Monday, May 21, 2018

Targeting Autism 2018 Conference Recap

This past Thursday, I had the opportunity to speak on a panel of fellow autistic self-advocates at the Targeting Autism conference held by the Illinois State Library in Springfield, Illinois on the topic of autistic employment in libraries. It was an honor to share the stage with such amazing fellow autistics, and on this trip I got to meet some long-time friends, make some new ones, and learn a lot about both myself and the weirdly polite and courteous Midwest.

My mom, who wanted to see me speak, flew out with me the night before. Springfield, IL is a fairly small town despite its population of over 117,000 people (if the sign is anything to go by), so we couldn't fly directly into the state capital. Instead, we caught a flight from Newark to Chicago and then drove a rental car three hours south to Springfield. Due to a two-and-a-half hour delay caused by our plane arriving late from Miami, we got into Chicago later than planned and didn't arrive at the hotel until around 2 am, driving through three hours of what appeared to be nothing once we left the Chicagoland area. I'd never been to the Midwest before (except for a stopover at the Cincinnati airport once, which is in Kentucky), and I was pleased to discover you're allowed to drive 70 miles per hour on the highways but was nonplussed to find out that this was because there were no people or things around at all. At one point, my mom and I saw rows upon rows of blinking radio towers with no civilization nearby to tend to them. (These turned out to be windmills, but at night there was no way of knowing we were going through a wind farm so it was very unnerving.)

In summary, this is what I learned about the parts of Illinois that are between Chicagoland and Springfield:
  • Almost nobody lives there
  • The only fast food is Subway, with the occasional McDonalds
  • You can drive really fast, which is good because you probably don't want to be there very long
Eventually, we made it to the hotel, crashed immediately, and got up for the conference the next morning. It's probably worth noting that the hotel, built in 1973, is the tallest building in Springfield at 30 stories and ruins a really picturesque skyline:


After acknowledging that we were sleeping in an ugly flashlight for a few days, we settled in at the conference, and I got to speak about what it's like to be autistic and working in the library/archival field, which was great. I was on a panel with some other incredible people:

L-R: Charlie Remy, Gyasi Burks-Abbott, me, Erin Miller, Max the service dog (on the floor near the dais), and moderator Russ Bonanno. Photo by Alyssa Huber.

The panel fielded questions for two hours from both the moderator (Russ Bonanno) and the gathered attendees. As anyone who knows me will understand, I was incredibly pleased to know that everyone in attendance thought I was funny and had good comedic timing (I got a huge laugh with a joke about my student loans at one point and was in seventh heaven), so consider my stand-up career launched right now.

My view from the panel. That microphone allowed me to advocate for autistic people and simultaneously be funny and I'm forever grateful to it.
More importantly, however, we were given a forum to discuss the impact libraries have on autistic folks, why they're great places for us to work, and how the workplace can be more accessible to people like us. It was an amazing experience and I was so grateful for how accepting and receptive the audience was to us! Being listened to is honestly really wonderful given that autistic self-advocates are frequently talked over, so to hear so many people enjoyed listening to us and gained important insights from our words was very nice. A lot of attendees came up to us after our panel and thanked us and asked us more questions in private, and I made quite a few new contacts who I'll be more than happy to work with in the future!

The best part of the conference for me, however, was getting to meet a long-time friend and fellow advocate for the first time in person. One of my fellow Autistic Gaming Initiative streamers, Alyssa Huber, was there to screen her Asperger's documentary the following day, and we got to hang out for the first time in real life!

Alyssa on the left, me on the right. Photo by my mom.
This was a long time coming since we've been talking and advocating together for years and now stream together for AGI, so we were obviously very excited to finally meet. Alyssa is so kind and gracious in person and it was an honor to finally be in the same place!

After the first day of the conference, Mom and I went to investigate some of the Abraham Lincoln stuff in the neighborhood around the hotel. Lincoln lived in Springfield for many years and left when he became President, and his family home is still here. The neighborhood is conserved beautifully, which warmed my Civil War Era Studies minor heart.

