I got back late Sunday night (as in 4 AM) from my trip to visit one of my closest friends for her 21st birthday. She also has autism, and so do most of her friends. Her party took place at a pottery studio where we painted our own pottery. Not typical for a 21st birthday party, but, in my opinion, it’s also totally awesome. I got to meet her friends, and I’m not even kidding that I wanted to take them all home with me! These guys and girls were all late teens or young adults and were also the sweetest, kindest, most genuine group of “kids” I’ve ever met. I have never been that comfortable in a group before. No anxiety! That’s saying a lot!
I’m in a tough place, autism-wise. It’s hard to tell that I have it, right away. I have odd voice intonation, I get stuck and stutter a bit, I don’t do eye contact, I constantly lose my train of thought, I growl (out loud!) when I get frustrated (which is often), and I overall seem some years younger than I am. I get asked what grade I’m in fairly often, to which I answer, “I’m in grad school!” The reason this place is tough is because people meet me and expect typical… then, when I melt down, or when I can’t handle a change in routine, or when I do something completely socially unacceptable, or when I talk about my love of pink and Disney… well… they either really don’t know what to make of it (which is harmless, really) or, if my words/actions/behavior was upsetting, they get really, really angry. They see typical and, when they don’t get typical behavior, they’re angry with me because they expect that I am capable of it, even though I’m not. Even though I am sort of able to socialize with typical people, it’s super hard work and I mess up a LOT. For that reason, at Chloe’s party, I discovered how awesome it is to hang out with people who don’t care if you’re typical, atypical, or purple… they’re just plain friendly.
After hanging out and talking with the group, I got to thinking of all the awesome qualities among them. The genuineness, like when I held a door open and C said, “Wow, thanks for holding the door, Lydia! That’s so nice of you!” Or the way the conversations were opaque; these kids say why that mean and mean what they say. No innuendo or reading between the lines. That made me so much more comfortable, and I actually understood the humor and didn’t feel confused half the time or like people were laughing at me. These kids accept everyone for who they are. They don’t care if your clothes match, if you just spilled something on your shirt, or if you need someone to cut your food at the dinner table for you.
Here’s my revelation: What if we defined autism by its positives? The diagnostic criteria are a list of negatives. Lack of, absence of, inability to, failure to. What if we defined it, instead, as presence of, talent in, penchant for, love of?
Preference for concrete and literal language.
Expert in a specific area of interest.
Inclination to use metaphorical language.
Love of repetition and routine.
May lean toward interests of variable intended age levels.
Gifted in being loyal and genuine in relationships.
Propensity for honesty in all situations.
Strength in detailed memory.
And my favorite: Disposed to AWESOMENESS.
That’s what I see in the people I meet who are on the spectrum. I absolutely cannot understand why “they” say we lack social skills, because the most polite people I’ve met have all been autistic! It’s not a “lack” at all; it’s a difference. I’m so sad that the experts are not able to see the value in that difference.
One thing I’ve been learning is that other people’s opinion of me, often, really doesn’t matter. I was sleeping this morning, and one of the aides was helping my 88-year-old roommate get out of bed. I was sort of awake, since they were talking. The aide commented that I was still asleep, and my roommate said, oh, yes, she slips in. The aide laughed and said, “Well, that’s the nice way to put it, I guess.” I think she was trying to say that I’m lazy. Um, given that I’m 25 and live in a nursing home, and given that I was just away for 4 days, one of them spent at Cedar Point, and that I was up until 5am night before last, I don’t think lazy has anything to do with it. But, I generally sleep until 2 PM even if I went to bed at 10 PM. My body is out of whack. It makes me tired. If I were healthy, I wouldn’t, uh, LIVE IN A NURSING HOME?! I wanted to snap at her but couldn’t wake up enough to do it. But, then I was glad that I didn’t, because the thing is that… it doesn’t matter. Let her be crabby. It doesn’t have to affect me.
That’s how I feel about some people’s perception of autism, too. Let them think what they want to think. I know that there are so many people with autism out there being awesome that we will spread the message around that autism isn’t all bad. As for the naysayers, my hope is that the awesomeness will overtake their negativity.
So, friends, keep on spreading the awesome!