What is disability? Is the difference between high-function and severe even a thing?

I, and a lot of people in the autism community, use terms such as “high-functioning” and “severe”.  What are they exactly, and how can someone who is supposedly fully functioning have a disability too?  I could get into the etymological meanings of each word, which doctor in the medical field coined them, what they meant by that, and what kinds of people are described with those terms.  I won’t do that however; that’s what dictionaries and Wikipedia are for.  Instead, I’ll talk from experience I’ve had with people in the world, people from Special Olympics, people from regular high school and people who found their own way through life.

Everyone has different levels of ability, even a completely average but well-off business-class person couldn’t match wits with Stephen Hawking or stand a chance against Usain Bolt in an endurance contest, in spite of what my or anyone else’s mom says.  Also, both men would be outmatched in the other’s respective field of work, and everyone can agree that Stephen Hawking is disabled because of his ALS.  Yet, he has made several integral contributions to our species’ knowledge of the cosmos, including his discovery of the aptly-named Hawking Radiation, which is predicted to emanate from black holes.  In this case, Hawking’s work helped to solve a problem previously observed in black holes, where they seemed to breaking the laws of physics.  All those accomplishments, and he can’t manage a flight of stairs.

In the case of Hawking, a lot of people would say that he’s physically disabled, but that doesn’t affect his mental abilities.  That is very true, but it is an easy trap to follow this reasoning with, “You can be physically disabled without it affecting your mental capacity or vice versa, but you can’t be mentally handicapped and a normal person or physically impaired and still be athletic.”  To that, I would point to the Paralympics.  Again, if we take that generic normal dude and throw him in the water with the world’s best Paralympic athletes, he’s going to get taken to school.  That doesn’t mean that life is easy for people who are missing limbs or afflicted by conditions such as Cerebral Palsy, and many of those Paralympic athletes face every day challenges the normal dude would never have to face.

“Severe” me

How does this all apply to that odd, confusing and somehow condescending term, “high-functiong”?  Well, in Autistic disorders, these differences in ability that we just talked about are more pronounced.  That’s because, unlike other intellectual disabilities, it doesn’t just delay a person’s mental age, or have a well-understood mechanism.  Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t, whereas others are normal but have no clue how socializing works, or they can’t speak and are prone to violence, so we really don’t know how much is really in that person, etc, etc, etc.  Doctors found that Autistic people shared a few core traits that must have been caused by the same condition, but with too much difference between them all to fit everyone into a single category.

There was a lot of variance in patients diagnosed with Autism, yet too many of the cases studied had too many similarities to categorize them as a multitude of separate conditions.  Asperger’s was later classified as a different-but-related condition, although that didn’t account for the still-huge amount of Autistics with varying degrees of everything.  Even one person, such as myself, can jump from one end of disability to another over their life.  So how did the doctors and therapists clear things up for everyone?

“Moderate” me

 

High-functioning literally means that the individual can do a lot him or herself.  They can eat, talk, move around, wear clothes, think and generally live without an assistant.  Others who were–and are–more held back by their disorder, and struggle with it to live a normal, functioning life, they’re severely affected by their condition.  That’s where the terms came from.  I use them because they are actual differences in people’s intellect and mental age–and other forms of development–but they’re medical enough to not be offensive or dirty-sounding.

In my life, I went from what any doctor or child physician would call “severe”, to someone who would be described as high functioning.  When I was kid, I was the frightening, problem child that would appear in melodramatic charity ads and award-winning drama films.  I was set off at the slightest bad touch, way behind in my age development, wouldn’t eat, was non-verbal and prone to rages to communicate my stress.  The latter problems–in both myself and people I know–was ratified with sign language that helped my brain grow a part that could use spoken English.

The rest is a story that I’m all too tired of telling time and time again, for this blog and other places.  Years of hard work from my loving family, awesome support workers and teachers, aid societies like Special Olympics, and myself, I became who I am today, which is leagues ahead of the what the doctors said I was capable of, Dustin Hoffman wins the Oscar.  Writing this, I have come to realize that I have a rather cynical look at my past.

I know that many of my problems today are caused by my Autism, but whenever my childhood is brought up, it doesn’t help much.  To me, it’s like hearing, “It’s okay that you’re struggling now and may not reach your goals in life, but you were super f%cked up as a kid so it’s a miracle that you’re even talking”.  Also, I don’t like the way our society takes stories such as my own and twists it.

Just because I went from severe to relatively “normal” doesn’t mean that’s a realistic expectation of other people who are Autistic, or disabled in any way for that matter.  But because so many “inspirational” news articles give the implied message that all disabled people can eventually live a normal life in spite of their condition, almost as if their condition doesn’t really mean anything.  In telling my story as a formally severe Autistic, I hope I haven’t made my life seem like that or disparaged anybody who had a worse luck of the draw than I have.

“High Functioning” me

 

If there’s any good moral lesson to take away from my childhood, it’s that “severe” and “high-functioning” aren’t hard terms.  Three year old me was definitely the former, present me is the latter, but the Callum I was in elementary school fit somewhere in the middle, or was both.  What I was would depend on which doctor you spoke to.

Terms that define what “severe” and “high-functioning” mean are necessary. Pretending like there isn’t a difference in people’s abilities–or saying that some adult people don’t have the mentality of a child–is a polite fiction.  It’s also harming the people they’re supposed to protect, by denying them their human right to receive extra aid in exchange for those intellectual or physical impairments.  This is like saying they have nothing  to compensate for.  I have different needs in my journey to University than a severely-afflicted Autistic would have just to get through their day, but that does not invalidate either of us or make one more of a priority over the other.  Maybe “high-functioning” and “severe” aren’t the best terms to use, but, they’re what is commonly used and right now, they’re all I’ve got.

