I’m Not “Other”, I’m Your Classmate

I am typing this sentence in my university’s library. I won’t be here much longer; I graduate in May. During my time in college, I have accomplished many things, socially and academically. As an art major and biology minor, I have a portfolio filled with creations I’m proud of, and I have worked with some amazing sea creatures.

Getting this far was definitely not easy. When I first started going to a community college near home, I took only two classes at a time because I got overwhelmed so easily. When graduation approached, I would cry for hours at least twice a week because I hate transitions and wasn’t even sure what I wanted to do next. And when I checked into the dorms at the university I currently attend, I was dismayed to find that despite a doctor’s letter  recommending a quiet dorm, I had been assigned a roommate who blared the TV at all hours. Even today, my conversations with my fellow students often involve stretches of awkward silence. I have a lot in common with the students in the New York Times’ recent article, “Along the Autism Spectrum, a Path through Campus Life”—because I’m autistic too.

And I want to tell you how I feel about that article’s portrayal of people like me.

I found the article’s tone needlessly condescending. From the very first sentence, a young man is defined solely by his lack of a girlfriend and his social awkwardness. We are never told his major, his interests and passions,Text reads: "As an autistic student reading these words, I am told that my presence on campus is “jarring”. And that hurts. -C.L. Bridge" Image is of a student sitting at a desk holding a pen as they write on a spiral notepad. Above the text is the AWN dragonfly-letter a- logo. After the quote is the AWN web address awnnetwork.org his hopes for the future, or anything that might remind us he is as human as any other student. If the Western Kentucky University program hopes to help autistic students to make friends and thrive in college, it is ironic that an article describing the program “others” these students with its choice of words right from the start. As an autistic student reading these words, I am told that my presence on campus is “jarring”. And that hurts.

Even the program’s staff members seem to view the students as “other”. The program manager suggests that the autistic students who don’t feel lonely are less self-aware than those who do. Her remark that she is “too scared to ask” about graduates’ social lives despite their success in their chosen fields shows me that she has low expectations for the students. Believe me, I definitely worry about what will happen to my social life when I graduate—but when a
person supposedly trained to help people like me half-jokingly calls my future scary, I worry even more. The students’ conversations in the van are dismissed as non sequiturs, implying that their words are illogical and invalid. (What conversation in a crowded van doesn’t sound disjointed? And even if the students are talking nonsense, aren’t autistic people allowed to be silly sometimes?) When they return from their Walmart outing and forget to to say goodbye, the student mentor never considers that maybe it is because their minds are still jangled from the crowded, busy store. (I can tell you for a fact that shopping can be hard. I usually do fine, but sometimes when I go alone, my social anxiety gets so bad I leave without the thing I came for.)

Some of the strategies taught in the WKU program would have been helpful to me as a new student. Rehearsing what to do about a lost ID would have saved me a lot of panic. And I benefited from a community college class that taught study skills and organization. Structured, fun social events such as a game night help me make friends, and these events are one of my favorite things about college. And I’m sure all these aspects of the program help the participants too; I think it is great that the program got a young person out of a group home and into the community. But if I had the opportunity to join the WKU program, the forced socialization and condescension from staff and mentors would be enough to repel me. Does the program have any staff who are autistic themselves? If not, it needs them. We have firsthand experience with autism that no neurotypical person has.

I am writing all this because, as I’ve mentioned before, words and attitudes matter—often as much as actions. You can offer me wonderful support, but if that support comes with the attitude that my presence is jarring, that my future social life is too scary to talk about, that my words are non sequiturs, that I am other, then I don’t want it. Respect is an essential ingredient of any autism-related support I receive.

About C.L. Bridge: C.L. is an autistic person who enjoys art, games, and aquatic animals.

7 thoughts on “I’m Not “Other”, I’m Your Classmate”

  1. Pingback: I’m Not “Other”, I’m Your Classmate. | Appalachian Aspie part two.

  2. I am on the spectrum also….I went to Community collage and felt the sting of “other” myself especially from the staff who it seemed like I was asking some “hard questions” about certain tests,…mentoring, avocation for myself and others for certain help ….they acted as though they were being recorded and shouldn’t respond for they may be I’m placate in helping you become a better human being……I felt so big compared to their littleness of no-response….we need better staff to help those needing it.

  3. Great piece! Support should never make the supported person feel condescended to. Supports are aids for the supported person to do & be their best.

  4. This article makes me want to tuck back into my shell and say human connection is not worth it. I need to read it better at another time. I feel like I am constantly apologizing for living in a world (around humans) that are too much for me.

    “I don’t mean to be rude but could you not talk now?” one student told another. “Your voice is very loud in my head!” This. This is exactly why I quit wearing a bra. No one is walking on eggshells to not offend my sensory needs. I must ask politely while still being found odd, so why should I wear a bra? I refuse to be uncomfortable for another’s perceived comfort. If my lack of bra makes you feel uncomfortable, I dare you to ask me politely to put one on.

    One by one, they unloaded their bags and, without so much as a “thank you” or even “goodbye,” set off. I am so tired of being seen as rude. Overwhelmed. They will never get it. That in the quiet moments, I reflect and review my performance. Seriously, the amount of time I waste wondering what everyone wanted me to do. Another missed, passive, aggressive, expectation, you needed me to guess!

    I like being autistic, but nothing makes me feel more shame about it than hearing a non-autistic explain me. How I know if I want to read a book: autistics are praising it and parents of autistics hate it.

    C.L. Bridge, I didn’t know I was autistic until I finished college and was well into my career. I’m fully employed, work from home, and I was not socially successful at all in college. There is a place for us. There will be non-autistics who do not scrutinize our goodbyes, but appreciate that we show up for them on schedule, on time, to be there as their friend. My best friend suffered a great loss, but I loved her, didn’t expect her to behave the right way through her loss, and in return she saw me and loved me. Our friendship is worth more than a 1,000 friends who would see my lack of “goodbye” as rude. She gets me.

  5. With a diagnosis at age 60, excellent article, by the way, and growing up here in the south, I have analyzed social interactions ad nauseum. And I can tell you, beyond a shadow of a doubt (and my manners far exceed those of many neurotypicals), that I find most neurotypicals to be rather rude…..shockingly so….

  6. That NYT article disgusted me. The condescension made me feel so ashamed until I realized that the article was written by neurotypicals, who, as usual, completely forgot that we are people, not just pity projects.

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