Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Why “Jumping”, Tho?

I’d been told a lot of my life I should talk about and write down my life experiences. My perspective, I’ve been told, is unique and I’m a good enough communicator for people to clearly understand and listen to me talking about my life.

Yeah, yeah – an autistic person who’s a good communicator sounds like the definitive oxymoron. But if I am such a person, then doesn’t that oxymoron no longer exist? */stereotype demolished*

At any rate, sharing my life story and perspective has weighed on my mind for a long time. And with that constantly in my head, I keep going back to my childhood perspective of the world. Namely, that I was always being watched. Watched and judged.

Ever since I was five I knew I was different. My earliest memory comes from about age two, but before kindergarten I thought my life was pretty normal. I thought everyone went to two preschools – a specialized one where I was taught to speak through reading and one regular run by my family’s synagogue – and took the bus between the two, had college kids take them on outings to the park/zoo/beach/wherever, and went to a place I called “Esther House” to play with a nice older lady (who of course turned out to be a therapist). But kindergarten changed all that. Suddenly I was in a classroom with a ton of kids not like me and they all seemed to have it easier than me. They didn’t get easily frustrated when not getting certain learning skills. They didn’t have meltdowns when said frustrations overcame their ability to cope and weren’t taken out of the classroom by adults to calm down. As the years passed, those other kids didn’t have an adult in the classroom specifically there for them because of the meltdowns and didn't have time outs where they had to be supervised in the administrative offices by the school's staff. And of course, those kids didn’t have a hard time making friends because of all the above and were often made fun of or treated badly by kids and adults alike because of it.

I’ll talk later about when I discovered I was autistic (believe me, that’s a story in itself), but all those things made me feel like I was under constant surveillance. Like everyone was scrutinizing and judging me. And that’s where the fishbowl comes in – I always felt like I was a goldfish in clear glass bowl with everyone the world pressed against the glass, waiting for me to do something "crazy". Something "crazy", like jump. And when I would inevitably jump, the world would scoff and go, “Of course she did that, isn’t that funny? Isn’t that crazy? Stupid crazy goldfish.”

As I’ve gotten older, I am now finding I’m not alone in feeling like the watched goldfish. Everyone to a degree, at least at some point in their life, feels like the world is against them, but exposure to the autistic community has particularly shown me the "goldfish-in-a-bowl" feeling is far more common than you'd think. I currently intern at a grassroots non-profit serving the autistic community and I’ve heard from more than a few clients they too feel like they’re constantly being watched and scrutinized for their differences. And the further I delve into the online autistic community I hear more of the same. It’s almost as if once you realize you and your abilities are not quite like other people’s, the world becomes more terrifyingly judgmental.

But in the process of being open about my autism, it’s about time I start rethinking that fishbowl analogy. So I’m in that fishbowl, swimming around, minding my own business, and the world is watching me. Maybe the world isn’t thinking I’ll do something "crazy", but rather is expecting me to stay in that fishbowl. Expecting me to not leave its strict borders of what an autistic person is supposed to be and thus limiting their expectations of me. Well guess what? I’m jumping out that fishbowl. I have done a lot to defy common expectations of autistic people – I have good friends, I live on my own without a community home, I graduated college from a school over three hundred miles away from my home, I've studied abroad, and am finishing graduate school at a pretty prestigious university. I’m not gonna let so-called conventional wisdom about autistic people having limited abilities stop me from making a splash in the world. (Pun slightly intended.) I refuse to either accept the judgment that autistic people are inherently incapable of leading a happy life or the idea that we cannot be a powerful force for good.

Autistic people are making more splashes for good than ever before. I’m jumping out of the fishbowl with them. And I no longer care what anyone thinks about it.

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