 

 

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Giving a Speech

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Every year across Canada–but especially in Ontario–police officers go on charity runs for Special Olympics.  These runs differ depending on when and where they are, sometimes it’s a downtown run to raise awareness, other times they’re actually carrying in the torch during a Provincial, National or even World game.  Originating in the U.S., the Canadian half of the trend started in Toronto when people thought it would be a good idea to help raise money for SO.  Over 30 years, in Canada alone, Law Enforcement Torch Runs have raised over a 100 million dollars for SO, and last year alone around 130,000 dollars were raised.  This year they want it to be 180,000.  I learned all this a week or so ago, while attending a meeting in Toronto’s Police HQ.

Any kind of organized event needs some kind of meeting before the big day, both to lay out the technical aspects and to explain why it is important to do this thing in the first place.  So, the meeting downtown was designed to fulfill both functions by talking about the history of the Ontario Torch Run, the good it has brought and how the tradition will be continued this year.  To be a sort of representative, Special Olympics reached out to be to give a speech in front of around 90 Ontario Police Officers talking about what SO meant to me, how important it is and how it impacted my life.  So, you know, no pressure.

I had about a week and a half before the big date, which was a Thursday at around 10:15 [the talks started later, we were to get there early to meet with representatives from SO and the Ontario and Toronto Police].  While new events can be scary to some, they only make me vaguely nervous since I have really nothing to expect, whereas something that I can relate to a little more–such as a test, which I have gone through before–makes me more stressed out.  Given that I was currently focused on my school work [for some tests] and had things to do on the weekend, I wrote the first draft of my speech on Monday just before noon.

It wasn’t as difficult as some of my school work, because being heartfelt allows the words to flow quicker than when being logical and scientific for a test.  The biggest challenge–given my writing personality–was keeping the speech brief while saying what needed to be said.  I simply refrained myself from talking too much on one topic–letting the sentence that introduces a topic give all the information necessary–and made sure to keep the rhythm right.  Satisfied that I had covered all I wanted to and left myself enough time to make edits the next day, I read the speech aloud to my parents.

They told me not to change a thing, and given that they both almost cried, I took it that this was more than the usual parental over-appreciation.  My mom transcribed the speech–word per word–into a form that was printable, because we couldn’t think of a less primitive method to get the speech from laptop to paper.  Side note–printers wouldn’t hook up with it, my laptop doesn’t know how to email, and while I take to some aspects of technology like a fish to water, other parts I feel like a fish taking to a brick wall.  The important thing was: I had my speech papers and they were ready for Thursday.

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I’ve been to the Toronto Police Headquarters before, when my mom had some minor paperwork to clear up [it’s honestly not as bad as it sounds].  They have a pretty openly-spaced brick-and-marble building downtown, with a nice little police history museum that’s free for anyone to check out, and some offices upstairs to do all the necessary paperwork.  We met with two friendly people from Special Olympics, and got to know each other on our way to the meeting hall.  There was a room on the second floor with a stage and empty carpet for chairs to be lined up, quite large next to everything else on the floor, more medium sized in comparison to a university’s lecture hall.

When we took our seat, a nice officer who was one of the meeting’s organizers explained to me that my segment was in the middle of the presentation, and everyone around me made me feel comfortable and ready.  I don’t have a lot of the social fears that other people do, nor do I have much of the social intuition.  Kind of an even trade in that regard.

My biggest worry, which follows me many places, were my intrusive thoughts.  I’ll do a separate post about them, but for now, understand that they are essentially unwanted thoughts that pop up unexpectedly, and tend to whisper detailed and disturbing things into one’s head.  They are much closer to an anxiety disorder than schizophrenia, despite some confusion with the latter.  I’d previously talked with my doctor about them, and he said that while there weren’t many viable paths to treat them, I had my thoughts under more control than normal.  That was pretty reassuring.

Besides, I had my speech to focus on, and turning my attention to that, the people I was talking to, or the insightful presentation that was being held.  It was a nice meeting, the people who were from the Torch Run were clearly passionate about the project, and the officers had a kind, jovial energy to them.  And I learned some stuff, which I put at the top of this page.  It was a bit of a shock when the next introductions on the huge TV screen in front of us mentioned something about “with his mom and grandma”, before I realized I was reading my own biography.  Then the kind officer said my name and welcomed me on stage.

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That was, for about three seconds, a very intense moment, but I quickly composed myself.  The only adlib was explaining how the stuffed dog under my arm–Copper–was a sort of pet that doesn’t need food or water, and accompanies me so I don’t stress out in public.  It’s a good way to explain why I carry him around: an idea that my friend recommended to me about 2 years ago.  I figured it would only be fair to explain Copper to everyone.  The speech I gave is located just below this paragraph.

[beginning of speech]

What Special Olympics Means To Me

I remember the first time I tried to hold my breath under water, when I would’ve been around 8 years old. It… didn’t go well. My parents thought it would be good for me to learn how to at least tread water, in case I ever fell off a boat or something like that. But the thing is, with autistic people such as myself, learning new things is just harder. We often become emotionally overwhelmed in situations that would be mundane to other people, or can’t be taught something the same way as other kids would be because we think differently. In my case, I feel like I learn slower than other people my own age. My family needed someone to teach me how to swim, someone with patience, dedication and understanding of how I was.

With luck, it turned out that Special Olympics had and still has a swim team dedicated to non-swimmers that was more than happy to welcome me on board. The Seals team, who swim every Monday at Main Street and Gerrard. Upon joining the Seals, or any team in Special Olympics, you notice a wonderful diversity of people. They don’t just welcome Autistics, but people with Down Syndrome, developmental delays or other, unique conditions that make a person one of a kind. We don’t shy away from the medical terms, but we also have no need to label ourselves in Special Olympics. We’re all equals, and coached by people who understand us when much of the rest of the world wouldn’t, or couldn’t.

