Portrait of an Autist as a Young Man

As I start blogging again, I’m trying to get my head back into writing mode. It’s a struggle but I’m getting some ideas. In the meantime, I thought I’d satiate you by posting something I wrote in the past that’s related to autism: an autobiography of sorts. When I was applying to grad school a couple of months ago, one of the schools asked me to submit a 5-6 page autobiography chronicling the experiences that led to my decision to pursue education. I think anyone interested in autism would benefit from my story.

As all my fellow second graders were playing outside, I sat with Ed, a special-needs child the same age as me, and voluntarily helped him with his reading comprehension by reading with him. I vividly remember the sense of joy I felt when he pronounced the word ‘embarrassed’ correctly. I had a soft spot for Ed; I saw myself in him. We were both socially awkward, we both experienced bullying, and we both had single-minded interests. I was a special-needs child too, diagnosed with high-functioning autism.

While I was lucky enough to reap the benefits of inclusion throughout my school years and could’ve easily been in a worse situation, growing up in the special education system left me feeling inferior and eerily voiceless. Even after making significant progress, these are feelings that I continue to struggle with into adulthood. The distance that I felt from my peers for being different was enough for me to feel disempowered by a system that was ironically designed to help me. Despite the best intentions of my teachers, I sensed early on that they were working in a system that assumed that people like myself were broken and I concluded that my sense of empowerment had to come from somewhere else. I’ve never felt truly accepted for my disability in my school years, even though I was considered high functioning and appeared normal enough. At best, I felt that people were projecting career paths onto me; it took some time for my parents to accept the fact that I abandoned the idea of becoming an engineer or a mathematician, even as my math grades started dropping in high school. I only accepted engineering and math as options because they were convenient but the ambition was never truly mine. It was just something else that others wanted for me.

The first serious career idea I’ve ever had was becoming a musician. I took a lot of pride in this choice because it was the first decision that, after years of feeling voiceless and controlled, came completely from within. I made it a priority to know as much about music as possible. I learned how to play the piano and studied music theory, composition, music history, audio engineering, sound synthesis, and even dabbled in more obscure topics such as the physics of sound, the mathematics behind music theory, and aesthetics. After deeply immersing myself in a mostly independent study of music since I was 15 years old, I realized that becoming a professional musician is an unrealistic career choice for me not only because the music industry is in poor shape but also because I realized that the projects that I’d be most passionate about will leave me as a starving artist. However, I don’t consider it to be a waste of time. Other than simply having deep knowledge of something that I love, the greater purpose of my study of music was to give me a sense of self-empowerment and to help cultivate the intellectual vigor and curiosity to dive into other topics; I managed to foster creativity and a love of learning within myself by letting myself be. I continue to write music and plan to keep it that way.

After graduating from college, I had spare time in between graduation and my first job. Having had the silly idea of writing an autobiography at age 21, I decided to research autism in a (semi-misguided) venture to learn more about myself. I came upon endless resources but most of them referred to autism as a medical condition and the stories I found stirred up pity in the reader and shined a rosy but nauseating light on the autistic. I kept digging until I stumbled upon egalitarian concepts like neurodiversity and disability rights. I kept wondering why I’ve never been challenged to consider these perspectives. Were my teachers ignorant of them? Did they think that my ‘condition’ would somehow hinder my ability to understand them? Or was it because I simply didn’t seek them out before? And if it’s because I didn’t seek them out, why didn’t I? My research had shifted my thinking of autism drastically. It appeared less as a medical condition and more as a reflection of societal values.

I managed to keep my autism not just hidden but also pushed into the back of my mind as if it were a secret that I’m trying to keep from myself. Keeping it hidden meant not complaining in the face of sensory overload and pretending I understand subtle social cues and memes when I actually don’t. This may have led me to experience confusion and anxiety but it was preferable to admitting or showing that I was autistic. Coming to terms with it has been an ongoing process. I still sometimes wonder if I could ever be taken seriously as an autistic person. I realize, however, that publicly admitting that I’m autistic, given the stigma surrounding it, is a radical act in which I’m usually greeted with either ostracism or condescension.

I consider myself very lucky for an autistic person; very few of us feel like our voice matters and now that I have my own voice and the confidence to go with it, I want to use it well. The first time I got to use that voice was when I started working for [redacted for this blog post], an organization that provides many kinds of support and services to disabled people. I work in their [redacted] department, which specializes in work with autistic adults, as a lead mentor, helping our participants attend college, integrate into the community, etc. I discovered a diversity of people of varying ability and intelligence; I quickly learned that I had to develop a different approach with everyone. Some were more independent than others, some needed more help with interacting with people than others, and some appreciated my avant-garde punctuation marks more than others. This helped me realize that autism manifests differently in everyone and, like neurotypical people, developing a blanket approach to working with autistic people would not work, despite them falling under the same label and having similar issues.

I was slowly and unwittingly building the skills necessary to become a good teacher through bouts of tutoring and my work as a mentor at [redacted]. I realized that I wanted to be a teacher when I became appointed [redacted]’s first in-house private music teacher earlier this year and started giving lessons to a young man who receives services from us. I started to experience the same excitement whenever he had fun playing the keyboard that I did whenever Ed pronounced a word like ‘embarrassed’ correctly.

After reflecting on being autistic in this society and having a full-time job working with other disabled people, I’ve come to view the label ‘special ed’ as problematic. It is a byproduct of power hierarchies that favor those who are neurotypical or able-bodied. My experience growing up in the special education system, however, puts me in a position to be more sensitive to the needs of the disempowered children in my classroom, special ed students or otherwise, than an average teacher. One of my hopes as an educator is to address such issues in my lesson plans. Children are the best age group to tackle because they have no such values ingrained into them yet; feelings of hatred and discrimination are learned traits. The childhood stage is the best time to address issues of social justice; the concept of social justice becomes harder to grasp as one gets older and develops prejudice towards certain groups of people. Childhood is also the best time to nurture creativity. Cultivating my creative instincts is one of the best decisions I have ever made for myself, despite starting in my teens instead of childhood, and I’d be a different person without them; they have allowed me to transcend the tunnel vision mindset that a lot of people have, disabled or not. Even if I fail to address issues of social justice in the classroom, if I could nurture creativity, I’d say I’m successful.

Inclusion does not work in a bubble. It may be designed with the best intentions in mind but it does not shield autistic and other special-needs students from the negativity and stigma surrounding them in the media. I understand that reducing stigma against disability is a tall order but I want to do everything I can to combat it and the best way I could do it is to be an example.

I didn’t get in the school.

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