The Lincoln family home. Lincoln, his wife Mary Todd, and their children lived here from 1844 until Lincoln left to become inaugurated as the President in early 1861.

We would go in the house the next afternoon, but for the time being, we just wanted to check out the area since we were running on very little sleep. Important things we found included a cat:

Lincoln, like me, apparently would collect cats and bring them home. Relatable content.
Springfield is a very quiet city, even during rush hour. On Thursday around 5-6 pm, when the area I'm from is overflowing with traffic and commuters, I was able to stand in the middle of the street and take this photo of the State Capitol Building:

WHERE ARE THE PEOPLE????
It became quickly apparent to my mom and I that people in Springfield don't seem to appear very often. We didn't see too many locals outside of the park rangers and the restaurant and hotel employees when we were outside of the conference, and being from New Jersey just outside of NYC, that was more than a little jarring for us. Eventually, we went and ate dinner in the hotel and crashed for the evening, but not before discovering that almost every bar and restaurant in Springfield has video poker and slots:

The city of Springfield appears to be obsessed with video poker and virtual slots, which is interesting to me for some reason.
The next morning, we returned to the conference, and Alyssa screened her documentary, Through Our Eyes, which you can view on YouTube here. The conference attendees asked a lot of thoughtful and intelligent questions afterwards, which was excellent.

Alyssa speaking at the conference after the screening.

After the panel was over, we ran to the designated quiet room and filmed a quick hello to everyone, especially our fellow AGI streamers:


Before we headed out for the day to do some historian things, we got a photo of all the autistic presenters at the conference!

Back row, L-R: Kerry Magro, Alyssa Huber, Erin Miller. Middle row, L-R: Gyasi Burks-Abbott, Morénike Giwa Onaiwu, Charlie Remy. Front row: some short Italian from New Jersey.

After all that was said and done, my mom and I visited the Lincoln House and had lots of History Feelings, and then we dropped Alyssa off for her train home and I ran off to meet up with some internet friends of mine who had converged on the area so we could all be in the same place for the first time. We have weekly video chats in which we use my favorite horrible writing program from 1994 to create terrible things (see my solo streams of Storybook Weaver here), so we were so excited to finally meet. (Out of respect for their privacy, I'm not including any of the photos we took together, but we had an incredible time being together and I was incredibly happy and lucky to get to be with everyone at once.)

Springfield, we discovered, closes early. The restaurant we ate at closed at 8 pm. The only place we could find that was open for us to hang out in past 9 pm was a Cold Stone Creamery, so we got ice cream. We all got an odd vibe from Springfield in particular. One of my friends is from the greater Chicago area and the other one is near enough to Branson, Missouri, both of which are places that do not have dining establishments that close at 8 pm. The entire surrounding town around the downtown area had a sort of eerie vibe, perhaps best evidenced in this photo I took the morning after:


Springfield's downtown was very pleasant and the conference was amazing, but the fact that the rest of the town looked a lot like this, combined with the fact that very few people were out and about the entire time despite a listed population of 117,000+ people, was bizarre.

After my friends and I had a farewell breakfast at IHOP the next morning, my mom and I made a stop-off at Lincoln's tomb before we headed off to St. Louis for the final leg of our journey:

Lincoln's tomb. He wouldn't have wanted something this big.

The sarcophagus. Lincoln's remains are about 10 feet below it.
Seeing Lincoln's final resting place was very emotional for both my mother and I - it was an honor and a privilege for us to be able to visit.

To cap off the trip, we did what I always try to do when I travel, which is go to a baseball game. In this case, it was a Cardinals game at Busch Stadium:


Busch Stadium is gorgeous. Cardinals fans are so lucky to have it!

Right after Dexter Fowler (the runner on third) arrived at home plate, the tarp came out for a rain delay.
There was a rain delay during the game, which explained to me exactly why the Midwest has tornadoes - the storm came up out of nowhere and vanished just as quickly about 30 minutes later.

The Arch in the rain.


