Baby Steps in the Right Direction

So, I watched an episode of “God Friended Me.” It involved a woman and her autistic son. I believe the portrayal of the autistic son was realistic, albeit there were several stereotypes I have to point out.  

Let me say, first of all, that I liked the casting of the family. The actors were black. Personally, I do not see enough diversity in the casting of autistic people, especially since people tend to think we all are white males who look and act like Sheldon Cooper. We’re not clones; Hollywood and Television City tends not to see that for the most part. Personally, I want more diversity in autism portrayals.  

So, let’s talk about some stereotypes. The first stereotype I came across was that the child was nonverbal. I know nonverbal autistic types exist. The truth is, most of us are verbal – quite verbal in some cases, but I digress. It’s mostly a stereotype. A second stereotype is that the child has extraordinary talent – a savant trait, if you will. Now, it was not explicitly named, though it was heavily implied. I don’t know how many of us have a real savant trait, but I hear it’s not the majority. Finally, there seemed to be a sort of “magic key” stereotype that also creeps into many portrayals of mental illness as well. Why do they do the “magic key” thing anyway? Most of the time, it does not work. 

Maybe I’m being too hard on stereotypes. The actor was not portraying an autistic meltdown, for example, and the child was finding his own way to communicate, which is often a foray into more traditional avenues of communication, such as the child’s smile.  Maybe having one or two stereotypical behaviors helps identify the character, as long as there is truth to them; the lack of empathy stereotype is wrong and harmful, though. It may be some time before we get a real, authentic portrayal that offends few.  

After saying all this, I still believe “God Friended Me” took steps in the right direction.

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About “Refrigerator Mothers” and I Never Had One

A common, albeit extremely ancient, myth is that autism is caused by mothers, known as “refrigerator mothers,” being cold and unaffectionate. Well, that’s not how my mother worked.  

I remember as a child specifically being held and hugged by my mother many times. Often, she would tell me I needed a hug, and would often give me one. I enjoyed them, even though I may have been stiff about them in the past. (Did she know how to explain the proper hug response?) Well, this is one of the many examples of the warm and inviting personality my mother has.  

Other examples include the parties my mother would throw for my siblings and I. They were awesome! For example, I would get a summer sleepover for my birthday. We would get candy and cake and movies…and all the gossip we could handle, though I was often the subject of the gossip. I tried, but could not quite get into the inner circle.  

The thing is, I had no one explain to me the various tenets of social interaction. For example, no one told me that people do not sort the candy by color. So, how do you expect a girl who does not learn by osmosis, the way neurotypical people do, to interact well with people who learn by osmosis? Poorly, of course. It’s like a five-year-old trying to drive a car. They’re going to crash it.  

So that’s the thing that autistic people need. Explanation and education. Maybe if there were social interaction classes, like the old “finishing school” stuff back in the 1950s, without the gender stereotypes and controlling women aspect, I would have had a chance. But even my best friend would bully me and stab me in the back, and I think my autism was to blame, because people hate different. I’m only an autistic human; be gentle.

All the Ways I’m Not Sheldon Cooper

Now, for some Godforsaken reason, when I come out as autistic to some people, they suddenly see this:

4830_sheldon_cooper.jpg

And they will NOT STOP COMPARING.

Since I have to spell it out, point by point, I am going to. All questions will be rendered to Captain Obvious, standing over there.

 

