Monday, May 27, 2013

Autism Answer: Why I'm uncomfortable with your autism and how it can make the world a better place

When I meet you and you hear that my brothers were autistic or that my mom is global autism expert Lynette Louise aka The Brain Broad, you may excitedly share with me "I'm autistic!" or " My daughter has autism!" and in that moment, you will be introduced to a label of my own. I have a fear of letting people down. Suddenly, I may begin to avoid eye contact, stutter a little bit and remember the sweet potato I left in the oven. I may run away because I'm afraid that otherwise you will walk away clucking "She doesn't know a thing about autism, she was talking so loud to my son!" or " what kind of expert must her mom be, she doesn't know anything about chelation!" By running away I have essentially proven my fear to be right, and let you down. Now, I don't really do this anymore. The truth is now when we meet my fear of letting you down will pop-up, but I have given myself the habit of rolling my eyes at it and asking with curiosity and interest how autism has affected your life. At this point the fear sulks off and I am totally engaged in learning from you. But I used to avoid eye contact and feel you looking at me. It was painful, like having fire ants biting my skin. 

There are so many reasons I think it's useful to share this truth. I'll point out a few favorites! 

1. When we're different than most of the people around us, we tend to meet them not  in their comfort zone. Just the nature of who we are--autistic, gay, burnt, missing limbs, Canadian, black at a Toadies concert (my hubby can tell you all about that one!)-- when we are not surrounded by many like us, we challenge people to step out of their comfort zones. I think it's important to remember this so we know we are meeting the world from that angle. Definitely don't just shrug it off and say, "Oh well. They are uncomfortable. My bad!" But know that they are, allow for that, and raise the bar!

2. When we're different than most of the people around us, we are not in our comfort zone. Of course, when we are surrounded by folks who are different than us, we are none-to comfy either! Keep that in mind as you hear your thoughts. When you hear yourself judge the people and their reactions, when you find yourself worrying about how you come across or how you're being judged... remember that you're feeling slightly challenged and therefore stressed. So hear your thoughts and know them, but then take time to evaluate them when feeling less nervous and defensive. 

3. Give people the benefit of the doubt. In my case, when we met and I nervously stuttered an excuse to go away for fear of letting you down, we both missed out on a wonderful chance for friendship and autism learnings. But I was aware of that. I went home and thought about the mistake I made and tried to figure out why I made it. I knew I could do better. We all know that lots of people will go home and justify their actions by thinking "did you see the way she was flicking her fingers? So rude!" or "Did you see what he let his kid get away with in the grocery store? What is this world coming to?!". But even more people are walking away feeling confused and trying to figure out why they feel the way they feel. Even more people are planning on doing better next time.  

4. Example this self-examination yourself! When you were overwhelmed in the restaurant and started stimming, perhaps the stares of strangers hurt you. Don't go home and think about how mean the world is to judge you and your difference. Think about why you allowed the stares to hurt you. Give yourself control over your emotions. People stare at each other all the time, sometimes because we look especially pretty that day or because we look familiar, or because we are making them nervous. Explore your own feelings and discover how you can take control so perhaps next time you'll feel comfortable enough to explain to others what you are doing and why. Stepping outside of our comfort zone is a wonderful way to discover ourselves. When we feel uncomfortable we want to blame, others or ourselves, but we have just been given an opportunity to see ourselves clearly. Autism challenges people to step outside their comfort zone. And if we raise our expectations, for ourselves and others, we are offering the world a chance to stop worrying about the opinions of others, and to truly discover themselves. This is both beautiful and frightfully lacking. Let's change that! 

I'm sorry if we met and I hurt your feelings or let you down. I promise, I am learning to live up to my expectations and not let myself down. And I promise to chat with you about it next time we meet for coffee and cheesecake!

Hugs, smiles, and love!!!
Autism Answers with Tsara Shelton (Facebook)