Swaying the World towards Inclusion

A diagnosis of autism profoundly transforms the path of dance pioneer Marisa Hamamoto, fueling her passionate advocacy efforts.

MARISA HAMAMOTO

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For years, Los Angeles, California resident Marisa Hamamoto has been at the forefront of disability and neurodiversity advocacy, both as a speaker as well as the founder of Infinite Flow, a dance company that employs disabled and nondisabled dancers with diverse, intersectional identities with a mission to create a more inclusive world, one dance at a time.

Since experiencing a stroke, she has been keenly aware of visible disabilities, but in 2022, at the age of 40, Marisa was diagnosed with autism. This revelation triggered a mixture of emotions.

“My first reaction was, ‘Oh okay, now we can put a name to all these challenges I’ve encountered, that there’s nothing wrong with me. I’m just a little different.’”

But subsequently, some other emotions set in, including a sense of failure. 

The struggles of adult autism diagnoses

“A lot of autistics miss social cues or reading facial expressions,” she says. “The diagnosis furthered that and made me feel socially stupid. Also, for months afterwards, I wasn’t comfortable telling people I was autistic. It really put me on the spot and made me look at my own beliefs.”

Studies indicate that adult autism diagnoses are on the rise. A 2020 review by the National Autistic Society in the US states that “more adults are getting assessed for possible autism … We found that adults often have strong emotions after being diagnosed, the process of getting a diagnosis can be unclear and different for everyone, and not many support services are available for adults.”

This has been true for Marisa. “It was kind of a long process to get diagnosed, there is a lack of resources and information. It’s not like you just take a test and that’s it.”

However, the revelation provided clarity for her, especially as she considered her personality traits and the challenges she’s encountered.

“I’ve always had this persistency of wanting order and control over things, including scheduling. That’s a part of my autism. I travel a lot, and it drives me nuts when there is back and forth over scheduling in different time zones. I’ve also dealt with a lot of social anxiety in my life. I’ve masked my way through and hidden my struggles as I didn’t want to look like someone who is unsocial. But I always thought there was something wrong with me, and I would beat myself up.”

There is a dichotomy in that, Marisa concedes, given that she also has no problem speaking in front of hundreds of people as she travels around the world to give talks.  

“I love the spotlight,” she says. “I love people coming up and talking to me. What gives me anxiety is when there is no structure: when it’s a random party, and I’m meant to just go up and talk to people.”

Finding ways to cope with the challenges of autism

Marisa has taken steps to address some of those issues. Among them are setting intentions, such as making it a goal to connect with just one person at an event or anticipating any problematic situations.

“I had to attend an event at the United Nations recently with 1,300 people. I was overwhelmed and didn’t want to walk into a really crowded, chaotic place. So I went two hours early when the staff was setting up. I sat down in a quiet space and was grounded before all those people came in.  In that case, it worked.”

Born in Japan’s Aichi prefecture Marisa grew up in Irvine, California.  After graduating from high school in the US, she went to Keio University in Tokyo.

While a senior college student in 2006, she succumbed to a spinal cord infarction and was subsequently paralyzed from the neck down. She recovered most of her mobility a few months later and became interested in the intersection of dance and disability, and founded Infinite Flow in 2015.

Sharing stories of adult autism diagnosis

Marisa is an example of someone who hasn’t let autism impede her life. For example, she has noise sensitivity and often finds herself telling waiters at restaurants to lower the volume of the background music. But she has found other ways to cope, such as hanging out in the bathroom for a few minutes. She also describes herself as a “very literal communicator.” Some figurative language is hard for her to understand, as is comedy.

“I’ve been to comedy shows where everyone is laughing and I’m not,” she says. “I have a hard time deciphering what’s being said. But I’ve become unafraid to ask for clarification. I used to be afraid that asking questions would make me look stupid and not smart. But that’s changed.”

Stories from other adults diagnosed with autism, such as noted artist Morgan Harper Nichols, encourage her.

“It was helpful to know I’m not alone,” says Marisa. “I keep her in mind as part of my journey. I’ve realized with time that coming out about this will empower others, especially Asian women. Perhaps my story will help them to get answers.”

Tips from Marisa:

“Do not be afraid of autism. It’s better to get a diagnosis than be questioning it. Don’t compare yourself to other autistics. It shows up differently in everyone. Autism doesn’t mean you are going to do badly in school. There might be different ways of learning and we need to look beyond grades. And autistics have many superpowers. Once we’re interested in something, we are able to hyperfocus on that one thing. There is a lot of strength to autism.”