  • “You’re in my spot” – Sure, I have a “spot.” But I’m not entirely going to yell at people for sitting in it.
  • Extreme Arrogance and Self-Superiority – “The Big Bang Theory” seems to equate autism with arrogance. I’m not arrogant. As a matter of fact, I have to be told on a regular basis that my voice and life matter.
  • Reacting in the Worst Way – One of the hallmarks of Sheldon Cooper, and sitcom characters in general, is that they react to criticism in the most dramatic way possible.
  • Empathy – Sheldon Cooper, in this aspect, is a false stereotype. Autistic people have empathy, and the fact that I have to tell you this well into the 21st Century vexes me to no end. In many online tests, and by people in the know, I have been told I am an empath. I may not express my empathy in “reading between the lines,” but I literally take on emotions of others. There is almost no boundary. I often hold back tears when someone else is crying. Anyway, I have also taught myself on such important things as facial expression and sarcasm – while Mr. Cooper sees no need to do the same, even when he really needs to.
  • Sex/Gender – Sheldon Cooper is male. I am female. I and my fellow female autistics have been told by many professionals that we don’t exist. News flash, autism researchers: autistic women and girls exist! Autistic people of color exist, too!
  • Savanthood – Apparently, Sheldon is a savant in physics. I have been told I am one in spelling and grammar. Not everyone is a savant, though. And not everyone is a physics savant.
  • Physics Snob – Now, Sheldon is a physics snob. He looks down on other forms of science. I do not.
  • Executive Function: Cooking – Can you imagine the high amount of money the group in general spend on takeout? I can cook, and pretty well, too. Sure, I have the occasional takeout, but I can fix quite a few meals, too. Even from scratch.
  • Changes – I can deal with changes in relationships, hairstyles and even food, among other things. Sheldon cannot.
  • Bathroom Schedule – I go when I need to. Sheldon needs a schedule.
  • Diagnosis – I am officially diagnosed autistic (on paper). Sheldon is not diagnosed. At all.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. So stop comparing me to him.

The Problem with Comparisons

An autistic person of color recently brought up a really valid point: many times, when persons of color bring up racism in the world, and even in autistic circles, many white people come up with “But you can’t condemn us! We’re LESS RACIST than neurotypicals!” or some other self-gratifying comparison. Here’s the problem with comparisons: they expose that you’re still affected by the same thing as the person you’re distancing yourself from! If you’re “less racist,” you’re still racist. If you’re “more open-minded,” that doesn’t mean your mind is completely open. You can’t excuse yourself from improvement. Just because you’re ahead of somebody in the race, it does not mean you are at the finish line. Self-improvement and tolerance are marathons, not the long jump. There is still work that needs to be done. Hitler was and is not the only Nazi, David Duke is not the only member of the Ku Klux Klan.

My Relationship with the Mask

Masking autism is nothing new to me. There is a public persona, and there is a private persona.  

It’s not to say that nobody wears a mask at some point. I believe everyone wears a mask to hide their pain. The autistic person’s mask, on the other hand, is much more encouraged to be put on because their private persona is literally vilified. They are taught that their private, and therefore true, persona is a weirdo, a freak, and has no place in this world. 

I’m no stranger to this treatment. Even my sweet nephew called me a freak in anger at one time. People throughout my school years taunted me, teased me, mocked me, and finally excluded me. Even people I thought were my friends. In truth, I spent the last day of school walking home. Alone.  

This is why I developed a mask…too late for high school, though. A mask worthy of the so-called compliment “But you don’t look autistic!” A mask made of body fat, smiles and social graces which has caused people not to think I am autistic. Finally, I was accepted, but not happy. I was polite; but I was not real.  

The mask has saved me from countless taunting and exclusion from my peers, for the most part. It has made me a few friends. Until my late thirties my mask was worn firmly on my face, to the point that I did not know where I ended and the mask began. It was as if my mask had taken over and become my skin. 

But the mask has worn out its welcome. It has gotten some sort of sand or gravel behind it and is hurting my face.  

So, by starting this blog, and healing through therapy and support, I have slowly peeled the mask off, along with some layers of dead skin, to heal and develop the thick skin I was supposed to have years ago. I need to get real. I need to heal.  

I am now working on integrating the public and private personae. I have not arrived at the point where I can take the mask of fully yet, but I am getting there. One day, I’ll finally be able to be myself, fully. I will not need a mask anymore.  

We Need to Bust Some Mental Health Myths

Of course, you all know by now that accessories designer Kate Spade died by suicide. I’m not going to get into the details, but you can Google them any time you like. Somebody even leaked the VERY PRIVATE note she left for her daughter at the site. (Not cool.) Anyway, we need to talk about it. There has been a huge spike in suicides since, too.

I have decided to see what myths I could bust concerning suicide, and in extension, mental health.

Let me start with this one: One of the things most people get wrong about depression and suicide is that every case of depression has a rational origin. That is not always true. Sure, some of them have rational beginnings, but this is not always the case. No amount of money, success or fame is going to save you from something inside your head. It’s in your country already!

