Saturday, April 23, 2016

And All I Know Is Guilt For Being Different

When I was a kid, Chumbawamba's Tubthumping became a surprise one-hit wonder in the US. My mom found the song catchy enough to warrant us buying her the album (called Tubthumper), and as I got older I actually came to appreciate the entire album, especially during my teenage years when I, like most people of that age, began to become upset with the status quo and realized change was needed.

As an adult, I actually have all of their albums on my iPod. (I swear I'm not an anarchist, just someone who believes in making the world a better place.) The song I find myself going back to over and over again, however, is on Tubthumper, the first album we bought. It's called Smalltown, and it really reflected how I felt during my high school years - afraid that everyone knew I didn't belong here and that it was only a matter of time before I was driven away.

The line that struck me the most then - and still strikes me now - is "And all I know / Is guilt for being different." I was more than aware by the time I was in high school that I was different from everyone else, but I wasn't entirely certain as to exactly how, just that they liked certain things and I liked certain other things and that I found a lot of their social rituals tiresome and unnecessary (the song, incidentally, says, "There are unwritten rules, unspoken words"). Of course, when I was diagnosed at age 20, I found my answers, and more than ever, I felt guilty for being different. Although I was relieved, I had to sort myself and my feelings out, and for a while I really did worry about being a burden on people who knew me.

Fortunately, I broke free from that and know it's just propaganda designed to make organizations like Autism Speaks more money, but every so often I have intense moments of guilt. I wonder if I wasn't an autistic child if I'd have moved out of my parents' house by now. I wonder if they're feeling financially burdened by me still living here. I wonder if I'll ever have a job, if I'll ever be financially secure on my own, if I'll ever amount to anything - and there I sit, staring off into space, feeling ashamed and pathetic...and guilty.

I know more than guilt for being different now, but I definitely still know it, and it's not necessarily something that's easy to unlearn since it's so ingrained in me from growing up my entire life being seen as some sort of social "other." I sincerely hope it's something that someday I can finally fully unlearn as I continue to take pride in my differences instead.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Autistic Employment Concerns Part The Nth

Yesterday, I was volunteering at a book fair and discussing my lack of employment and how frustrating it was to me that finding a job was so difficult. As if acting on cue, my Google alert for 'autism' came up in my inbox and linked me to this article, which didn't help me feel any better:
Although awareness of autism is growing, people diagnosed with the disorder are still having difficulties finding work, the Economist reported. 
About 80 percent of those diagnosed with autism do not work, the United Nations estimates. A survey by Britain’s National Autistic Society found that only 12 percent of high-functioning autistic adults work full time, and only 2 percent with more challenging forms of autism are employed.
Great. Just great. In the current world, I have approximately a 12% chance of becoming employed full-time, if these statistics are anything to go by. I live in the United States, where autism is well-known (but not necessarily well understood because Autism Speaks is a propaganda machine), but I'm not necessarily sure my employment chances are better here, even though as a woman I'm not often recognized as autistic and I've worked as a tour guide and learned to disguise my traits well enough, a technique we call "passing." I have a Master's degree and have enough experience to reach the interview stage occasionally, but despite my interviews going well I'm never the candidate chosen as of late and it makes me feel like there must be something wrong with me that they're noticing and not liking. Considering how I've felt in the past about getting noticed, this is an idea I've internalized, and in a way, I wonder if I project this aura of "I don't think I deserve this job" or something or other to potential employers.

Except I absolutely do believe I deserve a job in my field because I've worked incredibly hard and become incredibly skilled, and I pick up new skills really easily, to boot. I'm perfectly capable of being an absolutely phenomenal archivist.

I'm actually starting to hope that my potential employers find this blog and see what I've been writing here about my intense desire and determination to obtain employment. I hope they see my dedication here and realize that I'm just as capable as anyone else applying for the job and that my disability is actually an advantage in the archival world because my intense focus on work means I can blow through archival backlogs like nobody else. I want them to know how much I care and how important archiving is to me, and I want them to see just how good I can be if they take a chance on me.

I am an archivist. I happen to be an autistic archivist. It shouldn't make a difference in whether or not I get paid to do what I love and what I'm trained to do, simple as that.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

How My Own Characters Helped Me Normalize My Autism And Accept Myself

Coping with my diagnosis was initially very difficult for me. I didn't know anyone else who was like me at first, and I had to learn how to cope with it and accept myself for who I was in order to ensure I took care of myself. Everyone comes to terms with things in their own way, so I had to find my way to acceptance on my own.

