Written in August 2023
I've just this minute come off a recording* with the Autistic Radio project where we were talking with Richard Ibbotson of www.askrichard.co.uk about many things; the beauty of these conversations is that they often take a scenic route, but will touch on themes we have spoken about previously, or ones that we intend to in the future, creating touchpoints, cross-reference points in the dialogue we are creating.
One of the subjects we spoke about was about whether autism professionals are actively seeking authentic autistic voices and insight on social media (as that's where many autistic advocates are most active) and whether they are getting a true picture of the autistic experience. I digressed a little into the theme of autistic identity and unmasking, and how what we see on social media can influence the building of our new autistic identity.
I started with a clumsy metaphor about an identity bag, as a kind of vague descriptor for some kind of container in which we hold the parts of our identity, but such is the speed of my brain when playing with language that I am refining it soon after creation. I've added the phrase “that's my bag” to the metaphor by way of description, as it's a phrase people use to describe something that's important to them, aligned with their interests and which forms part of their identity.
We fill our identity bags in the same way we would when we are shopping. We are presented with choice and options on the shelves of social media, and from the shelves of other media like films, TV, books, journals – we're shopping in a neurodivergent department store here – to pick out the things that represent us and our experiences.
When we are newly self-realised or diagnosed we will turn to the neurodivergent department store to find information about our neurotype, to find community and sanctuary and solidarity in the experiences of others. It is from these shelves that we start to fill our identity bags.
What can be difficult, however, is avoiding the influence of advertising. We are in a vulnerable state here, wandering around with an empty identity bag. We may even have been encouraged by in-store advertising to empty out the contents of our identity bag, to rid ourselves of the vestiges of a former identity by unmasking. Unmasking is a worthy and valid exercise but we have to realise that we leave ourselves open to influence when we do this.
It is tempting to agree with everything we see or hear about our neurotype from within the community (especially when we are finally feeling understood, and our identity bags seem empty). These things are sometimes contended in comments sections, discouraging people from questioning them in order to avoid conflict, or from being able to take an unbiased view before selecting them, (or not) for their own identity bags.
Sometimes we will see the same idea, concept or even particular words repeated in many places, and by way of increased exposure we start to place more importance on those ideas, concepts or words. Something that a handful of people originate can become a large theme or idea within the community, ending up in many people's identity bags.
Many of these concepts will be valid and apply to lots of people, or represent a consensus, but some will not. That's why we need post-diagnostic support to be able to fill our identity bags authentically, to pick out the metaphorical ingredients, the cookware and tableware that creates and represents our neuroflavour.
When something has been selected for the identity bag, it can be very difficult to take it out or to question whether we made the right choice, but just as we have consumer rights allowing us to return purchases we don't want, or which aren't right for us, we have the right to remove things from our identity bag if and when they no longer serve us. We're allowed to change the recipe.
*When the podcast is edited and released I will link it from this article, or you can follow Autistic Radio on Podbean (other platforms are available) and set up notifications for new episodes.