At least I got to see one exceedingly pleasing thing on the screen as we waited for the radar to give us the all-clear:

Yes, you're reading that correctly - Jed Lowrie is still in the top five on the RBI list for the 2018 season with 37.
During the rain delay, I met up with one of my internet baseball friends, and before we left the stadium at the end of the game my mom got a picture of him and I in front of the disproportionate Stan Musial statue. Stan Musial deserves much, much better than that statue.

After the game, which the Phillies tragically won (Mets fan here), Mom and I checked into the hotel, which was delightfully baseball-themed and made us very happy, and went to bed early so we could make our flight back to New Jersey. The view outside our hotel as the sun rose over the Mississippi River and St. Louis Arch was absolutely worth it:

Now THIS is a city.
We delightfully had no delays on the return to Newark - in fact, we arrived about 20 minutes early. Despite loving traveling, having an amazing time at the conference, and getting to see so many of my friends, I cannot describe the amount of relief I felt when I looked out the airplane window and saw this:

One World Trade welcomes me back to my city.
A large part of that relief stemmed from the fact that I'd been away from my favorite person in the entire world for five days, a very long time for the two of us to be separated. But Murphy and I had an absolutely wonderful, loving reunion when I arrived home:

Not long after this photo was taken, he bit my face. I now have a huge gash on my right cheek.

So my takeaways from this trip, to summarize, are:
  • The Targeting Autism conference was OUTSTANDING. I'm already asking to go back and speak again next year because I had so much fun and got to meet some amazing fellow advocates and learn from them too!
  • I don't fit in very well in the Midwest. Nobody swears much and they're really polite even if you get in their way. I had to get the rental car over to a turning lane and when I cut into what Springfield considers traffic the loudest protest was a tiny car honk. Where I'm from, we lay on the horn for at least 30 seconds when that happens.
  • People must go to bed really early in Springfield because things don't stay open too late. As a nocturnal person running on New Yorker time, that was weird to me because I'm used to 24-hour diners and being able to get whatever I need at Duane Reade at 3 am.
  • I like St. Louis! I want to get to see more of it since I only got to spend less than 24 hours there. There's a lot of history and museums to explore, and I'd love to go to another game at Busch Stadium. Cardinals fans, you've got a great house! 
  • My friends are all amazing people and meeting so many of them in person for the first time made me super emotional and I am so, so lucky to have all of these people in my life.
  • I need to get Murphy certified as an emotional support animal because I was very cut up about being away from him for so long. I actually bought a stuffed cat at the Lincoln House to serve as a surrogate Murphy until I got home.
Can't wait to hopefully do it all again next year! 

Monday, July 10, 2017

Autistic Gaming Initiative Update, TooManyGames, And More!

Autistic Gaming Initiative July 2017 Update

As you can probably imagine from my sparse updates here lately, I've been incredibly busy. Besides working as an archivist as my day job, the Autistic Gaming Initiative is fully underway now - we've done two streams to date, and our third one is coming up on July 29th and July 30th:


We'll be streaming from 9 pm on the 29th until 9 pm on the 30th for 24 straight hours of gaming! Keep an eye on our Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook to get the list of streamers participating this time around and their schedules. We update them pretty regularly, so it's a good way to keep up with what we're doing! It's also worth checking the "who are we?" page on our website so you can look at the individual streamers and get to know them a little bit. 

TooManyGames 2017, aka The Best Two Days Of My Gaming Life

If you follow me on Tumblr or Twitter, you're probably aware that I enjoy the video game streaming team Vinesauce - it was their charity streams that inspired me to start AGI in the first place, as I detailed here in an earlier post. I decided that my big goal for the next few months after starting AGI was to go to TooManyGames, a gaming convention just outside of Philadelphia, and tell them in person that they motivated me to do something bigger than myself and help other people, and I'm pleased to say that I actually managed to do that!

My program for TooManyGames, signed by every Vinesauce streamer present.

