Is autism a “superpower”?

I think what it is, is a difference, and from a certain point of view, a difference can be a “superpower”, if you squint.

Say you’ve got three chickens and a sparrow; the sparrow’s tiny and maybe when it comes to scratching for seeds, the chickens have the advantage. But if you want a bird to fly into a tree and eat the berries, you want a sparrow. Their differences make them suited for different things, and if you see chickens as the norm, then you might be surprised by what the sparrow can do.

But it’s all about the perspective. You only see the sparrow’s flight as a superpower if you take the chicken as a baseline. Maybe it’s better to see a chicken as a chicken, and a sparrow as a sparrow, and understand that they’re different and you needn’t rank one above the other at all.

Humanity is a cooperative species, and a diverse one. Some of us are disabled because we don’t meet the minimum skill requirements assumed by our cultures and our societies. But disability doesn’t mean that you can’t be skilled, perhaps even skilled in something that’s normally quite hard for the average person. When you live in a group, when everybody contributes, the disabled people’s contributions can matter quite a lot because they will specialize in an area that their disability leaves relatively unaffected, or perhaps even enhances. In a cooperative society, differences are strengths and weaknesses matter much less.

The impulse to rank people as “sub-” and “super-” bothers me a great deal. It’s arbitrary, it’s prejudicial, and it doesn’t reflect reality. I think we can and should celebrate our skills; but those skills don’t make us superior. We need to stop thinking that one person must be better than another, and see everybody as just themselves, different from one another. Rather than ranking chickens and sparrows depending on whether we think it’s more important to be able to peck on the ground or fly into the trees, we ought to see everybody as different birds.

Anyway, you don’t have to be super to be a hero, to make a difference and help your community with your own particular talents.

How I Live Now

Years ago, when I was a biomedical engineering major and I thought I was going to be employable, I lived in an apartment and had a car and did all those things non-disabled people do. And I was stressed out, really stressed out, living on the edge of independence and just teetering, trying to keep my balance.

Eventually I switched majors from BME to psychology–an easier program, and one that interested me.

The car didn’t last long, totaled thanks to my poor reflexes and lack of the sort of short-notice judgment that makes me a dangerous driver. My driver’s license ran out; now I just have a state ID. I moved closer to WSU, but my executive function was still bad, and it was hard for me to get to class. They sent a van across the street to pick me up. I forgot to study; they provided one of their testing rooms, distraction-free, so I would have somewhere away from the temptations of my apartment to study. They interceded with professors and got me extra time.

I was taking classes part-time, with intensive help from the department of disability services; I couldn’t sustain full-time work. If Wright State hadn’t been willing to go out of its way for me, I’d never have gotten a degree at all. I was diagnosed with dysthymia as well as episodic major depression, which explained why I never seemed to get my energy back after an episode.

I graduated. GPA 3.5, respectable. Dreaming of graduate school. Blew the practice GRE out of the water.

I tried to get a job. I worked with my job coach for more than a year. I wanted a graduate assistantship, but nobody wanted me. We looked at jobs that would let me use my education, but nobody was hiring. Eventually we branched out into more low-level work–hospital receptionist, dog kennel attendant, pharmacy technician. They were all part-time; by that point I knew better than to assume I could stick it out for a 40-hour work week.

The pharmacy tech job almost succeeded, but the boss couldn’t work with the assisted transport service that could only deliver me between the hours of 9 and 3–plus, they’d assured me it was part time, only to schedule me for 35 hours. I can only assume they hired “part-time” workers to avoid paying them benefits.

I signed up with Varsity Tutors to teach math, science, writing, and statistics. I enjoyed the work, especially when I got to use my writing ability to help someone communicate clearly, or made statistics understandable to someone unused to thinking about math. But it wasn’t steady work; you were competing with all the other tutors. You had to accept a new assignment within seconds, even before you knew what it was or whether you could teach that topic, because if you didn’t someone else would click on it first. Students paid a huge fee–$50 an hour or thereabouts–of which we only got about $10. Sometimes, when I grabbed a job that involved teaching something I myself hadn’t learned yet, I had to spend hours preparing for a one-hour session–and no, preparation hours aren’t paid.