I didn’t just learn how to tread water with Special Olympics, truth be told, I learned more than how to do Butterfly, Backstroke, Breaststroke and Front Crawl. I learned how to try new things even though they were scary, or really, really uncomfortable, because it was always worth it in the long run. I learned how to take the TTC by myself, so I could get to practice and other places I needed to be on time. I also learned how to make friends, which is the epitome of trying something new that is scary and uncomfortable. Now I’m comfortable enough with some of my Special Olympic friends that we also do other stuff together as well, such as going to the mall, or their house. And I get their by myself, with the same public transit skills that got me to swim practice on time.

When I was about 9 or 10, the swimming pool’s deep end petrified me. I used to only go into it at all while piggy-back riding on my coach’s back, who… did an impeccable job keeping me from dragging us both under. Now, about eight years later, I’m a Special Olympic medalist who won Bronze, Silver and Gold at the 2016 Guelph Provincial Olympic Games [show medals]. It wasn’t just me, I guarantee most if not all of the other athletes at those Provincial Olympic Games have similar stories to my own, stories of overcoming odds, surpassing the low expectations society holds for us, and becoming happier, more capable people as a result. And it’s all thanks to countless, awe-inspiring people who work for Special Olympics as coaches, coordinators and volunteers, that got me to where I am today.

There’s one more thing I learned from Special Olympics, and it’s the motto they say before the start of every swim meet or tournament. The motto is, “Let me win, and if I shall not win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

[end of speech]

So, that was the speech.  People seemed to genuinely really like it, and I got complimented on how well I did.  One man in particular gave a speech after mine, he’s an officer who has a daughter with Down Syndrome, a woman he considers his “best friend”.  I liked hearing another person who knows what it’s like to live with a disability, and had first hand experience with SO.  He thanked me during his speech in reference to mine, saying that I “hit it”.  I talked to him afterwards, and I thanked him in return for being so kind and for being a father who truly understands his child.  Honestly, we could use more dads like that, especially in the disabled community.

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In conclusion, it was a very good experience that I had, and I was blessed to have been given the offer.  It’s reassuring to hear people you’ve never met before compliment you on your words, and I’m glad I was able to represent Special Olympics like that.  I did get a bit nervous, but it was exciting too, and I’ve learned over the years about how to keep stress from getting the better of me.

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Selling 50/50 tickets


For anyone who’s ever gone to a sports game, particularly basketball or hockey, 50/50 tickets are a great way to gamble reasonable amounts of money while donating to charity.  After the first or second quarter ended and before you buy your hot dog, you may find an average-looking person in a red apron standing around and printing out pieces of paper for cash.  If you approach them and ask what the deal is, they’ll probably say that once you buy a ticket, half the money goes to charity and the other half goes into a jackpot that one lucky ticket-holder receives at the end of the game.  I know this because I actually was that ticket-seller.

 

The Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) company is not only the owner of the Toronto FC and [who else] The Maple Leafs, but also my favourite NBA basketball team, the Toronto Raptors.  They also run the MLSE Foundation, which is dedicated to assisting various non-profit charities, such as Special Olympics, Reach for the Rainbow, Autism Ontario and many more [the full list is on their website].  Each volunteer from one of the charities is worth 50 dollars given to their charity, so just by being there, my mom and I make 100 dollars for Special Olympics per game.  The other half of the 50/50 jackpot that goes “to charity” goes specifically to the MLSE Foundation to aid their goal of helping children through sport.  To raise that money, they enlist volunteers.

50/50 volunteers get to watch the last quarter [sometimes two quarters] of the game in the stadium, so being given the offer is a pretty big deal.  The MLSE reached me, and by extension, my mother, through Special Olympics, and we jumped on the opportunity.  A common theme in this post will be how it was difficult for me at first, but I got more used to the procedure over time.  While this is normal for everybody, this ease-with-repetition behavior is especially pronounced in autistics.

Jurassic Park ACC

View of the game from Jurassic Park


How it works is that you go to the Air Canada Centre two hours before the game, and knock on a windowless metal door so the security guard on the other side will let you in [the door is close to a more visible entrance and volunteers are usually waiting outside the right spot anyways].  This specific door faces the very public square outside “Jurassic Park” so it feels less like a drug deal than it sounds.  After being let in, some friendly volunteers/workers hand you some papers to sign your name on, and then it’s off to the employees-only segment.  The Centre isn’t as eerie without customers as one would think: the lights and bathrooms still work normally, and employees can be seen everywhere, preparing food, keeping an eye on security and such.  The staff-only door that we are lead through goes downstairs, to the basement level.

Zamboni

Zamboni!!

This floor of the building is level with the court that the players are on, as well as the associated locker rooms, Zambonis [for hockey], and we even go past one of the corner tunnels that the players make their entrance through.   Our route takes us right past one of the corner entrances to the court: a dark, spacious area watched by one or two security guards on a computer.  I think everyone who goes through here gets the thought of running out there onto the court during the middle of game, kind of like how thinks about what would happen if we jumped off a cliff or decided not to pay taxes anymore.  The 50/50 crew have a small room near the indoor trailer garage, and this is where volunteers are fitted with their aprons, equipment and assigned a post somewhere in the ACC [I always get the first floor, I don’t know if everyone does].