I'm not entirely sure I can put how I felt in the moment into words because I was so excited and nervous to do this, but I do know that after finishing I sort of forgot how to string together coherent sentences for a few minutes, which my friends who were with me can attest to. Everyone was incredibly kind and approachable and I was in utter awe of all of them anyway because they're the people I've been watching to learn how to stream and they inspired me to start AGI and help people. I came away loving them even more than I already did going in, which was a lot, and I'm still over the moon about it all weeks later. I frequently go back to my con photos to remind myself that it really happened and that I wasn't dreaming it all up because it was just a really, really great two days. I'm definitely going back for all three days next year, and I'm going to see if some of my fellow streamers will be able to join me this time around!

Really, I just get this big, doofy grin on my face every time I think about it all and how great it was. I kind of look like this, actually:

Image: Steph, the author, with an excessively doofy grin as she poses for a photo with Vinesauce founder Vinny.

So basically, TooManyGames was really, really good, and I'm so happy about it.

Other Updates

If you're in the greater NYC area and you're looking for me, you might find me at Felicity House on days I'm not working and they've got an event going on. Felicity House is a safe place for women on the autism spectrum to hang out, congregate, socialize, and network, and I've recently become involved with them and their work. Definitely check them out if you're down in the Flatiron District! 
As mentioned above, the next Autistic Gaming Initiative stream is going to be on Saturday, July 29th, starting at 9 pm and continuing until 9 pm on Sunday, July 30th. AGI streams for autistic-run charities, namely The Autistic Self-Advocacy Network and Autism Women's Network, so if you're interested in helping us out in any way or even joining in, contact us at autisticgaminginitiative@gmail.com or on one of our social media accounts listed earlier in this post! 

Lastly, I'll try to be around here more often again - things have just been pretty busy in my neck of the woods! Thank you all for reading and for your support of this blog, which is going to turn seven years old in October! I greatly appreciate each and every one of you!

Sunday, April 9, 2017

On The Term "Neurotypical"

Over the past year or so, I've come to find the word "neurotypical" very frustrating. I know it's frequently used as a catch-all in this community to refer to people who don't struggle with mental illness or developmental disabilities or aren't on the autism spectrum, but it has connotations that I just don't like in light of what we know about the human brain already. If every single human being on the planet has a unique brain that makes them who they are, shapes their personality, and essentially sets them apart from every other human being on the planet, then there's no one "typical" brain to use as a standard.

I know that in this sense, the "typical" part of "neurotypical" is supposed to mean "healthy," but as an autistic person, I'm well aware that my neurology isn't an illness in this regard. (My OCD is another story and I actively get treatment for that.) Obviously, I don't see autism as inherently "unhealthy," so therefore, why would it be "atypical?" It's clearly been here for some time now and it's evolved with us, so it's obviously got some genetic merit and is likely a natural adaptation, just like how some of us are left-handed. (For the record, my entire immediate family, myself included, is left-handed.) Therefore, if it occurs naturally in nature and has, as recent studies suggest, for hundreds of thousands of years, why would it be any less typical than other brains if it's a trait that's been here for so long and appears in so many people?

If we are to truly embrace neurodiversity as a species, we probably are going to have to come to terms that this does include every single human brain that has ever existed. There's no one set "typical" brain, just things that occur in varying frequencies. Therefore, what is the term "neurotypical" really reinforcing here? I've stopped using it for roughly a year because it dawned on me after a conversation with my friends that none of us would fall under that term and that it projected stigma against mental health issues and disabilities by essentially reducing us, once again, to "other" status. It just doesn't feel right when viewed in that light, and that's why for roughly the past year or so I've been using the term "non-autistic people" instead in places where I once would have written "neurotypical." There's no such thing as "neurotypical." There are only infinite combinations of human brains, all different and unique, some with more in common than others.

Image: the Vulcan IDIC symbol, a triangle topped with a round diamond in front of a sphere. A cutout exists around the round diamond to highlight it.
Here I find it perhaps best to defer to a work of fiction. The Vulcan term for this concept is Kol-Ut-Shan, translated as "infinite diversity in infinite combinations." In a sense, this describes the human brain fantastically - every single brain on Earth, though shaped and structured similarly, is going to be different in its own unique way, and people are shaped both by their brains and by the life experiences their brains are exposed to. Kol-Ut-Shan actually makes the argument that neurodiversity, as it's come to be called, is natural for our species and should not be suppressed or stigmatized. As usual, humanity really could learn from the Vulcan example in this regard.

