It was about 8 years ago when I walked into a hotel in Seattle, Washington. I had a suitcase of clothes and a carry on of anxiety, back then you didn’t have to limit your baggage. Walking into the conference center, I was surrounded by things. The things were people, noises, and smells. The people didn’t use whole words and talked in letters. ABA, CBT, ASD, LMNOP; these strings of random letters unnerved me. It was like walking into a new world, a world where people were talking about me. People knew me by name and others just knew me as a diagnosis.
I was an Autistic teenager at a national Autism conference.
I took a break from going to any Autism related conferences for the last 5 years because I had other priorities. My health was my number one concern and for good reason. So this year I went to Pittsburgh with not knowing what to expect. My memory has faded and I didn’t know if I’d know anyone besides a handful of friends for almost an entire week. My presentation was also selected of all the many submitted so I would be talking about the media’s influence on the Autistic stereotype; it’s really fun for me to talk about that so feel free to judge away.
When I came back on Sunday with stress balls in the shape of stars for my friends, which are now being used as ninja stars chucked at people, I had even more stories to bring. It is a new thing to explain the Autism Society of America conference to people who have never been before. When I went to them in high school I never talked much about them. It was always my thing I did for a few days during the summer. Part of that I think was being so young and never understanding exactly what people were talking about. This information makes PHDs’ heads spin so even a smart young woman would not 100% understand everything going around.
But as weird as it is to explain to people, the presentations and exhibit hall of cool things is not really why people go to conferences like this one.
We go to connect with people.
It is the most relaxing thing in the world to realize you are not alone: to hear others speak as if they view the world like you do. With the rise of the Internet, the world is connected like never before and people can meet others from across the globe without ever leaving their bed. So for a group of people characterized by difficulties with social interactions, it is sometimes not until we meet face to face that the connection happens. There is an “Ah Ha” clicking moment where we bond over the smallest and most perfect thing.
The friends I made at the conference and the ones I had known since I was sixteen meshed seamlessly. Strangers would ask how long we had known each other and we’d respond in either hours or years. Age and education are not factors in friendships because that’s not the way it should be in the ‘real world’. It’s someone else who can accurately discuss obscure roman politics or knows the punchline to your favorite joke. We get a few days at a conference to meet people who will be in our lives for a while.
I also love being able to connect with people who have never met someone like me; a well spoken Autistic woman. (Yes, I was also walking around wearing a corset and heels but the corset is so relaxing I will apologize for nothing.) Some people are so accustomed to the media’s image of “lost children” that they don’t realize Autistic adults are alive and well. I love talking about Autism and Universal Design. I’m able to not just hold an audience, but educate them as well and that is really touching.
Having people come up to me after my presentation and just in general to thank me for being myself is very humbling. I’ve gone through things in my life I wouldn’t wish on a enemy, but it makes every moment worth it to help someone else not feel alone or give them the tools so they never have to deal with what I faced. The advice I hand out like the free candy in the exhibition hall is about love and acceptance. The world is scary enough without thinking you need to handle things entirely by yourself; no one is ever alone.
No one is ever truly alone.
There is something called The Duck Test which everyone knows but not everyone is aware of it’s official name. It’s a form a reasoning to make sense of the world.
“If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.”
My presentation hadn’t even started yet and I was standing in the room with a microphone in hand speaking in front of my slides. Talking to friends, friends I had met less than 48 hours before, about everything. Things started and when I spoke, well, I’d be lying if I said I wrote out my presentation. I’ve never used a written speech in my life unless it was for acting. My words are laced into my being so I mean every single word I say.
My introduction, which was written months ago mere minutes before the presentation deadline, mentioned my fondness of fire and “acting like a goofball”. I was not wearing a suit, but the corset of the day was pinstriped. I talked about Universal Design, Firefly, Rain Man, political theories, and myself. My soul poured out into the camera and sound system recording the presentation. The weight of the conference didn’t really sink into me until I walked into my apartment at 4am on Sunday after driving home. I still feel the comforting weight of the conference with me and that’s a good thing.
It wasn’t until walking into my home in my little brick city that I realized, “the conference felt like my home. It is a different home, but it’s home, too.”