I was at the Coventry Road library tonight with my family, playing and reading books and so forth, when I came across the DISABILITY book section for children.
I found books written and illustrated for children on the subject of AUTISM. Not books for Autistic children, or written by people with Autism, but rather, books that educate neurotypical children about children who have autism. I had this feeling that I was prying into a box whose contents weren’t meant for me to see as I sat down with two of all five books that were on the shelf. While I leafed through the pages I found myself feeling all sorts of things about the content.
I was thinking that I want to introduce the two books to Yonah. I get this inkling that if we were to examine the various discourses written about us (as disabled, as autistic, as differently-gendered, as multicultural, etc.) by authors who are unlike us, we can almost intercept ableism and any other ‘ism’ as it’s encroaching, and we can divert it. And, when the prejudice and demeaning comment or action has already caught hold of our attentions (as it’s an inevitability in a lot of cases), we can use knowledge gained from literacy and conversation to anticipate probable psychological and societal sources and not internalize it.
So, getting back to the topic of these books on Autism— one of them I found kind of hurtful and….weird. It’s strange how it presents itself as a sort of psychological science book for kidz (think: Wild Kratz ‘Creature Feature’) but with just enough couth to not seem cold, judging, and alarmingly Victorian (Victorian in the sense of its moral content and method of presenting ‘case studies’). It portrays the male subject as a sort of emotionally-immature type of person that can’t be fully understood, but must be accepted and included in play.
. . . .
The other book with more generic illustrations and thoughtful language was generous in the description of the FRIEND with autism as not only someone who is relatable, but who could also happen to be female (because of the higher statistical rate of diagnosis of boys to girls, Autism is described as affecting more males than females).
Here’s the cover:
I tend to like this book more, even at the third reading (when I can spot some annoying contexts of the pronoun “they”–it’s sort of distancing and un-empathetic) because it’s obvious that it’s acknowledging through compassionate treatment of its subject, that society’s quickly outgrowing the nomenclature used not only for autism, but all developmental and intellectual (dis)abilities. I give the book a solid “B” for ‘Beautifully’ handled. Here are some pictures, to give you an idea of why I might like this (f.y.i: I suffer from crippling anxiety and fear which have to do with stressors in my environment, such as any abrupt change, and my physiological responses to them).
. . . .
Painting an autistic child or adult a certain way, as someone who must be accommodated by personal sacrifice or discomfort disservices even neurotypical people, who will at some point in the near future, horribly embarrass themselves by interacting with others from the POV of those very jack-assed assessments. ALL of us, non-autistic people along with those of us with autism, MUST learn to level with ourselves and others. That means acknowledging and making room for painful emotions such as fear and anger. That means honoring the reality that every single person handles these painful emotions in a variety of ways. That means respecting and valuing all thinking patterns and visions of our shared world of senses and experiences. Individuals with autism are quickly attaining positions of dignity and value in all sectors of the social and professional world. I can just imagine awkwardly bumping around these pre-programmed notions in various social situations— with one’s elder, manager, religious clergy, midwife, educator, therapist, or consultant who has autism.
. . . .
I want to read these two very different books to Yonah on two different days. I want the first impressions. I want to give over the tales of my first friendships, both successful and failed.
. . . .
There is an account I must give, even if it is something I most likely will not relate to my children, at least not anytime in their youth. I must give it because of the memory pulled out from my heart while I was reading these children’s books. And as it is fitting, it is a memory from my childhood.
I remember a Beloved “best” friend I had to let go, though I love her so much (I don’t think I will ever stop loving her). This was the first friend to appear to have genuinely needed my presence, at least in the beginning five years of our friendship this seemed so.
I embarked on my journey through platonic love at the age of 8. Year by year, experience building like bricks mortared together by adventure and the meanderings of the mundane, gave some shape to my personality. I was sort of schooled through this piece meal, slap-stick social existence by a best friend who was a misfit, if only by body image (she was overweight). She taught me humor and sarcasm. She taught me to loosen up. I modeled her mannerisms, accent, and social behavior and became a strange twin. We were interchangeably Chris Farley and David Spade: the inseparable pair where you cannot appreciate one without the other. But, in time something unfortunate, yet perfectly rational and expected happened. As we grew up together, she continued to develop a certain way emotionally (the ‘typical’ way) while I seemed to have drifted “downward” or “backwards” or more “to the sides” of my emotional world(s).
I’d sustained some abuses from this best friend in our unfolding years of High School, and as I stumbled through the brier patch of teenage life, my wounds and afflictions, my fixations and interests, made me a sort of embarrassing person to be around. “Freak” would be the word for me. My best friend was busy building and perfecting an image for herself, while I couldn’t even see that I had an image (that was in need of perfecting). I just became . . . embarrassing. My clinging to her was embarrassing, too revealing of the sort of relationship that I had with her that fundamentally needed to change, if she were to make it socially as an adult, because otherwise, she’d never live it down (and this is the best I can interpret this now, as a person in my mid 30’s).
