I was featured in Humans on the Autism Spectrum a couple of years ago under my old name, Jeanette. In the past year I have made some big changes in my life and one of the biggest has been to change my name to Yenn Purkis. The reason I did this was to affirm who I am as a gender diverse Autistic person. ‘Jeanette’ no longer worked in terms of defining my identity. In fact, it never really worked as a descriptor for who I was. I always felt it was like an old jacket that didn’t quite fit but which I kept on wearing because I didn’t have anything else.
All this affirmation has led to greater self-respect and thoughtful reflection. Self-respect and acceptance are extremely important things for an Autistic person – as they are for any person. For me self-acceptance is a protective factor for a range of good things, including mental health and wellbeing. If I had such self-acceptance when I was younger my life would almost certainly have been very different.
I went to school in the 1970s and 80s. There was no appropriate diagnosis for me – or anyone else – given that much of the work on Autism was still only available in German until the early 1990s. This meant I felt completely alone much of the time. I had few friends and a lot of bullies. I longed to be someone else. It felt like everything I did and said was “wrong” and resulted in hatred and teasing. I kept trying to change who I was. I changed my hair and fashion as I was bullied for that but it made no difference. I lost my English accent quickly and deliberately but that made little difference. I even changed the spelling of my name but this was different to my name change in recent months. I changed my name as a teen because people gave me a hard time about it and I wanted to distance myself from it. This was the complete opposite to affirmation of identity. It was a sign that I hated myself possibly even more than the bullies did.
Essentially, I wore a mask – or tried to – and did everything I could to hide my actual identity. I viewed myself as an embarrassment and worthy of all the hatred I received. For years I have imagined what I would say to my teenage self. Much of my advocacy work now is with teens and young adults, as I want to help young people to avoid all the hell I went through at their age.
We didn’t have Autistic pride when I was a kid. If someone had told me to be proud of my difference and love and value myself just as I am, I would have laughed – humourlessly. So while it took me many, many years to get a point of self-acceptance, young people now have a lot more opportunity to do so. This doesn’t mean that acceptance is a given – and it still needs to be fought and defended – but we do have the knowledge these days to enable self-acceptance, respect and pride among Autistic young people. I think this means we need to imbue every Autistic child with a sense of pride in who they are, as themselves. The I CAN Network does a lot of good work in this space that should be supported and commended.
It is important to note that self-acceptance does not necessarily equal happiness. I love and value myself now which is fantastic but it doesn’t spare me from challenges or misery. There are a number of elements of my life which are hard. I have some significant mental health issues that can make life very difficult indeed. As an out loud and proud Queer Autistic person I face bigotry and trolling quite often. Self-acceptance is not a guarantee of happiness or a pleasant life but it does a few things to help deal with those life challenges. Self-acceptance goes towards building resilience. It gives you a strong, positive identity as the basis with which to move through life. It helps you see yourself in a positive light which makes it easier to manage when people try to invalidate you. I didn’t have self-acceptance when I was a kid but I have learned to have it now. Self-acceptance is a great thing to help Autistic young people build and develop.
To Autistic young people now I would encourage you to be proud. You are truly amazing and have a lot to offer the world. If you can, spend time with people who know how amazing you are and who respect and value you just as you are.