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Cannon Events Part Two
Alexa, play Everything Has Changed by Taylor Swift
Hi friends! This is CHAPTER TWO of #TechnicallyAutistic: Dispatches from the Periphery, a micro-memoir about words, meanings, and the dilemma of diagnosis. If you’re new, start HERE.
UPDATE 10/01/23 - Cannon Events Part One and Two were originally posted on August under a singular page, titled Once Upon a Time. I was away because I had a family emergency, but when I logged back in, the first thing I noticed was how LONG that post was. In preparation for having more content on here, I wanted to split that first post for better readability.
In The Junkyard Wonders, the leader of the “junkyard,” Mrs. Peterson doesn’t flinch at the epithet. The junkyard, she says, is “a place of wondrous possibilities.” One day, the tenacious teacher takes her students on a field trip with a mission: go through the junkyard, and look for something valuable.
There are plenty, and Trisha’s group recovers a beaten-up model airplane. Their unique perspectives breed innovation: a motor-driven drone, named Junkyard Wonder.
If the entire world insists on labeling you, reclaiming it might just be the most powerful thing you can do. That was also the philosophy I adopted, when I started writing about my disability.
Towards the end of sixth grade, I began writing what would soon become a book idea — a tell-all memoir about being an autistic teenager.
After nearly a year of fumbling my way across nine subjects, two extracurriculars, and dozens of occupied lunch tables, I admitted to myself that the whole autism thing might be a bigger deal than I’d previously thought.
They were right — I struggled to make friends. I didn’t know how to break the ice. Faced with the alternative of isolating myself, I engaged people by brute force: I would keep pestering them until they respond, clinging to the possibility that the conversation would go somewhere.
In class, I found myself straining to concentrate. Maths and sciences were the worst. Trying to find out how to solve a math problem made my head hurt. Trying to find out why also made my head hurt. The laws of mathematics felt magical in the worst way; utterly unpredictable with no rhyme or reason.
Faced with the reality of my disability, I turned on my parents’ desktop and opened Microsoft Word. I just found it easier to express myself in writing. I already had a habit of bulleting my thoughts and printing them out when I approached my teachers with a personal concern. They encouraged this, thankfully. And as time went on, I became more fancy with my writing.
I think it was early 2014 when one of those .docs turned into a packet.
And then the packet turned into a booklet.
And then the booklet turned into a book idea.
From seventh grade through eighth grade, I worked on my manuscript nearly every day after school.
I spent many hours researching. I mainly wanted to figure out how to sound smart when I write, but I learned so much more than that. One day, I stumbled across Autistic Hoya, a blog run by disability rights activist Lydia X.Z Brown. Shortly after, I discovered #ActuallyAutistic, a hashtag used by autistic self-advocates to share their experiences.
Up until that point, I’d only ever heard the word autistic in a negative context. The kids who said that someone had autism said so with an uncomfortably deferential nod; the kids who said that someone was autistic scoffed and sneered, making no effort to hide their disdain. And it had become clear that this association wasn’t something I could run from. I had a speech impediment, and some other things I couldn’t put a finger to yet but filled my head with shame, disgust, and stereotypical images.
The stories under #ActuallyAutistic gave me the reassurance I needed:
I wasn’t imagining all the demeaning interactions I’ve had over the years and that I wasn’t at fault, even if anyone said that I was shoving it in their faces and that they didn’t like it.
The stigma against autism, like any other form of prejudice, is something we can — and should — overcome as a society.
In the final version of the manuscript, titled Something About Me: The (100% True) Confessions of an Autistic Teenager, I wrote
It was easy for me to leave “all the other autistic kids” in the corner to deal with the stereotypes, generalizations, and isolation, while I go out there and party with “normal” people. That changed, when I found out that I had a lot in common with a lot of other people all over the place in the spectrum.
The project came to an abrupt end when I was hospitalized for a dissociative episode. I was a kid who dove headfirst into a long-term writing project, with no way to stay grounded. It was time to let go. (I always say that it’s for the best because as much as I strive to embrace the cringe, I’d like to be spared from having 100+ pages of my eighth-grade theatrics available for public consumption, please)
The process of writing a book gave me something priceless: a sense of direction. There was something so transformative about writing that also felt essential to my survival. I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.
It took me years of learning, reflecting, and creating to embrace my autism diagnosis; it took less than a month for it to all unravel.
As soon as I was discharged from the hospital, I started looking for more manageable ways to continue my craft. A day before I started my freshman year of high school, I launched my new blog, Openly Autistic.
I was starting to notice patterns, both within myself and amongst other people who shared my diagnosis. But soon enough, it became clear that these patterns didn’t mesh together.
The people who described themselves as autistic said that they felt awkward, because things don’t come across the way they intended. They talked a lot about “social cues.” The term “social rules” was also used frequently. All that is to say, they struggled because there was a misfiring between what something — a question, a remark, a gesture — meant to them, and what that same thing meant to most people.
Sure enough I also felt awkward, but that… was not the point. Speaking of points, it was less that my points didn’t come across the way I intended, and more that my points didn’t come out the way I intended. The struggle of making friends wasn’t a one of finding shared meaning, but one of staying focused and controlling myself.
More often than not I got the sense that the thoughts, questions, and concerns, running through my head were also the same thoughts, questions, and concerns running through everyone else’s heads; they just expressed those better than I did. You better believe that I understood them perfectly fine. This usually wasn’t the case with people who had my diagnosis.
And I was well aware that I had all the other signs of autism as a toddler: Intense and sometimes unusual interests. Need for sameness. Sensory issues. Still, I couldn’t see how that pertained to my current life. Multiple sources stated that these traits never went away, but could be suppressed. Suppressed? I was content with the mundane joys of scrolling through memes, experimenting with makeup, and hitting shuffle on my mishmash of coffeehouse ballads and Hot Topic bangers. I could never go back to my old ways.
Could it be possible that I was never autistic, to begin with?
I’d always found strength in the fact that although I never chose my challenges, I could choose the way I talked about them. When my friend from eighth grade told me that everyone already knew I was autistic, I let myself cry for three minutes, then doubled down on my commitment to owning it.
But could I trust “the spectrum” to preserve the integrity of my truth? Every time I shoehorned my disability into the concept of autism, it felt like a piece of me was gone.
I was — like my therapist at the time, Judy, would say — caught between a rock and a hard place.