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  • Writer's pictureBrendan Szendrő

Autism Awareness Day, 2020

It's not such a strange thing to search for belonging.

Every year I write something in honor of World Autism Awareness Day, but given the mood of the time I hesitated on it this year (it was last week). Not only because it seems as though people have a lot of other things on their mind, but also because my writing doesn’t come out all that coherent under quarantine conditions. When I try to write these days, it usually turns into some sort of meditation on solitude.

Long-term isolation isn’t really good for people. Autistic people are a little more comfortable with it, which is actually why I try to avoid it as much as I can. My relationship with solitude feels almost addictive. It’s my natural habitat — my comfort zone. If I didn’t throw myself into as many social situations as possible I would drift away from the outside world pretty easily.

Everyone on the Autism Spectrum is different, but on the whole all of us seem to have a heightened sense of individuality. Autism winds up being a sort of parallel existence where every facet has some sort of equivalency to the mainstream experience, but the mechanism by which it occurs is different. We feel the same things, but we get there differently. Because of that we can fake normalcy well enough to fit in, but it’s hard to shake the sense that “different” is something to cover up, not something to publicly admit or celebrate.

The “differences” on the Autism Spectrum are any number of small nuances that don’t necessarily make sense from an outside perspective. Not that they’re inherently offensive in any way, just that it’s almost like a separate language. For that reason, it’s hard for Autistic people to find a public voice. Most of the conversations surrounding Autism are dominated by non-Autistics who work with Autistics in some capacity. Actual Autistic people often feel too isolated and separate from other people to make themselves heard.

Finding a voice for Autistic people in the public sphere is important because even if we can protect ourselves, there are people like us who can’t. The organizations that are supposed to protect Autistic people instead protect non-Autistic people from ever having to accommodate us. I personally feel like I have more in common with “low-functioning” Autistics than with neurotypicals, and I feel that if “high-functioning” Autistics had more of a hand in policy-making, “low-functioning” Autistics wouldn’t suffer as much.

Also, *we* wouldn’t suffer as much. Not to get too macabre, but some psychological surveys have indicated that as many as two-thirds of Autistic people demonstrate suicidal tendencies, compared to roughly one-in-twenty-five in the population as a whole. The reality is that we can’t test for “Autism” as a concrete genetic mutation, and it’s true that who is or is not “Autistic” is a fuzzy grey area, but if there’s such a significant difference between this category and the rest of the world, then the concept is clearly measuring something real.

When I write about Autism, and myself in relation to Autism, I try to write in a way that helps me reach out to other Autistic people as well as relate to the neurotypical world. I keep hoping that if I can spin an interesting narrative, the oddities of the Autism Spectrum won’t seem so strange; that if we can learn to tell our stories the neurotypical world will find beauty in them.

There’s a lot more leeway in celebrating your differences if you can “own” it. Successful Autistic people seem to do exactly that - project confidence about their differences in a way that the insecurity, at least ostensibly, doesn’t penetrate them. On a good day, it doesn’t feel like an act; on a bad day, it definitely does. On a bad day, it’s hard not to imagine that an Autistic person can only pick two or three “normal” things to do, because it’s not possible to have a totally stable life.

Pick two of: have an active social life; independently support yourself; have a regularly scheduled job; have a stable living situation; sleep, ever. What do you give up? Can you leverage your unique qualities in a way that you can make up for what you’re missing? Can you indulge in your abilities in a way that you can be happy with the sacrifices? For that reason, I often find myself grappling with the pressure to be amazing, to make those sacrifices worth it. I definitely make choices. I find that I always choose to sacrifice sleep - that’s the first thing that goes - and I always choose to have an active social life, aggressively so.

Quarantine conditions don’t make these choices feel all that worth it, since it fundamentally forces you to give up on everything. I’ve traveled a lot in recent years, because that was something I could do, and it made me feel whole. Living out of planes, trains and automobiles - not to mention couches - is a much more freeing feeling than living out of a single room. At that point, your solitude is a function of choice; you can choose when to be alone and when to be surrounded by people. You can meditate and congregate within the span of a few hours, and you constantly meet new personalities.

One thing I noticed during my travels is that I met quite a few people in similar positions as myself, many of whom were also on the Autism Spectrum. It’s actually kind of amazing how many people I met in Nashville who were traveling musicians, living out of their cars. It definitely felt like a story was being told and realized.

Here’s a weird thing - most of the people I’ve met in my travels probably don’t know I’m Autistic. I would actually guess that a majority of the people I know don’t even know what my job is. So for those people - believe it or not, I’m a PhD candidate in Political Science. For those lucky enough to be able to attend school, academia is often the most viable career path for an Autistic person because of its relative flexibility. It’s not without its challenges. But, as Springsteen put it - “some guys do it for the money, other guys do it ‘cause they don’t know what else they can do.”

The musician thing is just sort of a way I tell my personal story. Deep down all of my songs reflect this experience that I constantly try to make sense of in a relatable way. Much of the way life unfolds for an Autistic person, estranged from group-oriented ways of life, seems to not make logical sense. I find myself recounting long periods of time over and over again, trying to sort out how I got to the present day, in a way that a cohesive narrative forms.

The point being that, at the moment, everybody is just as isolated as we usually are, so maybe now is the perfect time for us to start talking about this. It’s my hope that people on the Autism Spectrum can start sharing their stories. When the non-Autistic world starts to see the beauty in these stories, we can start bridging the gaps; everyone matters, and no one need feel isolated when we share such fundamentally human attributes.

It’s not such a strange thing to search for belonging.

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