need to know about it? I couldn't explain it to her: that, yes, labels are ultimately futile explanations, but they are also the explanations we use in this society. To live without the correct one is to never have a name for what has always felt strange about you, especially in a world that so often shuns strangeness when it doesn't present in a certain way.
Many people claim that I am too high-functioning to know about autistic struggles. In fact, the diagnostic criteria themselves require the existence of these traits and that these traits impede normal functioning. But tell me this ‒ what is normal functioning? Disability exists in the context of its environment. In cultures other than this one, or even times other than the modern era, I might have been considered a changeling child, a mad genius, a strange recluse. Sure, you can say that these are merely explanations for the clinical phenomena we now understand on a psychiatric level. But I say that psychiatry is merely another means of explanation for something we will never fully understand.
What if I told you that piece of music my teacher praised meant that I sat at the computer for six hours, blind to everything, forgetting to eat or drink or do anything else but write
You may tell me that I function fine because I write poetry, write songs, put on shows and take care of myself independently. But what if I told you that the writing you consider proof of my functioning is also a detriment? If I told you that piece of music my teacher praised meant that I sat at the computer for six hours, blind to everything, forgetting to eat or drink or do anything else but write? What if I told you that I was meant to be practising the piano right now, but once this essay got in my head, I just had to write it down?
I would say I have a fairly unconventional approach to writing because I honestly don’t enjoy it any more than someone would enjoy something like sleeping or breathing. It’s sometimes annoying, trying to enjoy my day and, instead, having a poem come into my head, a complete poem in there clawing at me until I write it down. One of my most recent poems, which I would consider this essay’s poetic equivalent, was written on my computer’s notes app at a scenic lake on a road trip. I didn’t get to enjoy that beautiful view because the poem was there and screaming, and I had to just take it.
Taxonomise this. Translate these papers into every jargon you have in the hopes that even one word might make sense to somebody out there. The dog submerging its body in the lake does not know it is an animal. You know you're an animal, and you also know you're trying not to be one, which causes all the problems. The problems. You'd be unstoppable if not for the problems, you say, but the trouble is that there will always be problems, and none of them have easy fixes, easy diagnoses to tuck away into, which is to say, the animal thing to do would be to kill. The human thing to do would be to want to, but to nail-file away at your incisors until they only grind with molar dullness.
– Cadence Chung, ‘appointment transcript no. 55’
Even as I write this, I know that some may tell me how ‘brave’ it is that I am addressing ‘stigma’, like so many other people are told when they talk about any sort of mental nonconformity. But that way of thinking reveals how people feel about these topics. The idea that it is brave to talk about my existence shows that being who I am is considered some radical act. And yes, I won’t deny it ‒ often, I hate being like this. I am not without my struggles. But I cannot hate the ‘autism’, because there is no part of myself that I can separate from my psyche. People are controlled by their brains, and if the difference is within my brain, does that not make the difference something inseparable from what I consider myself? My feelings are symptoms of my disorder in the same way that you might consider sadness a symptom of the human condition. It can be disabling. Sometimes it becomes too much and does need clinical help. But to remove it would be to remove a core part of the human experience, and to pathologise it is as futile as it is painful. If my life is a series of symptoms, I suggest that you look back into the mirror that you hold to yourself and examine the normality that you contrast with my abnormality. Do I make you sane, or do you make me special? I could diagnose you just as easily as you diagnose me.
Feature image: Victoria Te Aho-White
The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.
The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.