It is also a myth held by most people that mental health problems don’t affect them. I wonder – do you ever really know the people who know? Do you know what they face, how much energy they expend to just get ready for the day? Conservative estimates state that one in five people suffer from a mental illness. Those are Conservative estimates. Midline estimates state one in four, by the way.
Kate Spade just subverted the myth that people with mental health needs, even those who are managing their mental illness, cannot tolerate the stress of holding down a job. She designed some of the best handbags ever for a living. I myself held down a high-stress job at In-N-Out Burger for six years, with periodical raises. I could utilize my strengths to fit the job perfectly. Anyway, I don’t have to argue with you on how well I can hold down a job. Especially with the help of medication one can take in the morning and go on with the rest of your day, many people with mental illness hold down perfectly good jobs, in all industries.

Here’s another myth we can kick down: Personality weakness or character flaws cause mental health problems. People with mental health problems can snap out of it if they try hard enough. In what universe? Look, if some gruff person in a fur or leather jacket could actually snap a person out of mental illness, I know of people who could make millions doing exactly that! But trying to make a person “Man Up, You Big Girl!!!!!” never works, and leads anyone down the road further to suicide. Aren’t we trying to prevent that?
I would like to also bust this myth. “There is no hope for people with mental health problems. Once a friend or family member develops mental health problems, he or she will never recover.” Sure, the problem may never go away, as it is not a cold, but we can live with it using the proper treatments and parameters. A little sidetrack: Did you know that in the 1848 novel Moby Dick, whales are scientifically classified as fish? The point is, both the medical and scientific communities can be wrong and need to correct themselves at times. It has happened before. Why not let it happen again?

Finally, and this is the big one: “Once a person wants to kill themselves, they are destined to do it.” Not true! I’ll tell you a story of a man who jumped over the side of the Golden Gate Bridge. He is one of the few to survive, by the way. Once he left the safety of the bridge, he regretted doing it. On the way down, he prayed to survive. He did – barely – but the regret stayed with him. He has never tried it again. Now, it doesn’t always take an extreme case of attempt to bring about the will to live. It may sometimes, but sometimes, just telling somebody is enough to deter it. In my case, that is what happened to me. I told somebody who told my mother, who got me help. It was in this instance I learned I had depression. It did not take a long time for me to learn how easy it is to manage, when you do what is necessary, even to the point of stigma.

Anyway, these are a few of the myths out there.

When You Die

NOTE: This is in response to a recent blog post written by a parent of an autistic child. 

“What will happen to my autistic kid when I’m gone?” “What will happen to my autistic kid when I die?” Well, if you hog all the autism care and concern and leave none of it for them, they will probably die alone, possibly killing themselves.

Have I got your attention now?

An isolated, dependent, and short lifespan is the current fate of most autistic people. Do you want to stop that? Don’t hog all the care and concern. Remember, the autistic person is suffering the most. NOT YOU!!!!!

Also, I have a few questions I want to ask:

Here’s my question: Can they learn to adapt and live?

Some autistic people need round-the-clock care, but I believe many do not. You must learn where on this care spectrum this person falls, and make the proper arrangements. You might be surprised where this person falls, and where he functions highly. Also, get him some autistic friends. I don’t have any close autistic friends right now, except on Facebook, and there are times I feel all alone.

Here’s my next question: Can they be autistic around you?

There is a LOT of pressure to fit in, to be acceptable, to conform. Autistic people, because they are bullied, left out and ostracized, feel this pressure more than most people. Holly Robinson-Peete’s son once declared “I don’t want autism” to his family at one time in the course of conversation. This just broke my heart. I could not put a finger on it at the time, but I realized it meant that he feels he cannot be loved and/or accepted until he can conform to neurotypicality. I could not watch another episode of their reality show.

Another question: Is there somebody they can be autistic, and therefore themselves, around?

If not you, the autistic person NEEDS to be autistic. It’s a fact of life as of May 29, 2018. If they are not themselves around you, they need to be themselves around somebody. They need somebody they can trust. Not you, them. You might be surprised who they trust, and it may not be the people you trust. Remember: many times, they have learned to not trust themselves or their instincts. I have gone through this behavior, and have re-learned to trust my instincts in my thirties. By then, it was almost too late.

I am currently forty years old. By some estimates, the average death age of an autistic person is thirty-six. (By some, it could be as late as fifty-four.) This means I may have already outlived my lifespan by four years. Not much time on this world where we face rejection, is it? Most autistic people still may be doomed to die alone, but you can help change it. There is a group of people who can help your child, because they know what your child is going through. They are going through it themselves. These are what we call autistic adults.