I know that the phrase "normal is just a dryer setting" gets tossed around a lot, but in the case of humankind, it's true - there's no "default" human being. There's no "default" human brain. There are just brains and the people whose skulls they reside within. When we speak of embracing neurodiversity, we speak of embracing every single human brain and learning from them all, for it's only with all of our skills together that we're going to continue to advance as a species.

I mean, we're now a few days less than 46 years away from when we make First Contact with the Vulcans, so we need to have something to show for ourselves when they get here so they see we're worth their time after all, right?

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Autistic Gaming Initiative Updates: April 1st, 2017

Hey, a couple of quick hits this morning as we continue to get AGI off the ground:

  • We have an official website! Check it out!
  • We've made our way to a list of autism acceptance resources put together over at Paginated Thoughts! This is honestly very exciting and we can't wait to help make things better for other people like ourselves! 
  • Our first charity livestream will officially be in late May. No set date has been announced yet as we finalize our streamers' schedules, but as soon as everything is finalized we'll make an announcement. You can expect to know a date within a few weeks.
  • I'm going to be at TooManyGames in late June - all I need to do is buy my tickets! If you're interested in talking to me about the Autistic Gaming Initiative there, contact me and we can try to meet up! The odds are good you'll find me somewhere near wherever the Vinesauce booth is picking their brains about livestreaming (presuming I can get my courage up to talk for more than two seconds).
I've also made a video officially announcing the Autistic Gaming Initiative, which you can check out below.


Now let's work on getting through April together, everyone! We've got this!

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

I'm Going To TooManyGames...To Talk To People

For some reason or another, I've decided that 2017 is going to be the year that I make that major breakthrough on my childhood bullying trauma that's prevented me from trying to talk to men my own age. I'm not entirely certain as to why this happened, but I have some ideas.

The project I'm working on, the Autistic Gaming Initiative, is hopefully going to be a monthly charity gaming stream once I have it in gear where the group of us - all autistic gamers - stream for as long as we can to raise money for the Autism Self-Advocacy Network and Autism Women's Network. I wouldn't have even thought to do this, however, if it weren't for a group of streamers who I've been watching quite a bit lately. You can thank the fine folks at Vinesauce and their charity streams benefiting pediatric cancer research for motivating me to do this - I was watching part of an older charity stream and saw them reach their fundraising goal, and hearing them all chiming in on their audio chat and thanking each other and the viewers for all their help was simply amazing. It was one of those moments where people do something bigger than just themselves, and it made me realize that something I enjoy doing in my spare time could actually be used to help other people like myself.

So here we are in March 2017, and I'm learning how to be a good video game streamer. I've been binge-watching the various streamers of Vinesauce to learn as much as I can in a short period of time (one of those autism benefits is that your brain is a sponge when you're motivated) and I'm looking to get everything pulled together so we can do our first charity stream in April or May, likely the latter. You can follow my learning process on my Twitch page - I'll probably be streaming tonight, in fact - and jump in on the chat as I play all manner of weird things.

Now, why is all of this important? Last year, the Vinesauce team actually had a booth and a panel at TooManyGames, a gaming convention in Philadelphia, and they're going to be back this year for round two. I'm within driving distance of Philadelphia and now fully intend to go to TooManyGames and try to actually thank them for inspiring me to take this project of mine on. Meeting people who I'm inspired by is always very daunting for me, but I've decided that I absolutely have to do this because this would be a huge step forward for me in redeveloping social confidence. I'm not going to let myself chicken out of this one, so I've been getting as many of my friends as possible to hold me to doing this and even go with me to ensure that I actually go and say hi to them at some point.

Anyway, writing this on here is another way of holding myself to doing this, so please watch this space and come late June I'll report back on the whole thing. I'm trying my best here!

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Confidence? Me? Out Of Nowhere?

