This Girl’s Dance with Autism, Part 3

Jennifer O’Toole is a serious lover of shoes and glitter. She’s also the author of the Asperkids book series (2012–15), including the ASA’s 2014 Outstanding Literary Work of the Year. Jennifer sits on the Executive Board of the Autism Society of America, has been recognized as one of the “World’s Top Aspie Mentors,” is the winner of the Temple Grandin Global Contribution Award, has advised the President’s Council at the White House, addressed Their Royal Highnesses the Princess Sophie of England and Princess Marie of Denmark, and was named one of the 50 Most Influential Women in NC. Jennifer keynotes around the globe, is the mom of three (awesome) Asperkids, and proudly, is an Aspie, herself. Follow her at Asperkids, on Facebook, twitter, and Youtube. This month, Smart Girls is very excited to have Jennifer share her story in a Four-Week Special Series for Autism Awareness Month.

Catch up on Part 1 or Part 2, or move on to Part 4.

Part 3:

Fandoms Are Family

Odds are, you’ve heard the word, “fangirl.” Google calls it an informal, derogatory term for “an obsessive female fan (usually of movies comic books, or science fiction.” What Google doesn’t add (and most of the world probably doesn’t know) is that this description is pretty much the nail-on-the-head definition for girls on the autism spectrum and our special interests.

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Our passions (don’t call them obsessions, Google — that’s all judgey and condescending) are like lightning rods. Really important to us — and, therefore, really important for those around us to understand. Because whether Disney, Outlander, or DC, our special interests take up a huge amount of out time, thought, and energy for a reason — beyond (sigh) boring the people around us. It’s the seduction of belonging somewhere, a place of safety where we cannot mess up and we won’t be left out.

A place where no one will ever skip and sing in celebration that we are “dead.”

Lemme explain.

You are hereby invited to the Land of Big Hair and Pegged Pants — my home at age twelve, New Jersey in 1988. The school year before, seventh grade, had been the worst of my life. I am not honestly sure if there was a single day that I didn’t come home and cry. Academically, it had been a breeze.

My English/Social Studies teacher, Mrs. Greene, had been very tough — and I LOVED it. The more she asked of me, the more I wanted to excel, to be the perfect student for her. Life on the other side of the expandable wall, however, was casual. Spontaneous. In other words, pure hell. As if it were yesterday, I can remember our science class playing pre-test Jeopardy. Actually, the idea seemed fun to start. Jeopardy! was a favorite show of mine anyway, and maybe, I thought, I could even win some points for (and favor from) my teammates. The next question went to me, and I answered. I got it wrong.

That shouldn’t have been a big deal. But you see, Jenny never got things wrong. If I couldn’t be anything else, at least I was as perfect in the classroom as possible. And now, I’d let everyone down. I’d made a mistake. Not such a big deal in the scheme of the world. As I tell my daughter, that’s why pencils come with erasers and keyboards come with delete buttons. But mercy was not mine. From the back left corner of the room, a boy stood up and began to sing, “Ding, dong, the witch is dead! The Wicked Witch is dead!”

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And he kept singing, over and over as he skipped around the entire room, back to his seat. The class roared. The teacher stifled a giggle while shaking her head at him. That was it. Next question, Team 2.

I followed the rules, was polite, and gave every ounce of energy I had to getting things right. And, still, I had no answer when, as my mom asked me once, “Why doesn’t anyone you want to be friends with want to friends with you?”

What I had figured out, long before that year, was that being alone was easier. You can’t make a fool of yourself when there is no one there to watch. And if you can find a version of “alone” that offers escape from the never-ending thinking, then, dear reader, you have a “Special Interest.”

In that summer of 1988, I was hoping for an escape that would get me very, very far away…just over a hundred years back. Like a long-lost friend, a memory returned of a place where things were better. I gathered photos, read biographies, memorized timelines and travel routes. In fact, I even went to visit Rocky Ridge Farm in the Missouri countryside — the place where she’d written her books, and where a museum now displayed everything from her father’s beloved fiddle to aging family photos.

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For most of America, Laura Ingalls Wilder was a girl in a house on a prairie, back in some vague pioneer era. I still remember, however, that she was born in February of 1867, that the television show was basically hogwash (though, duty-bound, I watched every syndicated episode anyway), and that in her very real, historical world, family was everything, everyone belonged and the simplicity of a tin cup or regular weekly chore routine could bring great worth to the life of a young girl.

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It was as if, very much alive somewhere in time, Laura knew I needed her. I can say for certain that my lifelong habit of seeking solace in faith began with what felt like “advice” from my friend, Laura.

I was no fool. I knew full-well that was twelve years old, growing up an only child in late twentieth century suburban New Jersey, not a member of the Ingalls clan on the mid-late nineteenth century frontier. But maybe, just maybe, there was a way out. There was a part of me — a very real, very deep and very powerful part of me — that hoped if I could devour enough names and dates and places, God would send me to a time and a place far away where I truly belonged.

Special interests are cracks in what is. Gateways to anywhere that isn’t here or now, transportation to a distant time, place, species, or social scenario where interpersonal rules and customs can be “studied & mastered.” Just dive into a Wiki board, and you can find out everything (and I do mean everything) you’d ever need to know to succeed in whatever “world” we please. Maybe the distant past or the far future. Maybe the adventure of superheroes, the endless possibilities of mythology or even gaming. All of them have clear, customs, clothing, and languages that leave whole lot less room for mistakes.

“Special interests are cracks in what is. Gateways to anywhere that isn’t here or now…tickets to freedom from social anxiety, illustrated dictionaries of complicated emotions, social shorthand…and springboards for the future.”

Want to know if someone’s got the making of a true friend? Forget Myers-Briggs’ personality tests. Find out her Hogwarts’ House. Which POP figures does she have?

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Ask whether she speaks fluent showtune, Disney pop culture, or Marvel heroine. Ask if she never misses Once Upon a Time. Or has a favorite wife of Henry VIII, Greek Goddess, or episode of Bones — and why. They’re social shorthand. If you see a stranger wearing a Tardis dress, and Dr. Who is your passion, you’ve got an instant connection…a conversation topic in any crowd or even foreign country.

And herein lies the point of this entire piece: fandoms are family.

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They’re legitimate havens, true subcultures with language, music, stories, art, and even clothing that carry deep meaning. To us, they feel sacred. Which means, they should be respected. In fact, they should be harnessed as the greatest glimpses into who we are, how to inspire us, and what we’d like our lives to become. In spirit, that is. And maybe at Comic-Con.

When we talk about our passions, it’s sort of like showing you a toy and asking you to play. A gesture at friendship. It may be clumsy, but I promise, it’s genuine. Differently-wired brains mean differently-wonderful tomorrows. If our families, friends, and teachers catch on and encourage us, our special interests can even become springboards for the futures. If we see our differences are gifts.

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Think coding classes for gamers. Fine arts for lovers of anime. Percy Jackson buffs may want to intern at (and someday run!) classics museums.

And girls like that one who wanted nothing more than to dive into her favorite book?

Well…why not keep the story going? She may write her own book. Or six. And other girls may carry her words around in their hearts. Who knows? You may even be reading her words….right now.

Photo credits: Featured Image, author’s own. Rupunzel, WeHeartit.com. Witch, Little House Book illustration, photo of Ingalls sisters, Wikicommons. Black Widow, HotTopic.com. Fandoms, 9gag.com.

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