Intersectionality is an interesting concept. When you think about it, you think of two, unrelated things intersecting in unexpected ways. When people think of intersectionality, you think of the black male saying he knows everything about racism and the white female saying she knows everything about sexism, while the African American woman is standing there going “Yes, but….” But the interesting thing when you’re talking about intersectionality of Autism and stuttering is that they both effect communication. They don’t so much intersect, as directly stack on top of each other.
Notice I don’t use the term disorder or disability. My brain is not objectively worse than a “normal” brain. It’s a difference, not a problem. I can list of about eight advantages my autism gives me, and probably one or two from stuttering as well. But society as a whole isn’t set up to be flexible and understand and accommodate these issues, and you get problems when trying to force a square peg into a round hole.
Because of our differences in social skills and communication styles, autistic individuals tend to make a poor first impression, and tend to find themselves unwelcome in places that neurotypicals find very welcoming. Add stuttering on top of that, and you can see how meeting new people is the most difficult thing I do. But the ability to meet new people is essential in so much of our lives. After I finished my master’s degree, I was getting regular interviews for a few months before I got hired on as a temp in a technical role somewhat related to my degree. During that time, I had a boss compare me to an immigrant with an accent that was almost incomprehensible. I was told that we were both great engineers but would never be allowed to speak to the public on behalf of the company. I continued interviewing during my temp job, and for several months after, till I had given up and had applied to go get another degree, when I finally got a job offer. At a government agency that doesn’t pay as well as industry, so there were literally no qualified candidates interested in the position. Going back to the topic at hand, that of intersectionality, I would have had issues with either Autism or stuttering, but the combination made things even more difficult. But I honestly can’t say how much either of them contributed and how much it was the combination.
This combination of Autism and stuttering also causes issues in terms of friendships as well. You can’t make friends if you don’t meet new people and get to know them, but the difficulties of creating a poor first impression make it so that it’s really hard to put yourself out there in order to meet new people, and after that it’s hard to get people to look past the poor first impression that you made and really get to know you. Because of that I have gotten into a vicious cycle. I will have only one or two friends, and that friendship will mean everything to me. So I will come on way too strong. One of a few things will then happen, the friend will get scared off and leave, I will find out that I was taken advantage of and be forced to end it myself, or things happen naturally and friendships end for a variety of reasons. Regardless of how the friendship ends, it will end, and I will be absolutely devastated. I will then retreat into myself for a while and not do anything social at all. But then extreme loneliness will creep in and I will find the need for other people overwhelming, and the cycle continues. I once tried to break the cycle buy forcing myself to join a bunch of Facebook and meetup groups and force myself to go to more things. But I didn’t end up creating more friendships and breaking the cycle; instead I found myself with an every increasing number of connections to casual acquaintances that took more energy to maintain than I had, and I totally crashed and burned, harder than I had with any previous cycle. Oh, and forget about romantic relationships. Those take the pressure of meeting new people and trying to do the right things and follow society’s rules and just cranks everything to 11. The intersect of autism and stuttering makes dating seem too overwhelmingly impossible to even think about.
When people, particularly police, hear someone stutter, they often think that the person stuttering is drunk or high. When you look at police and FBI videos and articles on detecting deception, you’ll notice that most lists of tells, line up perfectly with autism symptoms, things like fidgeting and eye contact. Add those together and I am not comfortable around the police, because most of my interactions with the police have been needlessly negative. The police tend to brush off the need for special training to deal with people who are autistic or stutter, and to defend police who do the wrong thing in these situations because it’s a dangerous job and it’s a one in a million for them. But for me it’s every single fricken time. And dealing with dangerous situations like this is something the police signed up for. I never asked for this. One example was in high school, I was driving home from a church youth group event in the middle of the night during winter. I slide on a patch of ice during a turn and was pulled over. I had to get out of the car and do a full field sobriety test, they were calling my dad and calling my pastor in order to check my story, by the time they let me go it felt like I had been there for an hour and there were about 4 cop cars and a half dozen officers lined up behind me. I had done nothing illegal, or even suspicious. I hadn’t run a stop sign or a red light, I wasn’t speeding; I had done nothing to warrant being detained like that beyond just existing as an autistic who stutters.
People talk about alcohol being a social lubricant or liquid courage or whatever and that these things would be easier if I was a little drunk. But with the combination of autism and stuttering, my brain is on high alert when making small talk. Not only I am thinking about fluency techniques and word pronunciations and stuff like that because of stuttering, but because of autism I’m also thinking about eye contact, body language, social cues, and all that stuff. If I was to drink, all my training would go out the window and everything would fall apart.
The biggest problem, for me, of intersectionality is acceptance and belonging. Because of the way autism and stuttering interact to make it so I form a poor first impression, I never really feel welcomed anywhere I go. And even if I end up part of a group, it always feels like I’m on the outside looking in. I never truly feel like I belong and that I’m really part of the group and not just being allowed to cling on. Even when I find a group of people who share this issue, such as at a stuttering workshop or at a NSA meeting, there’s always the question of whether they’ll understand me and if the issue I’m talking about is something they’ve also experienced, or if it’s an Autism or intersectionality problem that even they don’t understand.
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