Autism Interview #91 Part 1: Leanne Libas on Autistic Identity

Leanne Libas is a writer, college student, and a/Autistic advocate. Leanne started her advocacy work after a life-changing experience at YLF (Youth Leadership Forum for Students with Disabilities). Leanne was an Autistic Scholarship Fellowship Recipient from the Autistic Self Advocacy Network and she was a regular contributor to the Art of Autism blog. This is the first part of a two-part interview with Leanne. This week she shared her experience understanding how autism affects her and how she has adopted a positive autistic identity.

In your article Breaking Out: My Autism Story, you wrote, “If a cure was created, I wouldn’t take it. I know that I’m not perfect but I don’t want to risk losing myself.” How did you come to adopt this positive autistic identity?

Did you know it will be the four-year anniversary of when I wrote it?! That article was eventually shared by Amy Poehler’s foundation, Amy’s Smart Girls Foundation. As a result of the foundation sharing it on Facebook, the article got over 13,000 likes and shares! It was one of the moments when I realized how my story mattered, and that I can make an impact to many lives. Also, I realized how bad my grammar was when I wrote the article! Shout-out to my professors at Saddleback College and Cal State Fullerton and Katina Paron for making me fix my grammar…continuously.

I adopted this positive a/Autistic identity because of my upbringing. I experienced internalized ableism for 6 years because I discovered my autism diagnosis through my Individualized Education Plan (IEP) papers the summer before sixth-grade. My parents wanted me to have a normal life, so they did not tell me. As a result, this aggravated me. Basically, I held a grudge against my parents when I experienced my internalized ableism. Let me do the math – six years and counting! Kidding not kidding, Mom and Dad! Love you, mean it!

At first, I did not understand why, but I understood they had wanted to protect me.

This year, I started realizing why.

On New Year’s Eve 2018, I experienced one of my worst panic attacks to the point where I came close to committing suicide. My parents do not know about this, but my panic attacks continued since middle school. I told my teachers not to disclose my panic attacks to my parents because we were experiencing a lot – especially when my last surviving grandparent passed away from complications of stroke relating to his Alzheimer’s in December 2013. When I was hospitalized at UCI Medical Center, I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). I am grateful for finally being diagnosed with GAD because I knew my anxiety was more than what people thought. Some thought I was over-reacting. Shout-out to the medical team at UCI Medical Center in Orange, California for diagnosing and helping me recover! I feel validated with my new diagnosis.

My New Year’s Eve panic attack was caused by unresolved trauma I have dealt with for almost 16 years of my life. I was sexually assaulted in first-grade. My older classmate assaulted me on the school bus. Although it was reported by the school district and police department, there was no social worker sent to my aid. I had this epiphany a few days after my panic attack, which frustrated me. I spoke with my colleague about it. It turns out there is no social worker assigned to the district. When I discovered this, I was shocked because I knew countless peers and classmates of mine within the school district who struggled a lot with issues such as eating disorders, sexual harassment and assault, bullying, teen pregnancy, drug addictions, abuse, and depression. What makes me even more upset is that my school district is one of the most reputable school districts in my county, and I don’t understand why there is no social worker! While I am currently dealing with a lot of scrutiny, I think of Maya Angelou’s poem, “Still I Rise.”  I have experienced a lot in my short lifetime – from many people who have passed, my internalized ableism, a few brushes with death, and many more. I am glad I had my breakdown because I found my hiraya (Tagalog for “vision”), and now it’s time to implement kapwa (Tagalog for “togetherness”). If it was not for California’s Youth Leadership Forum for Students with Disabilities, I would not be at the place where I am in my life, as an advocate for the disability rights movement. Thank you, Mrs. Vicki Reese, the WorkAbility counselor at my school for convincing to apply to CA YLF. Honestly, I do not know what would have happened to me.

In what specific ways does autism affect you?

