Today Andrew answers: What do you wish your classmates had understood about you/did differently?
Hi! I’m Andrew from Generation Mindful's newest recurring weekly feature, Ask Andrew. In Ask Andrew, I’ll be taking any and all questions regarding the autism spectrum with particular emphasis on childhood development as an authentic autistic adult. Let’s get started!
For our first Q and A, you can watch the video and/or read my response below.
Q: Welcome Andrew! I’m so excited to hear your voice. I’m a child psychologist specializing in autism, raising a son with autism, and I’m very passionate about helping neurotypical peers and adults understand their neurodivergent peers/colleagues. What do you wish your classmates had understood about you/did differently?
A: Wow! That’s a great first question, thanks for asking. I was homeschooled as a child in elementary school through middle school. I also took summer classes here and there which did expose me to kids my own age but for the most part, I’d say I was separate from the typical school experience. My first true non-supervised exposure to my peers was in high school, so I jumped into the pool very quickly and had to acclimate as such.
I’d describe my high school experience as for the most part positive but also lonely. There were absolutely people I liked who liked me back and there were some out-of-school get-togethers, but they never went especially far. I think it was a combination of my autism, being homeschooled, and being your typical emotional teenager that was the reason for this.
The hardest lesson I had to learn was that people who told me they loved me to my face didn’t love me to my heart. That even if you try your best to treat people with kindness and understanding, some simply cannot be saved. This goes for both children and adults.
In one case in particular I knew a friend who I went out of my way to make her feel comfortable going to a new school. Then a year later in an advisory meeting asked what we could do to make new students welcome, she said in front of everyone I had been creepy. And though I had been overly enthusiastic, we had been friends for a year. She was still holding the first impression of me after all this time, a first impression that led us to being friends to begin with. She did not publicly shame anyone else in the same manner.
Her ableist view of me is why she viewed our friendship as lesser, and her neurotypical peers as better. It took another year for me to get it into my head she didn’t actually love me, she convenient-ed me. It’s the friendship I regret the most, mainly for my stubbornness to make it work and my immaturity in how I handled its ending.
Where I’m going with this is that ultimately when I disclosed my autism to people I was ultimately happier for it. Even when it hurts to let them go as a result. I was deeply in denial for years and practically could feel a fist around my heart unclench. Coming to terms with it helped me find my people, pretty much all of whom happen to be autistic as well. And once my eyes were opened I saw ableism all around me and was able to protect myself.
But perhaps if there was more awareness around the autism spectrum taught in classrooms from the ground up? Autism might have been able to save my friendships instead of ending them. More information taught from the ground up definitely could have helped.
As of the date of this article’s publication, we exist in a time of massive social upheaval and great goodwill being spread in light of the Coronavirus’ dying embers, and it is my hope we can make this discourse the new mainstream. Now the entire world knows what it’s like to be cut off from their loved ones by an invisible barrier. Now the entire world views their social interactions with a lens of severe apprehension.
As for what people could do differently to accommodate your child, especially as we reopen school doors this fall? I recommend reaching out to the staff, teachers, counselors, etc. since they occupy a role of power. My teachers at my high school were unusually incredible, to the point I enjoy a first name basis and the privilege to call them my honorary family with a few after I graduated.
As for anyone who reads this and wishes to be an ally, I ultimately advise reaching out to neurodivergent individuals if you see them struggling and treating them like anyone else in your class in need. That's what I felt the kind kids at my school did, they gave me a community. They embraced my weirdness. And not to throw shade, but I feel the ones that didn’t weren’t very happy people to begin with. I pity anyone who would look at us and see a word, not a human being.
As for what I wish they did differently? I wish more people had invited me to stuff. That I was seen as more than just the class clown, that I had the same emotional needs as any teenager. I felt I was seen by my peers as a school friend and not an outside friend at times. It would have been fun to get lunch. It would have been fun to have a date at a school dance. It would be fun, now, to enjoy talking to someone I met in high school every day. This happened on and off here and there, but they were never reoccurring.
But even if those relationships don’t happen in school for your son, I promise you they will happen eventually. I’m living proof. My hand is constantly jumping between writing this and messaging one of my besties about My Hero Academia right now. And even though my high school experience sounds rough, I did end up graduating salutatorian of my class and gave a speech in which I got to personally thank those who treated me with kindness to uproarious applause. Things really do get better.
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