When I first talked publicly about being on the autism spectrum, I was 13 and a freshman at Miami Palmetto Senior High. At the time, having autism felt like a concrete block inside my head, which made it hard to flow through life like other kids. Success always seemed fleeting — or just out of reach.
So I decided to write a story about my experiences for my honors English class. I remember standing up at my desk to read it, facing my teacher and roughly 30 of my peers. I was both anxious and excited; anxious because I could be rejected and excited about the possibilities.
Without thinking, I opened my mouth. Even when describing embarrassing or uncomfortable topics, I didn’t stutter. I believed that since I wrote it, it must have been for a reason.
I talked about my sensitivity to noise and how the ringing bells lining the walls reverberated through my insides as I ran past them to class. I talked about my extreme anxiety that affected every action and interaction. I talked about my lack of social skills, and how I felt like an alien trapped on another planet.
Recently, one of my peers, a popular kid, offered to perform a sex act on a girl. I was confused. I was also insulted on her behalf and came to her aid. To my surprise, she giggled and was not offended by his gesture. Somehow, he had known he was speaking to the right person. I didn’t know there was a right person for these comments.
My story explained how to me, they were different. They actually seemed to hear me. One person even whispered, “Good job.” I learned something that day. Autism can be an opportunity.
Learning about differences — not just, say, race and religion — but in how our brains work and how we see the world, is valuable. Getting to know someone who is different from yourself teaches tolerance and patience.
The reality of the autism spectrum helps people to understand that everyone’s brain is different, even though it may feel more comfortable to believe otherwise. Let’s face it. Neurodiversity is a fact for every person on Earth, rather than a choice. If people are willing, it can also push them to confront themselves, to ask themselves if they are, so called, “normal.”
I am not every person with autism. We’re all different, too. Our abilities to communicate and our symptoms vary by degrees, thus the term “spectrum.” I am lucky to have friends across the spectrum, as well as neurotypical friends.
That day in English class turned into a stepping stone. One day, my mom, who had encouraged me to write about my life, mentioned to Dr. Diane Adreon at the University of Miami-Nova Southeastern University Center for Autism and Related Disabilities that I had written and presented a paper about my experiences to my peers. It turns out that kids talking about having autism was unusual. Since then, I have spoken at schools and organizations across the city and have even been given awards for my efforts.
With help from my mom, I started Stand in My Shoes, an educational movement to share the experienceand science of neurodiversity with children, in an effort to promote tolerance and understanding. All this happened, just because of a bold paper that showed not only my differences, but also my ability to say something without embarrassment.
Anyone see the irony here?
The whole reason I have all of these writing and public speaking opportunities is because of autism. As a child, and arguably now, I had no social filter. Not only did I say things without thinking, I was brutally honest, too. Sure, people may have wanted to punch me in the face three times over, but some people were thankful for the honesty. Some people came to me simply to hear my two cents.
When I was little, having no filter was viewed as unorthodox, vulgar and, overall, a liability. However, the lack of a filter increased my creativity. If you put a filter on creativity, you’ll do nothing but block opportunity.
If you’re neurotypical, and you have someone with autism in your life, here’s some advice: Think of autism as like a first date — it’s awkward, stressful and, most of the time, you don’t know what to say. But the more you interact with people on the spectrum without judgment, the more you will learn, and so will the person with autism.
From the perceptual reasoning skills to thinking in pictures, autism really is something that may grow better with age, as you start to understand the flaws, and also the perks, of being different. You might get lucky in the end when you realize all the qualities locked in the autistic person’s mind.
Connor Cunningham, 17, is co-founder of Stand In My Shoes and a junior at Miami Palmetto High School. He is featured in a documentary, Stand in My Shoes, which will be screened as part of the Canes Film Festival at the Bill Cosford Cinema on the University of Miami campus on Friday. For more information go to canesfilmfestival.com.