I've been a bit busy lately between working two jobs and getting the Autistic Gaming Initiative into gear, but things have more or less been good here. In fact, I've had a strange burst of personal confidence that I don't fully understand but am fully embracing with regards to the one major insecurity I have left in my life.

Out of seemingly nowhere over the past three weeks, I've suddenly developed more forwardness and an interest in meeting men that I didn't anticipate I'd ever have. As has been well-documented on this blog in the past, I've been deathly afraid of trying to date for a number of reasons, the primary one being my almost PTSD-esque response to being around men my own age due to bullying as a child and teenager that conditioned me to assume instant rejection and name-calling would follow if I interacted with them. Lately, though, for reasons I can't quite explain, that's taken a back seat to a realization that I'm actually quite cute, can actually be charming (I wouldn't have so many friends if I wasn't!), and wield my sense of humor like it's the goddamned Master Sword. I'm absolutely capable of winning people over, and this includes men who I could develop a mutual attraction with.

At some point in a month or two when we're less busy, my friends and I are going to take a trip to the local Barcade and hang out for a while, and I feel like this is my chance to really start testing the waters and seeing what I'm capable of. If I had a superpower, it would probably be "can do almost anything whilst simultaneously playing Galaga," so if I need to I can absolutely chat someone up as I blast aliens into the next galaxy. (For reference, Galaga has become as natural to me as driving my car, and I can even look up and around me as I play it, much like I can when I'm driving. It's scary.)

But here's how I know I've changed - sure, Barcade would have been exciting to me from the get-go because it revolves around one of my favorite things, old arcade games. But I'm planning my outfit for the trip, thinking about even doing a little makeup that doesn't give me sensory issues, and ensuring that I actually accentuate my cuteness whilst I go along and do what I normally would be doing - meaning that I'm no longer afraid of receiving non-catcall attention. I'm now finally okay with people looking at and noticing me and going, "Hey, she's cute." This legitimately gave me anxiety attacks in the past, and this seemingly sudden change in me is odd, but I'm taking it.

And hey, even if nothing happens at first, just knowing that things aren't as scary as I think they are is going to be a huge confidence-booster down the road, so there's that!

Image: the author [a young woman in a very 1990s jumper and bowler] posing next to a Space Invaders arcade cabinet.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Calling All Fellow Autistic Gamers!

I had an idea to help raise money for the Autism Women's Network and the Autism Self-Advocacy Network, but I'll need your help:


My Tumblr post reads as follows:
I had this idea and I was wondering if we could actually get a big network of autistic gamers together for this, but here goes:

I want to do charity gaming streams benefiting the Autism Self-Advocacy Network and the Autism Women’s Network since I know more than ever we’re going to be needing all the support and visibility we can get. Obviously, although I have a lot of friends and a lot of people who follow my ASD blog, I’m not the most visible gamer on the internet even though I’m more than capable of streaming things and making Let’s Plays. (I do have a prepared gaming channel but so far nothing’s there yet. That’ll change, I promise.)

Anyhow, what I’m proposing here is that we build up a network of autistic gamers and we work together and do gaming streams to help raise money for these two and other autism organizations that actually are for and about us (i.e. not A$, for example). Would anyone be interested in taking this project on with me and working with me to do this? The more of us who work on this, the more we can increase our visibility and fundraising ability!

Please feel free to share this regardless of whether you’re on the spectrum or not - I could use all the help I could get in spreading the word!
There are a lot of steps we'd need to take first, namely setting up a donation page, recruiting gamers, and publicizing the streams, not to mention working with the organizations we'd be donating to and getting everything worked out with them before we do this. We'd need people working on this from all angles to make sure this idea could become a success, so I'm recruiting all the help I can get! If you're interested, please let me know - you can comment here, contact me on social media, or email me at sdiorioart@gmail.com. Hopefully I'll hear from many of you soon and we'll be able to get this idea off the ground!

And hey, if we're doing gaming livestreams and Let's Play videos, our personalities will shine through and more people will see us as, well, people and not some tragedy that needs to be dealt with! We'd win all around here!