Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Importance of Educating Others: Making a Difference, One Brain At A Time

As you all know, I've spoken numerous times on this blog about the problems inherent in the mainstream media's understanding of Autism Awareness Month. The focus on curing, the pathologizing of personality types, and other such issues are just a few of the many facing those of us on the spectrum at this time of the year. What I haven't touched very much on, however, is simply how little real understanding there is among people. Indeed I've found that, despite everyone being so very terrified of Autism, many don't even really understand what it is and what the best ways of working with it are.

Recently, I was visiting my mom's side of my family in Kingston, Ontario and while I was there, I had an opportunity to talk to Kingston's M.P.P. (Member of Provincial Parliament for you non-Canadians out there)'s aide about my concerns over some of the provincial government's new Autism spending priorities. My cousin is also Autistic you see, and he felt the need to go provide a real human face to the whole thing. Naturally, I enthusiastically tagged along. While there, I took the opportunity to explain my concern over a recent image released by Ontario's provincial government in honour of Autism Month encouraging people to “light it up blue.” I talked about how Light It Up Blue is a propaganda campaign promoted by Autism Speaks, how it undermines the ability of those of us on the spectrum to speak and exist for ourselves, and how otherwise problematic the campaign is. I even suggested that the government use “Red Instead” and “Neurodiversity Month” in place of Light It Up Blue, since they are more respectful of the agency and rights of Autistics. Well, an amazing thing happened; the MPP's aide not only listened, she smiled in approval and understanding, as if a rainbow-coloured, infinity-shaped lightbulb had gone on upstairs. She thanked us both for the input and told me she had never considered what I had said before but that she'd get right on bringing it to Sophie (the MPP)'s attention.

I had made a difference; and it felt amazing!

The whole thing really drove home for me how little most people know about Autism. Granted, we've all heard the word, seen the propaganda, and probably all either know someone on the spectrum or are there ourselves. For most individuals, however, that's where it ends. The reason why most people think Autism Speaks is a great and charitable organization, for example, is that there is a precious lack of understanding. This is of course, not helped along by the fact that most information about Autism is presented by clinicians, politicians, parents and charity groups, with most of Autistics' actual stories being drowned out by these voices. It's a frustrating dilemma because most would probably turn wholesale against the mainstream understanding of Autism if only they knew better. This isn't meant as condescension; it's merely a fact.

There is a common idea among activists that it shouldn't be the responsibility of the oppressed group to explain themselves and educate others. While I understand the sentiment behind this, I don't find its fair nor applicable in the case of the Neurodiversity movement precisely because of this lack of information. While its true that we shouldn't HAVE to explain to others what its like living on the Autism Spectrum, the reality of the situation is that we often must. After all, if we don't, who will? If those of us who are neurodivergent don't speak up and contribute our human stories to the conversation, then the discourse will continue to be dominated by researchers, clinicians and parents' groups. The fact is, most people do want to help and meet us where we are, but we first need to help them know exactly where that is. Education is an essential part of improving the world for those with ASD and other neurodivergent conditions. It's the only way we can fight back against all the lack of understanding and actually build a world that is fair to everyone no matter the circumstances of their birth.

In the words of Peppy Hare from Star Fox (because it's kind of become my obsession right now), “Do a barrel roll,” educate others, and keep fighting the good fight!

Yours in Diversity,

Adam Michael

Monday, April 18, 2016

"Fearing the Wind": Change, Growth and Life

Change. It's a part of life. Merely the act of being alive on this earth brings with it the need to change and adapt to new surroundings and situations almost constantly. Even still, this is one of the hardest things for any of us on the Autism Spectrum to deal with. While humans in general tend to get comfortable and have difficulty with change, this is magnified a billion-fold when one has an ASD. I have not always realized this about myself, but events this year have conspired to bring me face-to-face with my own resistance to new things and new life situations.

As I've said before, I've worked for the same small telecommunications company for the last few years, ever since graduating from university. Early on, I saw potential for growth and career development with them, so I diligently stuck with it and worked at whatever my superiors requested from me. Things began to change in that department, however, when I was promoted to my current role. While this position enticed me (how could any salaried position with a pension and benefits not do so to someone freshly out of school?), I soon learned that things were more difficult than I expected them to be in a leadership position. Organization, time management, understanding the nuances of social interaction – all things which, while workable, do not always come as easily to an Aspie like myself – are essential skills in my managerial role. Naturally, I struggled through these things and made many mistakes, but through it all I worked hard, fought the good fight and dedicated myself to self-improvement. For her part, my immediate supervisor was supportive and willing to help me learn.

Our corporate manager on the other hand, was (and is) a different story. Almost from the beginning, he has apparently not liked me. I've consistently worked hard to demonstrate the immeasurable strengths which I bring to the table, but equally as consistently he's shot me down in favour of pointing out my difficulties. This came to a head recently, and after four years of his bullying, coupled with how hard I worked to improve myself, it stung. I hit my lowest point and I'm slightly ashamed to admit that I cried in front of my immediate supervisor. At the time, I felt embarrassed and oh so low.

The thing of it is though, in a weird way this conversation set me free.

Two weeks after having this interaction with my boss, I've experienced my life change for the better in so many ways. I've decided on a direction for my career, refocussed my energies on pursuing what I want out of life, and begun the process of cutting negative influences like my corporate boss out of my life. Most importantly, I found a new job more suited to my strengths! This whole thing has lead me to believe that life is too short to do anything other than play to your best qualities and seek out happiness. Ironically, none of this would have happened were it not for things hitting a negative point in my current work situation.

We Aspies are inherently creatures of routine and habit. We crave structure, repetition and comfort, and don't always like venturing forth to seek out new opportunities. While this may make us intensely loyal to a certain group, organization or place, it can also put the blinders on our vision and cover up the many signs that may be telling us that it's time to take the bull by the horns and embrace something new. The truth is, I've been hiding behind the creature comforts of a salaried position from the very real fact that I needed to look for something more suited to my abilities, and I have been for some time now. Finally reaching the point I'm at feels like a great weight lifted off my shoulders. I'm free, and for the first time in three years, my future feels filled with hope and optimism.

The point I'm trying to make in all of this is that, while its difficult, especially for anyone with an ASD, to accept change, sometimes it's what we need most in order to thrive. Change betters us, helps us grow, and teaches us valuable lessons about ourselves and the world. While it's not always easy, it is almost always beneficial since even the bad experiences bring with them positive wisdom and self-development.

After all, to quote Captain Jonathan Archer of the Enterprise NX-01, “you can't be afraid of the wind.”

As always, yours in diversity,

Adam Michael