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:

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!