Raptors mascot

Never know what you’re going to see in the hallways

While not too much of an issue, this room is small, crowded with people, and finicky, so it’s nice to get out of there smoothly.  Then, it’s simply a guided trip back the way we came up to the main floor.  This part of the ACC that is essentially a giant hallway of overpriced food and beer curves around the seating area and basketball court.  Think of it like an onion, with the court being in the center, surrounded by seating and then the food hall.  Scattered through the hallway are TVs, some of which show a feed of the game that is also pumped into that big, triangular screen that hangs above the court.  So during the 90% of the time you’re not selling someone a ticket, you can at least watch from there.

Watching the game while selling tickets

There’s one more thing I should explain, and that’s when we sell 50/50 tickets.  We sell until the end of half-time, and then head back downstairs to return our gear, and get free pizza and seating.  Because people won’t be wandering around much during the game, customers typically appear in “waves” during the breaks in-between quarters.  People are usually too busy trying to find where their seat is before the game starts, so the end of the first quarter is usually when we sell the most tickets.  That being said, half-time is the most hectic because most of the stadium’s audience comes out to walk around then.

Quiet before the crowd arrives

There is typically a half hour before the gates open, during which the employees continue to ready the place.  Then a few people who don’t look like employees start to creep in, and suddenly there’s a crowd of people searching for their seats.  During my first day, I was pretty rigid and formal, and probably a lot more cautious about people not knowing stuff.  To elaborate: I would explain the process in more detail than was necessary, and would ask people if they were sure about their purchase after they handed us money.  So I wasn’t rude or unhelpful, but not exactly casual either.

My mom explained people there are just having a good time, so I could relax more.  After a while, I got used to it and discovered that even people who know nothing about the 50/50 tickets get the idea pretty intuitively, and don’t need a long dry explanation.  It’s not like a huge business deal, so there’s no reason to treat it like one.  My mom handles the cash because she can make change quickly, and I use the machinery.

There are three options for how many tickets you can buy: 3 for 5$, 10 for $10, or 40 for $20.  One of my devices is a recycled, miniature tablet used to select which option the customer chose, and the other is a portable receipt printer.  The receipt has the “tickets” that the person bought, each of which is a series of numbers.  Sometimes the tablet glitches or locks out, but I was quick to notice the MLSE has a booth with someone who’s there to help the ticket sellers, so it’s never a problem should something happen.  Over time I’ve gotten more familiar with the equipment to use it better, and I’m more comfortable that whenever it freezes, the issue isn’t anything serious.

The Foundation is kind enough to let its volunteers grab a bite to eat during their shift, so the second quarter [when everyone is watching the game] proved itself to be a great time to fill up and calm down.  The vendors are even kind enough to have given my mom an employee’s discount.  There is one rule about volunteers having to give up their spot in the line to regular ticket holders–a rule I think is annoying and useless–but this isn’t a problem when the game is on.

The hardest part of the 50/50 selling–for anybody–is the half time.  This is the longest break in any sport game, and it’s when the majority of people come out to use the bathrooms, or grab some more food and drink.  As a pro-tip, this is why it’s better to leave your seat either during another, smaller break in between quarters, or when there’s a minute or less on the game clock before halftime starts.  Because otherwise, you’ll be swamped with people, and us ticket sellers are right in the middle.

Nobody likes standing in a crowd, having one’s space restricted, and being stuck in a loud, constant din.  Fortunately I–and anyone else who lives in a city–have years of training from being stuck on the subway during rush hour, so my experience is tiring instead of really stressful.  I think it also helps that we have to stay in the same spot during half time, whereas any other time I’m in a crowd I try to find the quickest way out, and get frustrated and stressed at how slow the people in front [and behind, and all around] are.  After half time ends, all 50/50 sellers go downstairs to return their gear, monetary earnings, and then go back upstairs to watch the game from the TV camera seats.

Raptors cheerleaders

Cheerleaders practicing behind the scenes


Going downstairs is a lot better, sometimes its quiet atmosphere can be eerie straight after listening to a huge crowd and speaker-quality music.  There’s some hustle and bustle at this point–mostly camera men and cheerleaders walking through the underground hallways–and a congo line of 50/50 sellers in red aprons.  The route to the elevators [which to go upstairs] is the most interesting.  On the same level as the maintenance halls is the VIP lounge, where the food vendors sell roast meat, fancy clothing stores and a club for people who apparently paid large amounts of cash to watch the game on a prestigious bar tv.  Upstairs is where specialty seating is: the disabled spot, little sitting rooms where parties are held, and finally our volunteer seats.

 

The seats are in some ways more comfortable than the regular bleachers–being comfy office swivel chairs instead of tightly packed plastic benches–although they have drawbacks.  Mainly, the chairs are awfully close to the railing/table in front of us, that one has to look over to see the court.  I have a big fear of heights, which usually triggers itself by asserting that yes, if I did fall from this height onto that ground, I would die.  So, my first five games I watched the Raptors play either through the [glass] railing, or by practically hugging the table.  Over time I felt more safe, and I found myself in the sweet spot between at sitting ease but not carelessly.  So, in a strange way, my love of basketball helped me with a fear of heights.

Upper level ACC

So high up we’re above the Jumbotron

Another drawback is that, during playoffs, other TV companies take up those seats.  The seats we get are exactly the same angle that you’ll see on TV, so in the playoff season the entire row is taken, and we have to watch the game from the same areas we were allowed in as ticket sellers.  It kind of sucks, but it is still a great experience to be in the building, and watching our team during such an important set of games.

Are they even watching the game?