A little bit after I started my freshman year of college in 2007, a little less than two years before I got my diagnosis, I started doing some character designs for a fictional college baseball team. I named their school Slumberwood, a pun on Wake Forest, and plopped their campus down in Rutland County, Vermont. I then began fleshing out the team and adding new members for each successive school year, planning to turn the project into a full-scale webcomic at some point. The webcomic never came into fruition, but working on the characters (and even jokingly giving the major ones Facebook accounts and having them interact with each other like normal college students) helped carry me through bleaker moments in my college career since it was fun and I loved college baseball.

The most important of these college ballplayers turned out to be Sheridan Travers, Class of 2010, born April 16th, 1988. Sheridan was chronically addicted to Pixy Stix and nearly always had one in his mouth, even when batting, and played shortstop left-handed, which, if you're unfamiliar with baseball, is very unusual. (His double play partner, main character Justin Pedrotti, nicknamed 'Drotti, played second base left-handed, which was also unusual, but because they both played the middle infield left-handed they worked very well together.) As I developed the cast of Slumberwood more and more, I noticed Sheridan was becoming more and more like me, and when I was diagnosed in 2009 it occurred to me that he had actually inherited a lot of my autistic traits. I figured I might as well go all the way with it and gave him the diagnosis, too.
Sheridan Travers, as drawn by the author on 4/13/16.
Giving my diagnosis to a character that I had created turned out to be amazingly therapeutic for me. As I further worked on the story and incorporated Sheridan's teammates learning to be supportive friends and accept him for who he was, it enabled me to build up more confidence in myself and accept myself for who I now knew I was, too. I was able to draw on my own life experiences to write his - Sheridan's search for belonging was both personified in his Asperger's diagnosis and the fact that he had grown up in an orphanage and was raised by the woman running it since he had seemed "too strange" to adopt. Although I'm no orphan and have lived with my birth family my entire life, I wanted to emphasize that Sheridan was trying to find somewhere that he really felt he belonged since his diagnosis had made him feel like he wasn't good enough for the rest of the world since society loves to tell those of us on the spectrum that we don't belong.

By the time he graduated Slumberwood in 2010, Sheridan had a ton of friends through the baseball team, had more or less become a part of second baseman 'Drotti's family, and had graduated as class valedictorian (due to obsessive hard work, not just intelligence) and had a full ride to MIT for grad school to pursue robotics and try to use robots to make people's lives better. (He also had a mild weeaboo stage in middle school, which led him to study and become conversationally fluent in Japanese because he developed genuine interest and respect for the language and culture, so I suspect that in his spare time he was going to try to build a Gundam, too. I wouldn't put it past him.)

I actively forged a place in the Slumberwood world for Sheridan because he deserved a perfectly normal place in the world, like all of us do. His teammates were accommodating when they had to be, but they didn't place him on a pedestal or treat him differently once they all knew about his autism. They just saw him as Sheridan Travers, the starting shortstop, and their only concern was whether or not he was hitting. To them, he was a person, not a disorder.

Looking back on all of this, I realized the other day that it went a long way in helping me accept myself. Accepting and really caring about a character I had crafted who had something very major in common with me had led me to begin accepting those same traits in myself, and over the years I learned to view myself as a whole person again, contrary to society and Autism Speaks telling me I had pieces missing. I don't have any missing pieces. I'm just who I am. If it took me creating a fictional character who also had those traits to embrace myself, then so be it, but people like Sheridan and myself aren't going anywhere.

This is why I encourage all creative autistic people to share their stories and continue writing, drawing, and doing whatever it is you like to do. We need more autistic voices in the media, and more autistic characters created by autistic people can definitely go a long way in helping those of us who come along later realize that they, too, are supposed to be here and that they're part of the world we live in and deserve to be.

Never, ever stop creating. You never know whose life you'll touch and improve.

Friday, April 8, 2016

I Am Not Broken

My hair looked nice.
I like to think I clean up fairly nicely. I was at an archival event on Wednesday (which turned out to really be a talk and not much of a networking opportunity even though I'd mentally prepared myself for networking for about a week) and I made sure to look presentable in case I met anyone who could further impact my career. I actually looked pretty damn good, I think, despite the wind making it difficult to keep my hair in line!

I always wonder when I'm dressed more formally if I'm somehow more "acceptable" to the public that way. I wasn't particularly fashionable when I was younger due to just wanting to wear loosely-fitting T-shirts and jeans all the time (function over form), something I imagine probably contributed to the bullying I dealt with as a kid and teenager. I tend to spend a lot more time than I should wondering if my existence as a human being is socially unacceptable or not, and that's not something I should be wondering at all.

