How my life got filled with autism every day, and why yours should too
Three years ago, I was teaching in a charter school for students in recovery from drug and alcohol addictions. My campus was closing and I needed a new job. The first four years of my teaching career were spent working with addicts, gangsters, and wanna-be gangsters. This was exactly the population I had pictured myself working with, and I loved it. I had always been most drawn to the students that our society relegates to the fringes, the kids who fall through the cracks, unwanted, unnoticed or blamed for their inability to fit our expectations.
At the time, I had a connection within a new charter school for students on the Autism Spectrum going into its third year and was encouraged to apply. So I did. I applied, interviewed, and was eventually hired. Although there was a part of me that thought, “Hmmmm, this is not what I imagined for myself.” There was another part of me that said, “Doesn’t matter. This is where you are supposed to be.”
I don’t have faith in a lot of things, but I do have faith in this: If you live your life with love and intention, things fall back together to the same degree that they fall apart.
Meanwhile, because I was a teacher, I needed a second job. I had also been working in a group home for adults with disabilities and the mental illnesses that often ride the coattails of their labels. A few months after I began at the new charter school, one of the people I served in my group home passed away. Months later, a new person moved in. She happened to have Autism.
Suddenly, I was spending six days a week surrounded by people on the Autism Spectrum. I got to be up close and personal with the whole spectrum - from those with intellectual impairments and little verbal communication to students with extraordinarily high IQs, huge vocabularies, and tumultuous social interactions.
This is what they’ve taught me:
1. There is something extraordinarily powerful about being unconstrained by social norms. Many of my students do not say what I want to hear. They say what they think. Granted: This can get them in trouble, and it may often relegate them to the fringes of our society. Many don’t dress to impress. They don’t speak to impress. In a society governed so handily by a consumer culture that tells us what to listen to, what to wear, what to say, what to watch, and what to believe. It is refreshing to meet people who respond to someone gushing about the virtues of Twilight, with “So I got this new Pokemon card...”
2. We are more alike than we are different. One of my favorite sayings these days is, “We’ve all got a touch of the -‘tism.” While on the surface it may seem to be almost a mockery, it’s not. It’s the explicit recognition that we all have the same traits as those on the spectrum to varying degrees. The difference between many of us and many of “them” is acknowledgment of our anxiety, weakness, and fears. We all freaked out when someone we really wanted to like us was close. We all fear saying or doing the wrong thing or letting others know that underneath our (we hope) suave exterior, we are clumsy and bumbling little wrecks. My kids acknowledge, sometimes narrate, or otherwise act out their anxiety, while we limit our own to cognitive dissonance and internal voices tossing our healthy psyches around like a game of “Keep Away”.
3. Great minds don’t think alike. They think differently. I have had many conversations with students about their labels, and I have yet to meet one who would say that, given the option, he/she would choose NOT to have Autism. By and large, they view their differences as a strength. They know they approach the world at a different slant than the people around them. They know that this often limits their relationships, but they value quality, not quantity. They are aware that they have the power to see and solve problems in a way that others may not. They are proud that they have the tenacity to stick with something both complicated and fascinating and see it through to its potential. I think they’re right to be proud. The masses thinking like other masses can only get us so far. We need anomalies and exceptions to solve real world problems, to invent the things that make our lives better and healthier. We need them to save us from ourselves.
4. Those relegated to the fringes have an unacknowledged power to transform the lives around them. Even those on the spectrum who will not become inventors, who will likely need supported living environments for a lifetime, are powerful. There is a distinct and unacknowledged power in our culture that those who are relegated to the fringes hold. In some ways, they have more power than the fabric of society they surround. Here’s why: People on the fringes have the power to transform the lives of the people around them and, by extension, their communities and the larger world, by simply existing. People on the fringes just have to LIVE and BE themselves and those around them cannot help but question their own values and the values of their society.
Our lives shift to a new axis. I know this is true, because I remember the moment my life shifted to a new axis. I was a teenager. My younger sister (who has Down Syndrome) had wet the bed for about the millionth time. It was around two o-clock in the morning, and I knew that I would have to get up to change her and strip her bed. That night I had an epiphany. If I loved this sister, my love had to be the same post-two-AM-bed-wetting as it was at any other time. I also knew that patience is born of love. Now I look back at that simple moment, that axis-shifting wet bed, and know that if not for the existence of my sister and the extra chromosome on her twenty-third pair, my life, my values, and my identity could have been on a very different course, and I am so blessed that they are not.
If you do not have the privilege of being surrounded by exceptional, fringe-dwelling people, find some. Volunteer in your community, with Special Olympics, in schools. Tell yourself you will be helping or teaching them, if you must. In the end, it is likely that is you who will learn, it is you whose axis will be shaken, and, if you’re lucky, you’ll transform into a newer, better version of yourself.
Hannah Cushing is a teacher and self-proclaimed nerd and mama bear. She currently learns from the students at Lionsgate Academy and from the people she serves with Opportunity Partners.