Lastly, I’d like to talk about all the people I’ve observed as a ticket seller.  It’s really interesting to see how people can have such different perspectives when going to the exact same event.  On the one hand, when walking through the VIP lounge and party rooms, I’ve noticed plenty of people in sharp, expensive-looking suits and skirts sitting on leather furniture with food and drink, talking amongst themselves with backs turned to the court.  It feels strange, since I worked hard to get the seats I got and the people who get them for free take it for granted.  On the other hand, sometimes people in those party rooms are all crowded near the courtside window, leather chairs be damned, and other fans are willing to pay for a plane to cross the border into Canada to support their team from home.  And nothing makes it more worthwhile then walking out and seeing the fans outside the ACC in a gated area called Jurassic Park, representing the fun and intensity of the game.  In the end, the long hours standing, loud crowds and depth-defying seats make it worthwhile, because the day is like a big, basketball-themed party.

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An Autistic’s thoughts on the U.S. Election 2016

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I’ve made a point not to get political with either of my blogs, especially this one. The point of this article isn’t to convince the reader to agree with a certain political view, it’s too late for that now, the die has been cast. Rather, it’s to do what much of this blog is for: explain how I feel about something and why I think that way. I’ve tried to make an important, time sensitive post like this before and failed, this time I have to get it right.

For the record, yes, this is about how Donald Trump–a xenophobic anti-Islam misogynist–was elected president of the USA: my country of origin. I will not explicitly say that such prejudices of his are wrong, but I will say that I feel such viewpoints are very wrong. Obviously my opinions on anything are not the same as another Autistic’s, and just because I say something doesn’t mean they agree or won’t argue it. While I will try to remain neutral, and will also go into why I see Trump’s prejudices as inappropriate, I’ll let you have your own thoughts.

Trump and his supporters complained about “political correctness” in that it kept people from talking about how they felt about others. Of course, this was a subtle way of saying they wanted to discuss things like a personal hatred towards Muslims, or the desire to kick people out of the country for their Mexican heritage. Republican voters say Trump as a rebellion against this “PC” nightmare, saying all the things he wanted regardless if they offended people for their ethnicity. I do think there’s a problem with political correctness, but it’s not what the Trump voters talk about. I think, in some ways, political correctness isn’t strict enough.

Why is it okay to call a person a rapist/drug dealer/terrorist because of their (Mexican) heritage or (Islamic) faith? People can’t control who their parents are, or their genes, or what language and holy book they were taught at home. In my eyes, it’s crazy that Trump’s xenophobic views were considered legitimate–worthy of serious intelligent debate compared to those other candidates–instead of being dismissed offhand for extreme intolerance. Again, this is my opinion and I’m not saying that it’s right, but to me, discrimination against people for how they were born is different from issues like Gun Control or the Abortion debate. What Trump says he wants to do about Mexicans and Muslims is to essentially criminalize people for being themselves.

It’s the prejudice that bothers me. I know America has a race problem–God everyone knows–but the idea of hating a group of people just for being who they are, for being different, has never stopped haunting me. The fact that it’s mainstream and deemed okay kills me. I looked up all of the Republican candidates’ views on various political issues, including gay marriage. All of them were against it, the tamest attitudes towards such expression of free love was regret that it was made constitutional. I kept thinking to myself, “Why do they hate gays and why does no one talk about how wrong that is?”. Gays are people!

A close family friend is happy with her new girlfriend, and one of my best friends identifies as bi (and they felt ashamed and confused about it because of their family’s conservative values). The idea of a significant part of society hating these people who I care about for something that doesn’t affect anybody makes me want to cry. I especially feel that way now that homophobia has just been deemed an appropriate quality for an American president to have.

I feel the need to bring something up in regards to Trump’s stance on gay marriage that other people have and possibly will bring up.  In the Republican party, Trump is actually considered pro-gay, insomuch that he has respect for people who are gay.  However, he still is against the concept of gay marriage, believing that it should be “between a man and a woman”.  I wonder how Donald would feel about a gay man who likes heterosexuals, but believes he should not have married Melania.

Given that we’ve gone over why Trump’s presidency is saddening for me, it’s time we go over how it made me feel. Whenever a bad thing happens, it hurts me so much more if it feels arbitrary. I have to know why this thing happened, it’s almost an emotional way to cope. A hurricane doesn’t hit a city because the world sucks and people suffer, it’s because of weather patterns and randomness manifest themselves as extraordinarily bad luck. To most people the reason why is inconsequential and pointless, to me it can be everything.

When my family heard the news, my parents started talking about how broken and racist the states are. It’s a discussion I’ve heard enough to be sick of, both from them, the media at large and parts of my own head. I started talking about how the racism has basis in psychology, and the culture begets such thinking. I went on and in to the point that my family got emotional and appeared angry, asking me what my point was, saying I didn’t understand and that what I was saying “Isn’t what we’re talking about”. I was confused, and felt like they wanted me to join in on bashing my home country.

Truth is, my family wasn’t bashing, at least not in their hearts. Both of my parents agreed that there are several Americans who aren’t racist and didn’t vote for Trump. My grandmother has largely negative viewpoints on certain topics of human interest, especially politics. My mom was trying to talk about how American racism is the reason Trump got elected, but I felt a subconscious, almost visceral repulsion to the idea. I couldn’t leave it at “America is systemically racist, so Trump got elected and that’s horrible”, there had to be a reason why American society hates Mexicans, Gays and Muslims.

When I walked away to let the dog outside, my mom said to Nana that I, “don’t understand social injustice”, that my head doesn’t compute it. She’s wrong. I do understand it, and I can’t stomach it. Racism, homophobia, hate speech, rape, murder and terrorism are all actions and qualities attributable to many humans, with a scientific explanation for why people engage in them. Psychology, biology, anthropology, those make sense to me, the desire of people to inflict discrimination and pain unto others does not. Trump makes no sense to me, other than what psychological labels I can put on him.