I grew tired of cheating the customers; I’m not worth a $50-an-hour tutoring fee, and practically all of the money went to the company for doing nothing more than maintaining a Web service to match tutors and clients. And since I’d paid, out of my own pocket, for a tablet, Web cam, and internet connection, I hadn’t actually made any money anyway. I suppose I would have, if I’d stuck with it, but I just don’t like feeling so dishonest. It’s been more than a year since I last had contact with them, so I can say that. No more non-disclosure agreement. I’m sure they haven’t changed, though.

I was running out of money. My disability payments couldn’t pay for my rent. Eventually, a friend who was remodeling a house in a Cincinnati suburb offered me a rented room, within my means, and I accepted.

For a year, I lived in a room of a house undergoing remodeling. Eventually, I moved downstairs, into a finished basement room. College loan companies bombarded me with mail, demanding money I didn’t have. With the US government becoming increasingly unstable, I worried that if I even tried to work, I might lose Medicaid, and without a Medicaid buy-in available, I would have to choose between working and taking my medication (note: I cannot work if I am not taking my meds; in fact, I am in deadly danger if I do not take my meds). It didn’t help that my area has no particularly good public transport service, and the assisted transport service is–as always–unreliable and cannot be used to get to work.

Eventually I gave in. I applied for permanent disability discharge of my student loans, and was granted it. I feel dishonest–again–for not being able to predict, when I got my degree, that it wouldn’t make me employable. But there it is. The world doesn’t like to hire people who are different, or who need accommodations, or who can’t fit into the machinery of society.

But a person can’t just sit around. I do a lot of volunteer work now. I’m the primary researcher for ASAN’s disability day of mourning web site; I spend an hour or more every day monitoring the news, keeping records, and writing bios of disabled people murdered by their families and caregivers. I’ve kept up with my own Autism Memorial site, too, and the list is nearly 500 names long now. Seems like a lot, but my spreadsheet of disabled homicide victims in general is approaching five thousand.

Two days a week, I volunteer at the library. I put away books, straighten shelves, help patrons find things. The board of directors of the library fired all the pages years ago as a cost-cutting measure, so it’s volunteers like me that keep the books on the shelves while the employees are stuck manning the checkout desk or the book return. I find the work very meaningful, especially in the current political climate; libraries are wonderful, subversive places that teach a person to think on their own.

In the backyard of the house, I’m growing a garden. Gardening is new to me, but last year I had an overabundance of cherry tomatoes, and this year I’m growing tomatoes, eppers, cucumbers, carrots, sunflowers, and various herbs. I keep the lawn mowed and the bushes trimmed. The garden is a good thing, because lately my food stamps have been cut and I can’t really afford produce anymore.

My housemate’s girlfriend moved in with him last summer. She’s a sweet teacher with two guinea pigs and a love of stories. On Fridays, we drive for an hour to go play D&D with friends, and I bake cookies. I’ve learned to bake cookies over the last few years; at first it was just frozen cookie dough, then from scratch. I’ve gotten pretty good at it.

After my cat Tiny died of kidney failure, Christy got more vocal and demanding. She yells at me now when she wants attention, and climbs up on my bed to snuggle with me. She seems to think she needs to do the job of two cats. She’s getting older now, less able to climb to the top of the furniture or snatch a fly out of the air with her paws; but she still gets the kitty crazies, running around and skating on the rag rugs I made to keep the concrete floor from being quite so chilly.

I’m still myself–idealistic, protective, with a deep need to be useful. Living now is easier than it used to be when I had college loans; I just don’t buy anything I don’t absolutely need, help where I can, and let the rest go. I still have to deal with depression and with the executive dysfunction and weird brain of autism, but that’s a part of me, and I see no sense in looking down on myself just because I’m disabled.

