Photographer Alfie White: "Being Autistic is not a quirk"

For the last day of Autism Awareness Month, and on the cusp of his 21st birthday, Alfie shares a personal essay about life as a neurodivergent artist.

by Alfie White
30 April 2021, 7:00am

TW: Suicide

I have always found myself comforted by the prospect of alien life. Since I was little, the idea of there being UFOs or anything other than humans has been a weirdly reassuring thought. At the apparent news of a new sighting or such, I would find myself momentarily distracted by the idea. Then I would return to my matters feeling more grounded than when I left them, as if I was reminded of something. 

I never really delved into why that was. But now, a month away from being 21, I realise that it’s because in the potentiality of aliens lies that of someone or something understanding how I feel.

I use the term alien because operating as an Autistic person feels like you’re an alien pretending to be human. 

I use the term alien because it is without attempting to be abstract or hyperbolic that I say I have always felt like one. I still feel like one, as I still find myself comforted reading anecdotes of UFO sightings. 

I have always found myself comforted by the prospect of alien life, a daydream of momentary respite from today’s challenges. Bathroom steamed out and pitch black, senses limited and those left, completely consumed; I stand (or sit) and wonder if an alien would too cry in the shower, whether they too would be crying for no particular reason, except for the overwhelming weight of being.

a man's silhouette stretches across a field

In social environments, it’s one challenge: you learn the basics and attempt to navigate yourself through social hierarchies, cues, and constructs which you cannot see. Kind of like that scene in The Pacifier, where Vin Diesel is worming around the lasers -- except imagine they’re invisible. Like that. 

In work environments, it feels like you are on the run, and there is a searchlight after you. You dart from one dark corner to the next, avoiding situations which might put you in plain sight: conversations surrounding relationships, debates; areas of personal interest, as paradoxically this is where one can most easily find themselves caught by the searchlight, usually after going on an obsessive, passionate monologue about said area of interest. Hands up! We got you now, alien.

Paradoxical is a word I use to describe a lot of things regarding Autism. I use it to describe a lot of things in life, too, as that’s what a lot of things in life appear to one with Autism.

the photographer takes a self-portrait in the mirror with shaving foam across his face

Growing up as an Autistic person is extremely difficult. My school experience (or lack of -- I missed the entirety of year 7-9) is a good reflection of that. Other children are somehow like Autism or invisible-disability trained sniffer dogs, and know before even you do. I have always felt like an alien, but as a child, I did not know the reason why. It’s difficult to disguise yourself as something you thought you already were.

Growing older as an Autistic person is finding one thing you once found hard now easy, but in return, finding ten new things of equal difficulty — things which neurotypical people do without a second thought. The difference is, however, that there is no longer that very small level of support or tolerance you might’ve had as a child. As far as most people are concerned, you are not Autistic -- you are just a problem, an inconvenience that requires more effort to accommodate than that of the average, neurotypical person.

The Autistic experience is a process of constantly hiding your true self (what is known as ‘masking’) in fear of revealing who you are or, better yet, asking for accommodation in that. The stigmatisation, stereotypes and general ableism surrounding Autism make being open about one’s Autism a case of if the positives outweigh the negatives -- which many people feel like they don’t. The treatment from those closely around us is one thing, but the possible implications of being openly Autistic in work environments extends much further, with the gravity behind them much greater.  

Our society, creative sectors included, pushes individualism only to what is convenient -- that is, before the inclusion of those considered ‘different’.

the photographer takes a self-portrait on a thin mirror with a beach front and sunset behind

Being Autistic is not a quirk, nor is it some fun aspect of a person’s life; it’s a depressing and increasingly challenging reality. Autistic people are 10 times more likely to die by suicide, and the average life expectancy of an Autistic person is 36-54 years old. I’m very fortunate to be in the position I’m in, where I’m in it, where I’ve been able to find islands of refuge in the close people around me and where amongst others, my Autistic traits can be appreciated along with unique skills or ways of thinking which fall under the so-called artistic -- not Autistic -- practice. Yet even still, I’ve experienced suicide ideation and the despondency/depression which begins to loom over you as you enter a world not designed for you. I cannot even begin to imagine how other Autistic people feel -- those without all these things which make my life more manageable.  

I would not bother asking you to walk in our shoes, as it is not so much the shoes that dictate our pace as it is the ground around them. Instead, I would ask for you to walk in ankle-deep mud, and for every two steps toward, take one back. I would then ask you to match the pace of your peers: those on concrete, those who take two steps forward and then take two more again. 

the photographer takes a self-portrait in a window at sunset

Being Autistic is being an analogy. It is seeing and thinking and feeling and being different, so much so that it dictates your whole life, but never really being able to see or describe how exactly. It’s comparing yourself to Vin Diesel and aliens; it’s using imagery like thick mud and searchlights; it’s using anything and everything within your grasp to try, even if just for a moment, to make someone understand how you feel.  

Autism is crying after a good day as well as a bad one. It’s crying after a day. It’s crying after yesterday, today, tomorrow. It’s crying and not understanding why. It’s not crying and not understanding why. 

It’s being emotional over the littlest thing. It’s being called emotionless. 

It’s doing the same thing again, and again, and again.

It’s never doing that thing again.

It’s hating clothing labels. It’s loving that one piece of clothing so much that you can’t conceive of a life without it. It’s rewatching the same film over and over and over; it’s eating the same food over and over and over. It’s never getting bored of either. 

It’s being an obsessive, constantly analysing mess with moments of complete stoic clarity. It’s having a love for those around you which surpasses boundaries of neurotypical and divergent. It’s loving every person you have a good conversation with and never finding a limit to that love. It’s being so passionate about one thing and never losing that passion. It’s being that passion, as quite frankly, it’s easier than being human. 

It’s being praised for your brain. It’s being ridiculed for your brain. It’s being told, ‘Be you, but not all of you’. It’s refining your being until only the digestible parts are seen. 

It’s feeling misunderstood. It’s being misunderstood. It’s having someone you just met understand you better than those you’ve known for years. It’s meeting someone who loves you for you, all of you, and feeling like you have finally found home.

the shadow of a person's side profile across a lamppost and a tree

This month is not about awareness but acceptance. I write this not for myself, as someone who is largely accepted by those around me (something I am so, so grateful for), but for those who are not. For those like me, but not like me. 

There was a point in my life where I realised that I was not going to simply be accepted for who I was, despite my best efforts. My life since that point has been a continuous attempt at embracing that, of taking in full stride the unorthodox path — the path predetermined for me when I was born with this brain. 

I write this in hope that one day a child will not have to have that realisation, that they will be born into a world of acceptance, understanding, and accommodation for who they are; that the binary structures which determine anything slightly different as ‘other’ are torn down, and in that we see things as they truly are.

We are all just trying to get home, neurotypical and divergent alike. It’s just that for some of us, home is on another planet.

Read a longer version of this essay on Medium. If you’re struggling with your mental health, Mind can direct you towards the right support and treatment.

a man holding a camera up to his reflection on the street
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