I’m ranting again. I think it’s a way to avoid dealing with the issue, the thing that’s causing me distress. My Homeland, the place that had autism interventions that made me who I am today, and houses my father and sister, has chosen a symbol of prejudice, exclusion and hatred as its leader. It doesn’t make sense, and I hate it.

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Comparisons

apples-to-oranges

It is an instinctive, natural and logical human concept to take two or more related but separate things, and list all the ways in which they are both alike and different. It’s useful to be able to say, “House of Cards is a lot like West Wing but in takes place in the present day and stars Kevin Spacy.”, or, “Brown eggs are only different from white eggs in terms of colour, not taste.” I mention it because I find that I have to compare myself a lot to other people, how I’m different from “neuro-typical” people, or how my autism affects me differently than it does others. This isn’t a bad thing, since it can help analyze one’s strengths and weaknesses and see the differences in people, but I’ve come to realize that it is a running theme in my life.

comparisons

 

Many times I am disappointed in myself for getting tired or stressed more easily in certain situations than is normal, and my family will say that it’s because of how I am: social situations tire me and I need a day alone at the end of the week. A lot of kids can see their friends everyday and not be fazed, whereas after the second social day in a row I feel almost instinctively bothered by the thought of more social activity.  On a broader scale, I often see how my performance is at various tasks compared to “normal” people. In many cases, I’m just as capable but tend to be slower or need more time, except there are some things that I can learn age-appropriately or better, and some areas I’m behind in. Does any of my life sound familiar to you, dear reader, when it comes to how you did at school or work? Are you comparing us to each other?

playing-ball

Playing basketball on my Special Olympic team

A good example would be the time I went to a basketball camp for one week in the summer. Given that my previous experiences with the game were either casual games with friends or Special Olympic tournaments, I wasn’t quite sure how my skills would chalk up to normal kids, both physically and socially. Excluding some of the drama that went on at the camp (more concerning the adults then the students) I did alright. I hid my stuffed dog in a bag left by the locker room my entire time there, and didn’t feel alienated by any means. I’m not sure if in regards to getting along with people it helped or not that it was a very work-oriented camp.

The coaches were happy with my dedication, and I only got into any trouble with fellow athletes when I made obvious mistakes such as missing the ball or standing in the wrong place too long. I discovered that higher-calibre games have a fast pace that requires a mind as fast as your reflex muscles, and sometimes my head lagged half a second behind everyone else, leading to mistakes. Still, I helped and manged to sink a couple of baskets.

As I mentioned earlier, even people with autism differ from each other considerably. I’ve met two autistics my age, and an older man with asperger’s, and while we do vary widely in terms of history, gender and background, we are all still quite different. There’s no delicate way to say this, but I could accurately say that we largely vary on how we’ve developed mentally compared to “normal” people our age, and some of the people I’ve met are more childish in some areas than others, including myself. A friendship with one person actually ended because our personalities didn’t work together and eventually they stopped wanting to see me.

A man out of the group in the queue

I find it interesting that I have made it this far into my blog and only realized these comparisons now, showing how subconscious it really is. What makes it really strange in how such thinking goes beyond how autism and has permeated itself throughout human understanding and culture. Comparisons don’t just impact the popularity of commercial products, political movements or world religions, they stem from a personal level. Differences allow us to distinguish friends from foes and, fundamentally, make us unique to each other. What I’m saying is, the act of comparing changes impacts how we look at all the people and things in the world. It impacts how I look at myself.

einstein-quote

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Gay and Autistic

 

Editor’s Note: This is such a thoughtful and moving post; I felt adding pictures was extraneous

 

First off, I would like to mention that I personally am not gay, but I did choose the above title for a reason that I will explain later. Yesterday, at time of writing, I attended Toronto’s Gay Pride Parade for the first time with a friend. It was colourful, crowded, fun, sunny, blazing hot and a good enough time that we stayed for the whole thing. I remember how there were a lot of heterosexual people who also participated to spread the love and diversity, including myself, and that got me thinking about something. I’m autistic, but I’m also straight. I don’t mean “straight” as in “not gay or any other sexual minority”–that would be asexual–but specifically straight.

I won’t go into details–they’re just as awkward as in normal teens–but I’m attracted to women and even had a crush on a girl at one point. I can also recognize an attractive man, which made me think I was gay at around 13 years, but I realized my emotions don’t feel the same when it comes to men. I think that how autism relates to sex–both the gender differences and the other stuff–is a field that has not been studied very much, if at all. There were two big questions I had in my head, that I believe haven’t even been asked by the broader scientific community. While I could easily blame researchers for focusing mostly on severe cases or searching for a magical “cure”, I also see how it would be far harder to find reliable data to answer the questions I’m asking.

I don’t have any dreams about starting a family, but I do share the ancient hope of finding someone nice and settling down with them at some point in life. While I can’t see myself having or raising kids, if I was to find a partner and or even get married, maybe future me–or another autistic–would like to have offspring at some point. Out of scientific curiosity, I did some research to see if autism could be passed down from an affected individual to their child.

A frustratingly large amount of Google results pointed me to what we know about the genetics of non-autistic parents and their diagnosed children, emphasizing how scientific research often has large gaps in data concerning autism. At time of writing, I decided to see if rival search engine DuckDuckGo  could find different sources, and tried out really direct Google searches that weren’t suggested answers. Here’s what I found.

Based on this article, from AutismSD.com  ,  this article from AutismSpeaks.org  , and the various scientific papers cited in Wikipedia’s Heritability of Autism article, it would seem there is a genetic link. Some non-diagnosed couples have multiple siblings on the spectrum, and the two articles I linked to;  reference autistic parents whose children are also affected (the second article is actually written by one such woman). So, if autism can be passed down, that brings to me a problem.