I worry about the future. Just when it’s becoming crucial, our country’s dropping the ball on climate change. Our president is erratic, untrustworthy, and unethical. Authoritarianism looms large on the horizon. I do my best as a private citizen to help change things–with a focus on preserving democracy–but it’s still frightening, because disabled people are always the ones who get hurt first, right along with the poor and the minorities. I have quite a few deaths in ICE detainment in that database of mine, all of disabled immigrants. Why do people have to hate each other so much? Life is not a zero-sum game; if we help others, we ourselves benefit. We have so much to give; why are we refusing to share?

I find meaning in life from all the little things I do do make the world a little better, even if it’s just making cookies or showing a kid where to find the “Harry Potter” books. I used to think I might do something grand with my life, but now I don’t really think so. I think maybe a better world is made up of a lot of little people, all doing little things, all pushing in the right direction, until the sheer weight of numbers can move mountains.

Life is interesting…

Things I learned as a poor millennial renting a room in a half-refurbished 1950s house

  1. Yes, it is possible for two cats and a human to live in a bedroom that is fifteen feet by ten feet. Unfortunately, the cats will use your bed as a wrestling mat while you are sleeping in it.
  2. Taking a shower in a fifty-degree house, with the window open on the five-degree outdoors to offset the lack of a bathroom ventilation system, is much less uncomfortable than it sounds as long as the water is warm. Turning off the water is quite an exercise of willpower, though…
  3. Kitchen counters are optional. So are drywall, flooring, doorknobs, and the occasional non-load-bearing wall.
  4. You will grow used to looking at your new fenced-in backyard, wishing you could adopt a puppy to romp around said backyard, and knowing you cannot afford to care for a puppy. You will then go online and drool over puppy photos while petting your cats, whom you didn’t mean to adopt (but who had no one else), and who are two years overdue for their rabies boosters.
  5. It is possible to make baked potatoes in a microwave, as long as they are thoroughly stabbed with a fork before cooking.
  6. Six-foot-tall-plus men with active jobs can and do eat four times as much as short, round female-ish people with slow metabolisms. Bananas bought in such an environment have a tendency to evaporate and must be constantly re-acquired.
  7. Internet access is a utility nearly as important as water and power, and more important than phone service.
  8. Yes, it is possible for a town to be this white. Living in a multicultural city is something you won’t appreciate until you’ve moved out and you miss it. Luckily, there’s always the Internet, where you can talk to people from around the world.
  9. When doing dishes in the bathroom sink, the missing plug can be replaced with a crumpled paper towel covered in plastic wrap.
  10. The tools to repair the used lawnmower can and will cost more than the lawnmower did.
  11. If you cannot cook and your housemate can, you are in luck if they are willing to make enough for you. If they also do their own dishes, you have truly won the housemate lottery.
  12. The utility of duct tape and WD-40 cannot be overstated. A shortage of either one must be remedied immediately.
  13. It is possible–just barely–to get used to having bright aqua paint on your bedroom walls. This will not keep you from questioning the taste and/or color-perception ability of the house’s previous owners.
  14. Finding a new church after moving is a problem comparable in complexity to tensor calculus, even if your only requirements are “must be within walking distance or offer carpool arrangements” and “must not confuse bigotry with religion”.
  15. When you want to salt the icy walkways with the congealed solid chunk of driveway salt that the previous owners left behind, breaking up the salt with one of the four crowbars they also left behind is a workable solution.
  16. In the 1950s, houses were often built with a slot in the bathroom vanity through which used razor blades could be discarded to fall into the hollow part of the bathroom wall. Your housemate will discover this while doing electrical work, and need a tetanus shot.
  17. Provided you are willing to take your time and be careful, caulking the bathtub is much easier than it sounds.  However, getting the caulk off your hands afterward is much harder than it sounds.
  18. Learning the ins and outs of living in a house that’s just barely livable will, ironically, offer bonding opportunities for you and your housemate, and your friendship will strengthen. This is a good thing, since working together on renovations is best done with someone you do not hate.