Traverse City Record-Eagle

January 11, 2014

Adapted in TC: Sometimes we just need a different view

Local columnist

---- — One of my students recently shared her personal perspective with her classmates.

“I’m 21 and autistic,” she said. “Being on the autism spectrum is not just a childhood disability. It affects my whole life. I’ve been drawn to psychology — felt a calling to educate people about autism, since I was diagnosed at age five. My being autistic has nothing to do with my sexual orientation or capability to love.

“I’m not asexual. I still have sexual desires and attractions. Dating, can be hard because it’s a social activity with lots of unwritten rules. Social skills don’t come naturally to me,” she added.

She then asked the class if we’d heard of the recent documentary, “Autism in Love.” She said she’s excited about the film and encouraged the class to look at the film’s Facebook page.

The students asked her how she met her boyfriend and what their relationship is like.

“I met my boyfriend on the Internet,” she said. “Sometimes I find it easier to say things by typing them out than by verbally saying them. I speak a bit differently and I have trouble making eye contact. For a long time, I had no idea what my boyfriend looked like. He’s a person with autism. We’re working on our communication, which helps our compatibility.”

She told us that she likes to give her boyfriend gifts she’s made. She says most people with autism date neurotypical people or those not on the autism spectrum. She’s had mixed results dating neurotypical men. I watched the rest of the class register that they’d just been called “neurotypical” something they’d not heard before.

Next, she affectionately discussed her parents’ decision to treat her autism aggressively and their desire that she received a comprehensive education, including sex education. She also shared that she’s easily confused by figurative language.

“Early on, I thought people were literally talking about seeds, like sunflower seeds, when they were referring to how babies are conceived,” she said. “I’d like to have a family someday and I worry a bit as to what it would be like to have children who aren’t autistic.”

Her voice became serious when she said that people with autism can often be vulnerable to abuse due to their lack of social awareness.

“I follow rules and am honest almost to a fault,” she said. “I’ve had to learn about consent and to avoid making others uncomfortable by learning nonverbal cues.”

She told us that she and her boyfriend both have sensory processing issues. They can affect all five senses. Wall colors or a light touch on the shoulder or certain sounds can upset her. She uses a weighted blanket that helps her fall asleep. When she was little, her mother brushed her skin nightly with a smooth silicon bristle brush to desensitize her. Her mom learned a specific technique that worked.

“Because I’m a high functioning person with autism, people sometimes think I’m a savant. I’m not. This creates a great deal of pressure. I also don’t think I need to be cured. I have a different way of thinking. I see myself as bilingual,” she said.

At the end of class, the students gave her a loud round of applause.

Of the numerous guest speakers we’d had during the semester, many students told me this classmate, had the greatest impact upon them.

Susan Odgers, a resident of Traverse City for the past 26 years, has used a wheelchair for 37 years. She is a faculty member at Northwestern Michigan College and Grand Valley State University. She can be reached via the Record-Eagle.