The Importance of Becoming the Examples We Want to See

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Douglas LamanI didn't see other autistic people in social scenarios I couldn't manage, so I couldn't imagine myself managing them. Attending my college’s autism group provided me an environment I never knew I needed. Being surrounded by other autistic people, I had found a rare secure place to socialize, one that let me start to discover other places I could be social in, too.

There’s an old saying that, “If you don’t see your book on the shelf, write it.”

It’s an important phrase that reflects the need for all perspectives to be shared not just in literature, but in all walks of life. If you don’t see someone of your race, gender, disability or sexuality in your field of interest, that’s not a sign that you don’t belong there. It’s a sign that the dominant culture has, as it is wont to do, dominated. It’s a sign that it’s time to shake things up and change that. The status quo was made to be challenged.

Like so many helpful axioms, this is easier said than done.

Engaging in the behavior necessary to write that new book can be so daunting. Speaking from experience as an autistic person, thoughts of self-doubt can creep into your head, including that brutal thought: “Maybe there’s a good reason someone hasn’t written this book yet.” In my case, the book that needed to be written pertained to seeing autistic people in social scenarios.

As someone who was diagnosed with autism at a young age, I was keenly aware of my own autism-related limitations from the get-go. I struggle with idioms, understanding body language, realizing when I’m rambling and numerous other social problems. Knowing those from an early age, my first instinct as a child was to retreat away and not even try to engage socially.

I didn’t see anyone else like me able to overcome them, which only compounded my feelings of insecurity. There was no book on the shelf I could reach for to normalize my experiences or make me think it was possible to be sociable. In most of my adolescent social situations, I was the only autistic person in the room. There was no one around, not even in pop culture, to show me that autistic people were capable of thriving in social environments.

For so long, I limited myself based on what I thought an autistic person was capable of. I grew up. And as entered college and began to explore the wider world around me, I started to to look around for tools that could help me socially.

For one thing, I began to expand the idea of where I could socialize. Part of what informed my previous self-imposed restrictions was the idea that there were only a few “proper” places to socialize. Bars can be a way to connect with others and are often thought of as a go-to place for adults to hang out. But as a person with sensitivity to loud noises and crowds, bars can feel tortuous rather than liberating. Not feeling comfortable at bars contributed to my feelings of forever being doomed socially.

I began to discover that there are other places to mingle and interact with people. The “proper” place to socialize really can be anywhere. I took a trip with friends to Wisconsin. At the cabin we stayed at, our primary social area was not the living room or the kitchen. It was the back porch. It was like magic how two or three of us would congregate there while, gradually, everyone else in the friend group would begin to trickle out.

If you had told me five years ago that a back porch in Wisconsin would prove to be a social oasis, I would have said you were out of your mind. But the quiet and more controlled nature of this environment proved to be just that by providing a welcome relief to the typical and loud locations for adult socialization. Here was a prime place for me to feel comfortable socially and get to know my friends better. The close-knit nature of this place was epitomized by how one of my friends felt comfortable enough here to come out to me as autistic. It turned out I wasn’t even the only autistic person in the same room who felt such extreme comfort under these conditions.

In that moment, I was reminded, through myself and my friend, that Autistic people can thrive socially. The right environment makes a big difference. As seen by my voyage to Wisconsin, these can come about by accident.

If you’re looking for more pre-determined locales to flex your social muscles, though, options do exist. I learned that by attending a club for autistic students on my college campus. If you’re not sold on that idea, you’re not alone. I had long hesitated to engage in these kind of environments, too.

For so much of my life, I had worked to mask my autism. Behaviors I thought of as being autistic were something I tried to smash out of my routine. I constantly tossed off opportunities to go into places just for autistic people, thinking, consciously or not, that they’d encourage behavior I was ashamed of. But attending my college’s autism group provided me an environment I never knew I needed. Being surrounded by just other autistic people, I had found a rare secure place to socialize.

For the first time in my life, I could be surrounded by the examples I was always looking for. I also learned to appreciate the autistic traits of myself that I had long tried to suppress. Though these experiences, I  had written the book I’d long wanted to see on the shelf without realizing it!

If you’re an autistic person in college, finding clubs like these (or founding them if they don’t exist yet) can be crucial. However, these opportunities aren’t just limited to college campuses. You can find them in other areas by looking around on Google Social or CraigsList, too.

Unfortunately, not every social situation can be one where you’re surrounded by like-minded peers.. Even after engaging in spaces like my college’s autism group or that back-porch in Wisconsin, I find that social pressures can still prove to be overwhelming. But one difference now is that I’m no longer as self-conscious about just existing as an autistic person in neurotypical social spaces.

I’ve now been able to engage in social spaces that haven’t just let me flourish social. They also remind me that I’m autistic and that there isn’t a thing wrong with that. Those thoughts don’t make every inch of my social paranoia vanish but they do make it more manageable. Plus, they remind me that, with the proper environments, we can all become the books we’ve always wanted to see written.

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