Surprising no one, my first application for disability was denied. In researching next steps for an appeal, I discovered that one of the things the committee considers, although not in so many words, is whether my disability will kill me. The types of disability to which this doesn’t apply include blindness and deafness. So I guess that’s good. Of course, autism is not discussed.
Another issue is whether I was able to work “before” this happened. Unfortunately, there was no “before.” I have always been autistic. I have been trying to work despite it, and been unable to sustain part-time or full-time employment without debilitating mental and physical ramifications. While repeated attempts to do so have caused some permanent mental and physical damage, in and of itself, my autism doesn’t disable me the same way physical disabilities disable people. My “ability” to work, strictly speaking, is not impaired.
The problem isn’t that I can’t work. It’s that once I start working, it is only a matter of time before I burn out and have to quit. But instead of becoming progressively more disabled in such a way that would be visible and quantifiable, I slowly morph into a bad employee. As I become more and more rundown, my neurotypical employee presentation starts to show cracks.
First come the absences for “personal” or more dubious reasons, once just one day here and there, that progressively increase in length and frequency. Then come the complaints from fellow employees and supervisors about my attitude and rudeness. This is followed by a drop-off in my adherence to departmental policies I deem unnecessary. The last stop before I leave is a total meltdown in the workplace, at best resulting in me needing to be sent home and given a few days off, and more often resulting in a sabbatical from which I never return.
After the denial of my disability claim, which was upsetting enough, I had to get back on the horse and try to hunt down an attorney willing to help with my appeal. When I finally got one to call me back, I realized why no-one else had. As disabled as I now am, I am still not disabled “enough” to receive government aid.
There are two types of disability one can apply for in the U.S. One is a mental disability, the other is a physical disability. While a mental disability would seem the obvious choice, as I can no longer sustain anything like full- or even part-time employment of any type at home or otherwise, the fact that I still spend a handful of hours each week on school or other work means that I am not mentally incapacitated, and thus, do not qualify as mentally disabled.
The attorney I spoke to even admitted that there is a gaping hole in the law; someone too disabled to work enough to support herself but not disabled enough to be unable to work at all, like me, gets caught this gap. As such, if I wanted to qualify, I would have to quit working for at least two years, and drop out of graduate school forever. (What I would do for sustenance during this time remains unclear.)
As far as a physical disability, despite my claims that my previous bouts of full time work exacted a significant toll on my physical and mental health, such that I dare not risk running up that bill any further, the fact that no actual physical event can be traced to my current incapacity significantly undermines my case, especially because I am still “young,” or rather, under 50.
Certain physical aspects of the aforementioned costs are now permanent: I need a minimum of 9-10 hours of sleep every night, I have pain in my right shoulder that never goes away, and my insomnia and anxiety are so bad that I take four separate medications to manage them. These issues, however, do not a disability make. And, not wanting to make them any worse means absolutely nothing.
I am genuinely scared of what might happen if I were to try to work even part-time again. But what am I supposed to do? The law, the forms, the way it is all written, there’s no place for me in them. Considering how many adults are on the spectrum and compensate for it, my situation is probably shared by tens of thousands of other people, and they, too, are ignored, just like I am. The law, as it is written, creates a reality in which even the tiniest scrap of functionality means one isn’t really disabled. It creates a reality wherein a mental disability like autism, that can’t be quantified, is not really a disability.
It’s a second level of rejection I wasn’t prepared for. I wish I could just give up. I wish I could just lean on my chronic pain during this process, as I was advised to do early on, and not have it feel like a dishonest cop-out. I wish I didn’t feel like it was more than just me and my autism at stake here. But I know other autistics look up to me. They need assistance as much as I do. If I don’t push for this, I’m not just letting myself down; I feel like I will be letting down the whole community.
I feel like I’m stuck in this groove of going around and around trying to get my autism, and autism in general, recognized for what it is and how it affects people, and I keep hitting this same wall, over and over. I want the laws to change, and I’m trying to create a vernacular through which to do that, but my voice is tiny and my reach is minimal. Every time I think about it, it feels like my insides are being ripped apart. I keep thinking why bother? What difference will it make?
And with everything else going on, who has the bandwidth to spare for someone who looks and sounds perfectly capable despite claims of autism and the difficulties in appearing so?
No, autism won’t kill me. Just add it to the list of things that mean I’m not “really” disabled.