When people first learn about autism, they often hear about the lack of eye contact. Actually, I would call it “selective” eye contact because for me, I will not look at a person for one or more of these reasons:

  • I don’t like forced eye contact! Thank you very much! You’re making me uncomfortable! I mean – do you want me to have another sensory overload when I am trying to look cute, professional, or a boss?
  • I am nervous.
  • I am mad at you, and I don’t want to talk to you.
  • I am concerned I may have body odor because I don’t want to smell bastos (Tagalog for “smelly” or “gross”)!
  • I am concerned I may have a stain on my outfit, or on my teeth because I love wearing lipsticks, lipstains, and lip gloss. Also, I am a messy eater because I love food, and I am trying to look Gucci for myself!
  • I like to stim which sometimes does not involve looking into your eyes because I am focused on my stim toy and not dropping it! Also, I don’t want you to be staring at me fidgeting with my fidget cube or my adorable squishies!
  • I don’t like you and your attitude, so watch your attitude and tone because you’re talking to someone who has been established through multiple organizations and affiliations. Stay in your lane! Also, I am thinking about multiple ways of how you should curb your attitude in the most ethical way possible!
  • I am thinking about multiple ways of how to take over the a GOOD WAY!
  • I have crush on you, and I think you’re hot. I am just trying to look cute and not make you see how much I am blushing right now underneath all this makeup that I put on for myself. I put on so much highlight that I shine bright like a diamond (Rihanna and Sia reference). However, you’re focused on checking me and my body out so much that I see you through your smile, flirty comments, and touch!
  • I am trying to make a witty comeback because I like to be a sassy person; I’m extra! If you sass me, you’re going to get sassed at so hard, you’re going to regret it!
  • I am trying to remember if I am forgetting to do something today. If I did, I might be freaking out because the deadline is either today or in a couple of days. Oh my gosh! Trying to breathe and still look beautiful!
  • I don’t want you to see my reactions because you’re going to make me laugh even more to the point where I may need to use the bathroom!

Those are some of the reasons (there are many more) why I do not conduct eye contact.

However, autism is more than encountering challenges with socialization and eye contact. Most people do not consider how our senses are impacted on a daily basis. For instance, my senses are extremely heightened to the point that I actually have the sixth rare sense, intuition. One of my best friends joked and asked if I was a psychic. Nope! I don’t think I am psychic. I like to observe and think critically. Nonetheless, my intuition is accurate – about 90.0-92.0%. If I don’t listen to my intuition, then I will be in the same, exact situation that I knew would happen – good or bad. Note: My intuition only comes in when it is extremely strong. So, don’t ask if I can predict your future!

Another thing people should be more aware of is how we a/Autistics are knowledgeable with our special interests to the point where it kind of freaks people out! I love freaking people out…IN A GOOD WAY! For instance, I know a couple of languages such as Spanish, American Sign Language, a little bit of Tagalog, and a little bit of Ilocano. If someone was talking behind my back in another language, I would be able to call them out! Nonetheless, don’t try to call us geniuses because we all have different types of intelligences, and we have more than one special interest.

The reason why I have a lot of knowledge is I am a night owl. I was born at 10:30 PM (PST). My mom always gives shade and lectures for staying up late. Whenever I stay up late, I usually do homework (I am contracted to say that!), I watch YouTube videos (e.g. Vice News, Vox News, Broadly, music videos, musical artists I am currently interested in, BTS members, etc.); create dance routines quietly although I am not silent enough, scroll through the Internet taking BuzzFeed quizzes, reading Wikipedia articles, and scroll through my social media platforms, among other activities. Also, I am a liberal studies major, so I have to expand my knowledge and read more books.

What advice do you have for someone grappling with whether or not to reveal their autism diagnosis at school or in the workplace?

I would remind the person that it is their choice to decide whether to disclose or not. That’s their personal decision – I respect it because I don’t want people to be getting into my business all the time. Then again, I am extra, and I like people to be a part of my life. Nevertheless, if you feel like you need accommodations – which have worked wonders for me – I highly recommend you disclose your diagnosis to your school and/or workplace. If you have any issues, please email me! I will do my best to help you, even if it takes a while for me to respond. I will try to allocate the proper disability-friendly resources to you.

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