If I was born with asperger’s or even high-functioning autism, I wouldn’t be worried about having a kid who was also a little asocial and interested in weird subject matter. I very well might prefer it. But the fact is my genes are not asperger’s, they’re autistic genes. I was born non-verbal, severely delayed and only got here at all through a combination of incredibly helpful people, hard work and a lot of luck. That means there is a good chance my hypothetical child could be born just as severe as I was 17 years ago, although this time we might not get so lucky with the interventions. That is a situation I wouldn’t want to put on my child, their mother or myself.

Please note the next two paragraphs might be a little dark or even out-of-line for some people’s tastes. I merely wish to mention certain issues that I believe people will have to face with greater frequency in the future, or may even have to deal with right now. I also wanted to address how I feel that certain governments, including my own, are disgustingly negligent when it comes to caring for their disabled, which leaves parents in difficult situations.

I’ve thought a solution to an autistic person who wanted to raise children, without the risk of them being born severe, would be adoption. There are countless people in the adoption/foster care system who need families of their own, and parts of the Earth are already seeing signs of an over-population crisis, so it’s a win win. However, I wonder what would happen if a person got pregnant and had the same type of autism I had: meaning they were born non-verbal, stressed and delayed before getting better.  But, in this case, they would have 9 months before a child enters the world with the same genetic legacy.

Parts of the USA have expensive health care that many can’t afford, while Ontario–and other parts of the world–make it so difficult for people to get the therapy they need, that many don’t get treatment at all, or it’s just ineffective. If you are a parent in such a rock-and-hard-place situation, what do you do? Rear them and hope they won’t stay non-verbal, held back and stressed their whole lives? Give them away? Abort? Sadly, I don’t think this is a question for science to answer, as it is not a scientific question. I will not take a stance on this issue; I’m inexperienced, it’s not my place and I don’t wish to offend anyone. However, someone may be forced to make a choice if such a case arises, and that is why I said what I did. I also believe I’ve explored this topic as best I can, so I will move on.

All this talk goes on the principle that some people with autism want to fall in love and see where it goes from there. However, a lot of individuals on the spectrum don’t seem to have an interest in such things, which is possibly one of the bigger reasons the issue isn’t so well discussed or investigated. So, another question entered my head, “How did I become a heterosexual, and why is it people just as high-functioning as I am don’t seem to have developed the same way?” I also wondered, “If I didn’t get the interventions I got, would I still have those feelings as a severe autistic?” It is true autism varies from person to person: some people are savants while others aren’t, some love to hug while others recoil from the slightest touch, and, evidently, some develop emotions differently.

Deviations and explorations of other topics aside, I guess the big question I’ve been building up to is why or how did I develop these kinds of feelings, whereas some others didn’t? My mom says she thinks it’s because our family talks about that stuff, that just isn’t a satisfactory answer to me. I have a non-autistic friend whose parents are very conservative–for lack of a better word–and that person isn’t asexual, just confused.

Maybe it’s one of those things that can or can’t develop from person to person, and I’m asking a variant of the question, “Why aren’t all autistics/people born savants or in this other way we’ve deemed normal or favourable?” I believe that, if it’s currently doable, that research should be done to see if/when sexual and romantic feelings form in the autistic brain across variations of severity, gender and culture. If they can sometimes develop in severe, non-verbal people, it could offer a greater insight into their psychology. If they don’t, which I personally suspect, then such changes must come later down the line and we would still learn something about higher-functioning autistics and how they grow up.

To end off, I feel I should explain why I chose the title for this blog post that I did. Part of it was because the title is eye-catching, and even though I was quick to point out it doesn’t refer to me, I know somebody out there is like that. I’m heterosexual, so why couldn’t someone else with the same condition be homosexual?

But that’s not something people think about. A gay autistic? Someone with this “nerdy” condition dating people, having kids or even experiencing lust? Such circumstances are rare, but they do happen and I believe it is a grossly under-studied field of psychology, merely from a scientific perspective regardless of how it would affect myself. So, to the gay autistic(s) out there who hopefully is reading this, I can’t imagine how hard that must be at times, but you’re not as alone as you might feel and maybe one day, we’ll understand you better.

 

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The Special Olympic Provincial Games

Special Olympic Spring Game

Well, it’s here, or at time of writing, it came and went. The Special Olympic Provincial Games, held at the University of Guelph, Ontario Canada. As previous posts have mentioned, this event is part of a global Olympic cycle that I and countless other athletes participate in. The basic schedule had that everyone head to Guelph on Thursday, hold the main competitions and ceremonies for Friday and Saturday, before wrapping up and leaving for Sunday.

room mates

Me and my room-mate Ben

Every coach got assigned around four to seven athletes to monitor for the weekend–since we’d all already trained a lot, these coaches were keeping track of us instead of teaching the athletes new techniques–I’d already met my coach so I knew her before the Games. Since the dormitory’s rooms held two beds each, I asked my coach if she could send a request in for who my roommate would be, although we weren’t sure if it would be accepted. My friend and I were quite excited when it turned out we did get the same room.

opening ceremony

Waiting to “Walk On” with my police escort in the Opening Ceremonies

Thursday’s schedule was leaving home (10:00 am), arriving, getting settled in our rooms and going to/waiting for the Opening Ceremonies (6:00-ish to 7:30) and the athlete’s walk-on for the on-camera event (starting at 7:30, although all the shows went to 10:19 before my coach rounded her athletes up so we could get a decent amount of sleep). I’m not sure if the event organizers liked something about me, my behavior or looks, or just luck-of-the-draw, but I was chosen to carry the sign  leading Team GTA (Greater Toronto Area) during our walk-on. I found that was pretty exciting news, even though I usually have hard time getting excited for stuff, although it seemed like they changed their minds. Fortunately, instead of writing me off, a police officer in his dress uniform would carry the sign alongside me, so I was still leading my team and going on camera without having to tire my arms.

jumbotron

On the Jumbotron!!