I actually look good in this dress.
I read a great piece on The E is for Erin earlier today about the phenomenon of "hiding" oneself, and I related to a lot of the things she said with regards to feeling this need to hide your true self in order to be relieved of social stigma. As I said in an earlier article a week or two ago, I have a sort of "false self" that I present to the public, which has gotten so sophisticated at this point in my life that not even my closest friends get to see the "real me" 100% of the time. I really only trust my family with "real me" with the exception of the internet, where it's easier for me to reach out and find like-minded people. I've internalized this idea over the years that "real me" is somehow socially unacceptable and shouldn't exist in the world that I live in, so I've gotten really good at hiding her from society and instead putting on this sort of false front. Whenever people do see cracks in the facade, they get confused at best and have rejected me at worst - a classic example being my college roommate, who was unintentionally emotionally abusive to me because I turned out to not be the carbon copy of her deceased mother that she had projected onto me. For the longest time, I genuinely believed that "real me" was somehow broken, and although getting my autism diagnosis gave me relief I also battled feelings of inadequacy and this idea that maybe I was somehow "sub-human" according to the rest of the world.

In the article from The E is for Erin, Erin writes,
Humiliation and shame. Those are recurring themes in my social life over the years. The life lesson learned is to hide. Hide everything you care about, hide the things that matter, hide all of your feelings, hide your true self, because letting people see you is dangerous.
Hiding is an early instinct for autistic people, I think. Because it only takes a few rejections and betrayals for us to note the pattern: expose yourself and you may be hurt. Because we have an intense drive to protect ourselves from pain. Because we often can’t tell which people, places, and situations are safe, so it’s best to just avoid risking it, and to hide our most valued things, our most intimate selves, out of sight.
I'm tired of having to hide. I want a world that sees me the way I see myself - as completely human, as acceptable, as not broken. I am not broken. I am a human being. I shouldn't have to hide the person I am just because I don't fit into a society designed by people who didn't have people like me in mind, only themselves. I feel like I still have to, though, and it exhausts and hurts me every single day of my life. Somehow, I'm just not good enough for society when I'm myself. That's not okay.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

April Is Treat Autistic People Like Humans Month

I spent my World Autism Acceptance Day out with friends celebrating a friend's birthday. It was nice to be out with people who understand why I am the way I am and ask me questions when they get confused. I've had my current group of friends since high school and it's been really great to have them around for all these years since we've been able to grow up and support each other over all these years. They, well, accept me!

It's especially important for me that I have my friends because they make me feel like less of a failure at life. I was rejected from yet another archival job this morning, so it's a small comfort to know that at least I have a social life, even if nobody wants to give me a work life (whether it's because they genuinely don't think I'm a good match for the job or if it's because they find out about my disability by searching for me is beyond me). I'm going to an archival networking event tomorrow night, though, and whilst these always make me nervous I'm going to try my best to talk to some people and hand out the new business cards I had printed recently.

In the meantime, my 27th birthday is in 20 days, and I'm both looking forward to it and feeling slightly frustrated about it at the same time. Every time I hit a milestone age-wise, I feel like I'm behind on certain things, namely social things (i.e. I've still never been on a date and it really stings as I get older). On the other hand, I love my birthday because people actually acknowledge me and all I've done for them over the years, and given that I didn't feel valued much by my peers as a kid this really means a lot.
My birthday last year. [Image is of a young woman wearing a Red Sox hat and shirt and smiling with a birthday cake with candles in the shape of the number 26.]
The month of April tends to be pretty up and down for me these days because despite my birthday being in April, I also have to endure the so-called "awareness" campaigns that dominate the airwaves, although I like to think we're about to turn a corner as more and more people realize that we're just human beings that are somewhat different and don't fit into this society's rigid expectations of what humans should be. "Neurotypical" really just means "fits into society" and isn't really something, well, typical since the human brain has so many variations as it is. It's unfortunately the best term we have right now to explain things, but, as a friend and I were discussing on Saturday, it's definitely lacking since there's no real "typical" brain to be a benchmark. As it is, right now "neurotypical" just means "not struggling with mental illness or having a disability," but we probably need a better word to describe this.

Murphy. [Image: a cat on his back on a bed.]
It's honestly very difficult to spend an entire month being told you're somehow lesser or broken, however. In general, that's what April is like for me nowadays because autism "awareness" is everywhere you look. I'm reluctant to shop at some of my favorite stores because they're taking donations for Autism Speaks this month. The television tells me I'm a burden on my family. The radio tells me that I'm somehow incomplete as a human. There's no escape from the deluge of campaigns hammering me with this negativity. But it's also my birthday month, and I'm glad to be alive and be who I am. I do have to stand strong in the face of all of this propaganda every time my birthday comes around, but in a weird way it also reminds me I'm alive and there are people who are genuinely upset that I'm alive so I have to keep going to spite them.

Also, I met Murphy in April 2009. Can't be all bad if I met my best friend this month.