Updated: Sep 8, 2022
There is always at least one instance in your life where you overcome a great internal challenge. Just look at some of the defining moments of historical American and Ancient figures. In the Jewish Torah, Moshe overcomes his stutter and fear of public speaking by confronting Pharaoh. For future President Franklin D. Roosevelt, it was his recovery from polio.
Autistic people likewise face challenges that vary from person to person. Personally, I face three primary challenges on a daily basis: socialization, sensory inputs and flexibility. I have worked on these challenges throughout my life, and I will never finish working on them. They are permanent challenges, which is why I find it satisfying when I push myself on each front.
This summer I took a trip across the United States which tested me daily in each of these areas and I feel it symbolizes the journey I continue to take as an Autistic person.
I picked my trip (ETGAR 36) because it presented an opportunity to travel the country with a focus on social activism and politics, areas in which I have a keen interest. Many Autistic people immerse themselves in areas of study or activities that pique their interests. This trip was appealing not only because of the subject matter but also because I felt I would be more comfortable socializing with people who likewise wanted to see the United States through a civics lens. Having interests in common with my peers is not something I encountered during previous summers at camp, where the kids had little interest in speaking with me about books, history or current events. I felt that Etgar would be a crowd of kids more my speed.
But first, I had to get to Atlanta, where the trip would begin. I decided to fly the day before with my Grandfather instead of flying down with other participants from the NY metro area the following morning. My reasoning was quite simple - I was very, very nervous. My anxiety was about more than the social aspects of the trip. It was also about setting myself up for success, knowing that I get stressed when traveling and navigating the potential for significant changes in schedule. I knew that if I headed down the day before, I could avoid the stress of last minute flight delays, or lost luggage. Traveling in advance provided me with comfortable breathing room and a less stressful beginning to my trip.
It wasn’t easy to walk into the meeting room the next day to begin the trip. I got a panic attack and fled to the bathroom. But I calmed down and as the day went on, my stress level lowered. There was no lightbulb or game changing moment to write about. What mattered was that I got a “feel” for the group. I began to strike up conversations with kids on the trip. We had dinner at a food hall, and I ate with the kids who got food from the same place. We spoke about where we were from and why we were interested in the trip. My confidence rose as I began to build natural friendships, reaffirming for myself that the friendships I made last school year weren’t a fluke. That first night, I feltrelaxed and ready for what the trip had to offer, and I was excited for the great opportunities that lay ahead.
We spent the days after Atlanta in Alabama exploring the Civil Rights Movement while learning more about my fellow journeyers. In Birmingham, we had a bowling night. I had no difficulty finding a group of kids to bowl with, and I felt much more comfortable with what I wanted to do next. Over the past year, I had spoken at a myriad of synagogues and schools about what it is like to be Autistic. I view spreading awareness as a critical lesson for our day and age. With the permission of the director, I planned to speak with the kids on the trip. We chose Tupelo, Mississippi, the home of Elvis Presley. I had big shoes to fill standing under his statue and explaining what it is like to be Autistic. A few years ago, I was nervous to reveal that I was on the spectrum. But when I spoke with my friends, I realized that this generation cares. They want to learn how to accept and include. What surprised me the most was that no one’s attitude towards me shifts; I am treated the same. I had this same worry at my school and similarly no one’s view of me was different.
At the end of the talk, another teen cames up to me and thanked me. This kid was also on the Autism Spectrum and older than me. What this showed me was that there are more among us than you would expect. There were 39 kids on the trip. Statistically there should be around 1 Autistic person, but now I knew there are two and maybe even more. The number of people diagnosed as Autistic continues to increase because more and more traditionally underrepresented Autistic groups (women, people of color, older people) have been officially diagnosed. This belief is underscored for me when a counselor comes up and reveals that they were recently diagnosed as Autistic . Notably, both the kid and the counselor are female, undermining the prevalent belief that Autism only affects males - something that is not only wrong but can be harmful and lead to underdiagnosing.
Authors Note: This is just the first of three blog posts which will all be up to read on my website's launch! Thanks for reading!