Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Autism Acceptance Profiles: 1. My Friend J

It’s autism acceptance month, and in honor of that, I am going to share some real-life examples of (neurotypical) people who accept me (autism, geekiness, and everything else), just for who I am. No ifs, ands, or buts. These people have something that the rest of the world can learn from.

I’d like to introduce you to my good friend, J. He is a PhD student in a scientific field that is not really related at all to my scientific field, but is at the same university as me. We were introduced by a mutual friend, because she knew we were both going to be at the same place for grad school. I’ve talked about J before – he is my grocery-store buddy.

J is a stereotypical absent-minded scientist – I’m constantly reminding him what we’re doing and where we are going. It’s a running joke between us. He’s also a fierce feminist and is constantly angered by the crappy things people are constantly doing to each other. J is very much someone who believes 100% “a person is a person, and that everyone should be treated with respect, regardless of anything”. But he doesn’t just say he believes that, he lives it. And he lives it in a more honest way than I’ve ever seen anyone do so before. With some people, getting angry over injustice is about performing an act to get others to see that you are a “good person”. With J, getting angry over an injustice is a genuine, visceral response that has nothing to do with how others perceive him, or anything to do with performing the socially acceptable dance of “look, I’m a good person, really”. It’s his honest, knee-jerk response, regardless of rewards or consequences therein. And that’s what makes him such an awesome person.

When I first met J, we instantly clicked as friends. I felt comfortable and relaxed, and didn’t try to “pass” as neurotypical in front of him (I usually put effort into this when I first meet people, because I’ve learned that not doing so usually ends significantly worse). As a consequence, he saw the stimming, the spinning in circles, the constant obsessions over various textures of clothing, and everything else, right from the start. We started grocery shopping together almost immediately – I have a car, he doesn’t, and you can’t get anywhere in this town with any amount of efficiency, unless you have a car, or you’re willing to walk >1 mile with groceries on either end of a long bus ride. So I offered, and he accepted, and that was the beginning of a wonderful friendship. Since we first met, he has been great with all my little quirks.

I’ve talked before about how one of my stims is to repeat everything that is being said, or to sign the word I’m currently perseverating on, using American Sign Language and finger-spelling (see post: My Hands are Echolalic). Well, when J noticed that, instead of wondering what my hands were doing, or saying it was bad, he said “woah, is that ASL?” – he’d always wanted to learn sign, and when I told him that my hands were spelling things, he didn’t bat an eye. He was fascinated, and asked a bunch of really good questions about what they were saying. It ended with me teaching him the alphabet. Now he tries to read my hands sometimes. And when I’m tired and not processing speech, sometimes I can fingrespell to him.

In the grocery store, I memorize where everything I need is. I also memorize the usual pricing schemes. We often so to several stores, because there are different products needed. As a consequence, some items overlap. I mentioned J is an absent-minded scientist. When we go shopping, we have a deal. I tell him where everything is and how much it costs, and whether it is better to get it at one place or another. He deals with the people for me, and helps keep the sensory overload to a minimum. We each have our own unique skillsets that make the trip faster and more painless for the other. Combined powers.

We also go to costco together. Now I love costco. I love the big boxes, with their giant aisles and super-organized shelves with thousands of things. I think they are fascinating. But costco is nearly always packed with people, so I have to go during quiet times. I should also mention that I am obsessed with stuffed animals, have 323 of them, and have a super-soft spot in my heart for them. All of them. And I can name them all and tell you how and when I got them. But I digress. Anyway, one day we were on a costco run, and costco greeted us with a bin full of giant stuffed bears. Immediately I abandoned the cart to make a bee-line towards it, and J smiled. He took the cart and followed me to the giant stuffed bears. I greeted them, and told them I wished I could take one home. But I knew I probably shouldn’t.

I then spent the next hour, weaving through the store with J, constantly repeating “giant stuffed bear… giant stuffed bear”. I couldn’t get them out of my head, and there was this one who had been tossed aside and not in the right spot, and I had to take him home. Giant stuffed bear. Talk about perseveration. Giant stuffed bear. Anyway, rather than be annoyed, as most people would have been, J continued to smile, and encourage me. Giant stuffed bear. He carried on conversation with me, keeping the giant stuffed bear happily involved. We decided that if I was still obsessing when we got done with the necessary food and toilet paper shopping, that I could go back and if that one was still thrown off haphazardly, I would take it home. Giant stuffed bear. So we did. Giant stuffed bear. And I now have a wonderful, cuddly, giant stuffed bear named Ferdinand. When we got back to my apartment, I immediately pulled Ferdinand out to the couch and curled up with him (the bear, not J). J grinned and took pictures to send to me. Giant stuffed bear. If that isn’t autism acceptance, I don’t know what is.

For several months, I didn’t talk about the “autism-thing” with J. He was just content to overlook all of the things that others considered to be horrible autistic behaviors (stimming, failure to eat most foods with certain textures, not speaking properly, perseveration, etc etc etc). When I was struggling, he was patient and never critical. When I was perseverating or even scripting, he happily went along. He has always met me where I am at. But one day, we were with someone else, and they got snappy and I got defensive, and I snapped “I’m autistic, that’s why!” at them. A couple of weeks later, J and I talked about autism a bit. He said he didn’t think I could possibly be autistic. I didn’t fit what he knew about autism. So then I brought up my clothing, my eating habits (which he’d been dealing with for months), my stuffed animals and the Giant Stuffed Bear perseveration, my obsessions, my fingerspelling, stimming hands. I brought up the fact that I don’t communicate well in groups, and how clumsy I am, and the fact that I’m apt to lecture him with lists and things I’m currently obsessing over (like that moment when I started explaining how I was autisitc, or when he asks about things related to my research). And a number of other things that are all indicative of autism. All things he’s seen me do constantly since the day we met. And his response to all of this was the following:

“Huh, that’s interesting. I really didn’t understand what autism is at all. I’ve never met an autistic person before. Thanks for explaining. I don’t think of those things as deficits or symptoms or anything, they’re just what make you, YOU. And that’s the best part of hanging out with you, is that you are an interesting, unique person, who has a bunch of awesome traits, is fun to hang out with. I don’t care if it has a name or not, I wouldn’t change anything about you.”

And he hasn’t. He’s never tried to convince me to do something I can’t. He’s never criticized me for any of it. He’s asked me if things are ok or not when he doesn’t know (like going to the stores in a different order, or watching a particular movie or show, to eating various foods), and he accepts the answer “no” as easily as the answer “yes”.

And that, my friends, is what autism acceptance looks like.

Author’s note: This is the first in a series of Autism Acceptance profiles in honor of Autism Acceptance month. I have been lucky enough to meet and interact with a number of wonderful people in my life who really embody autism acceptance, and I want to share their awesomeness with the world. Read more about this series here.

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