In High School, I was too much of a middle school type of kid: too baby-ish and off-beat, too innocent and gullible. My traits that inspired her to stand up to bullies in our elementary age, were the same traits that had her SIDING with the bullies in our teenage years. She just watched on while a newfound friend of hers grilled me over the way I spoke and the sort of faces I’d make (that is just one example). I was shunned at the lunch table. She took different classes, chose different seats. I no longer had a routine with her at the center of it.
Slowly, bit by bit, I lost her. I lost her long before I cut off contact. After High School graduation, I lost her in the moments we would share our stories, and she’d be relating to me one of her dramatic “adult world” dating-scene conundrums, and I’d be telling her about the animals I encountered at the park with an equal emotional intensity. When she could suck it up and take life’s punches like a ‘woman’, I was cowering before bosses, CASHIERS, and doctors like an unsure, insecure 12 year-old simpleton. She worked steady jobs, lived on her own, and saved her money. I struggled to get interviews for jobs I would later barely be able to hold down, and, I lived with my parents. At age 21, I peed my pants laughing over the SAME jokes we told each other when we were twelve. My best friend just couldn’t mold me into a club kid, drinking buddy, or an acceptable confidant for the tales of her erotic adventures. When she tried to include me (and she would) she was just dragging along a bumbling adolescent who was scared of everything. And then, of course there is a major downside to all of that– I’d get molested or raped in the process of trying to make her happy, to fill her need to have an “adult” friend. (Did you wonder what the inner-city-Cleveland school of hard knocks had in store for a young woman with autism?)
I know now, that my best friend knew I was different.
As a joke that I never caught on to until the final years of our friendship, she’d call me “special” (I was already used to her “you’re not normal” songs in playful jest)…but it was supposed to be a joke, funny. Instead of cackling like she was when she’d say it in what I remember now as being a slow, dopey-sounding voice, I’d chuckle and affectionately lean into her, knowing, never second-guessing that she could have meant that any other way.
Most days, I think of her and feel angry, sometimes filled with rage.
I look back in our final years of friendship and remember, nearly distinctly, the point of my “waking up” to it all. Or, was it always that way— this less-than attitude? Was it set from the start? — Our first day of third grade, I was sitting at my desk thrumming my hands on the veneer, knuckles turning red, twisting my skirt, pinching myself under the desk, the bell rings for lunch and I’m sitting alone eating my lunch when she comes up to my desk and says “hey” and I look up and she says “You look weird”….. “wanna be my friend?” I. Shit. You. Not. THAT is how we got to talking. Then from there it is history—but whatever. Whatever the heck I thought it was. Whatever it meant to me, I don’t even really remember anymore, because what it meant is how it felt, or how I feel now.
Regardless of how I remember her, she will always be my first.
My first friend. My first kiss. My first lover. The first to betray and test me. The first to teach what innocence means. Do not confuse ignorance with innocence. Innocence is knowing something with all your heart and mind, as it is your very life that depends on that knowledge, and not being able to conceive of anything other than that. Innocence can be as “cold” and unassuming as a migration route, a bee dance, a dog humping a hydrant. Innocence is instinct. My instinct was to love my best friend with all my heart. And for the time I did not know any better, stings and all, I was truly happy and full.
. . . .
I did not expect to be taken to these places in the books we as adults take for granted. Stories for children authored from the minds that left childhood bleeding at the site of the wound. It scabs over and we make a sort of art from it, but we don’t really provide any genesis tales for the realities of The Wound, nor do we provide legends to the paths of its healing.
That is the ONE thing in relation to autism that can be healed– our relationship with the memory of a friend, and how for ever long that friendship may have lasted, there were two EQUAL yet distinct people enjoying one another. To remember a heart as the determining force of intention and action, and NOT of secondary importance to the brain, and all the abilities honed to magical perfection in the crucible of understanding and misunderstanding, of neglect and affection. There is a special function of friendship, and each of us cannot live without it.
I’ve unexpectedly tied an old love into the analysis of these books. I never thought I’d reassess the love of my youth through the prism of Autism. Finally, at the age of 34, I am able to see that while I was not on the same page as my best friend, our relationship was able to flourish within the setting of early childhood. This was a friendship that kick-started my emotional development and encouraged my growth as a person. Though this friend may not have understood me, I also didn’t understand her in the ways she came to really need in her adulthood. We outgrew each other, and that is okay.
It’s not that I saw the world a little bit differently than my best friend, but the mysteries perceived within our relationship were our understanding as two autonomous and distinct people. Perhaps there is no complete understanding of this, not for her and not for me. There is this open end left to interpret. She never knew I was autistic. There was no label for my uniqueness at that point in time. We did the best we could with the love we shared, each of us coming out of that relationship having learned how to be a more conscious friend.