It’s pretty surreal having your name announced, and walking out with a police officer escorting you into a large, crowded arena to represent your team. The lady who was on the front stage read a one sentence bio (something about how I’m in for Olympic Swimming and also do Basketball and Tae Kwon Do), and asked me some basic questions like how I was feeling. I couldn’t help but quietly laugh at how she said my name (cah-lum de-naught), before noticing I was on the big TV screens and turning to face the camera man right in front of me. I’m pretty sure that segment, with the rest of the opening ceremony, was aired on cable.

 

Every regional team had their own walk-on camera person, and there was one athlete that really stood out to me. I can’t remember the man’s team, but I remember he looked like he was older than 35, and the announcer said he had met his wife through Special Olympics. He wiped away a tear after hearing that. People jogged through Guelph to carry the torch to the venue, before reaching the stage and lighting the big Olympic Fire. It was quite a thing to be there to see, and the night was finished off with some rock music and a late return to our dorms.

special olympic friends

One of the things I could say made the weekend so great was how much of s bonding experience it was. I know a lot of people, from my Sunday Provincial training class, my roommate, my coach and her other athletes who I met that weekend, and other people as well. I won’t go into any of the conversations I had, even the stuff I didn’t promise to keep secret, because I’d end up writing a novel. Although, I’d think it would probably be a good novel.

guelph university

I guess I should go into what it was like living during the Games. They had more than enough food in the school cafeteria-style eating area; I was worried they wouldn’t and didn’t even to eat any of the stuff I brought with me. My mom thought that my friend would be the thing that kept me up, due to his near-constant excitement, but it was actually the heat. Our beds were livable, but the practically medieval Johnston Hall didn’t have any air conditioning to combat the 27c degree weather. Regardless, the volunteers did nothing short of a fantastic job taking care of all of us athletes, even if there were some hiccups (which I’ll get to later).

 

So, after the opening ceremonies, going to bed around eleven, waking up at five and having breakfast an hour later, I wasn’t in a high-energy state. Fortunately, I also wasn’t tired, or even as tired as I thought, so I was ready when lining up for Friday’s first race and my favourite: the 100 breaststroke. There was extra pressure for me with this one, as its my best race and I didn’t want to let my mood screw up my odds at doing well.

poolside

Lots of “hurry up & wait” But my coach warned me about that

Not that it was the volunteers’ fault, but they had a bunch of misinformation and glitches that had us waiting by the pool, ready to dive in but not allowed yet. It sorted out as the weekend went on, but since my race was early a lot of the kinks weren’t sorted out yet. I remember a conversation I had with one volunteer when he was trying to get us organized to move to the marshaling area. We both started off kind of crabby at each other before realizing that the other person was just as annoyed too, and parted nicely.

gold medal

Winning Gold for the 100m Breaststroke

It did become a bit of a routine with all the swims–mostly waiting to be marshalled and racing–so I’ll just talk about the last ones. Not only do you meet people from across the province, you meet people who are really fast. I was in the top division of the 50 freestyle, doing a stroke I’m okay against some of the quickest racers I know, so I had a different mentality going in. I still was going to try my hardest to win, but I was really focused on making sure my times weren’t too far behind the lead and in order to do that, worked harder on my technique over speed.

A mix of perfect technique and rapid speed is the balance any swimmer needs, and while I think I’m close to it for breaststroke, with front crawl I still have issues. In 100 freestyle I went fast enough to earn silver (which I didn’t know until much later) but choked on the water and felt disappointed with how I kept my form. So for 50 free, I really focused on pushing the water back, not letting my emotions cause me to go so fast I lose my technique.

I’m not sure if it worked; I do know I absolutely went as fast as I could and didn’t leisure swim, and it felt like I did more of a proper and fast swim than when I powered through with speed and forgot the finer details of my stoke. Somehow that race felt like I did my best possible attempt, although I may done better by moving my limbs quicker even if it meant letting the technique drop down a bit.

podium

Getting an unexpected Silver for the 100m freestyle

It’s hard to describe how I felt during the medal ceremonies. I mentioned that I don’t feel much in the way of pride or excitement, but there’s still something that made me want to look and act my best for the few seconds I was on stage, like when I was on camera. I also really liked how pretty much everybody I knew got at least one medal, especially because I’d been with a lot of them through their path to earning it.

closing ceremony

The rock band (can’t remember their name) during Closing Ceremonies

That Saturday, after a somewhat confused schedule of medal awarding, and quickly rushing to dinner and being bussed to the events building, it was our time for closing ceremonies. Like the opening events, I had a blast. I could go on about the huge crowd of athletes, Michael “Pinball” Clemens’ heartwarming speech, the bittersweet passing of the torch, or–my favourite–the dance party after it all. However, there was one thing that stuck out in my head that I’d like to talk about.

Dr Frank Hayden

Dr Frank Hayden

The speaker announced that we had a very special guest in the building, a man who was said to have founded Special Olympics: Dr. Frank Hayden. I didn’t know who he was, just what they told me and that he was an older gentleman with a big smile on his face as he was escorted to center stage. I remember thinking about what kind of person would put all their thought and energy into helping people who–at the time–the general public didn’t really put much mind to. Dr. Hayden would’ve seen his research go from data about a none too well-known minority to this giant building full of people, of which it was one of several. I thought it must have been an incredible experience for him, as the Special Olympic Provincial Games had been for me.

the dance

Party Time

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