June 24, 2021

Sometimes, the only kind of self-advocacy that gets through is refusal.

When I cannot do something – or I can, but only at great cost to my mental or physical wellbeing – my first instinct is to explain why. This is partly driven by a wish to be accurately understood, and partly by the myth that I only deserve accommodations if others agree that I need them.

But it doesn’t always work.

This school year, I was given a responsibility that I could barely handle. I only agreed to it because I believed it would be brief. That turned out to be false.

I tried everything. I asked for help, described my distress, and even made an effort to recruit more staff. But I couldn’t stand the idea of outright refusal. I was afraid of causing stress for others, and that fear kept me trapped.

Here’s what set me free.

I realized that, in any memory that causes my heart to shudder, there’s a common thread: I didn’t stand up for myself. Sometimes, I couldn’t. But this time, I could.

I saw that defending my right to consent – or in this case, to decline – was the only way to prevent this year from becoming a memory that would trigger future stress.

So I did.

I risked my job and my reputation, and suffered intense anxiety while awaiting the result. However, it turned out far better than I hoped. The last two weeks of school, I finally found myself free to do what I signed up for in the first place.

Amazingly, in my annual review, the school administration encouraged me to continue advocating for my professional needs. I’m grateful that they want me to do that, and I will.

I’m a more confident advocate now that I’ve unlocked the power to say no.

P.S. I write from my personal experience as an autistic. What I share is not a substitute for advice from an autistic medical professional. Also, some of my opinions have changed since I first wrote them.