Most of my life I have (sort of) known I’m autistic. But I wasn’t formally diagnosed until about a year ago. Six years ago, I identified as an “Aspie.” I didn’t tell many people, but I visited websites meant for autistic people and knew myself a little better than the times I thought something was simply “wrong” with me.
Six years ago, I started interning at a farm sanctuary. This beautiful, serene place took care of some of the most horrible abuse cases you could imagine. Some animals survived floods, fires, falling off of transport trucks, and more. I worked in administration when I was first at “the farm.”
Even when I wasn’t an intern at the farm, I continued to visit, as it was local to me. About two years ago, I was an intern again. But this time I worked in the shelter, with the animals. This included everything but feeding the animals outside of the hospital, on the farm. That was a job reserved for those deemed fit for the duties. I would later learn that I had a chance to learn “feeds.”
I related so well to the animals. I typically have a blank expression on my face, so I feel I’m misunderstood when it comes to showing my emotions – a problem I’ve learned many autistic people have. But the animals made me feel so alive inside! They didn’t care whether I smiled. I could tell you about all of them, but I wouldn’t have time, so I will tell you about my favorite animal of all time: Ginger.
Ginger was a rooster with a neurological condition, and he was definitely neurodivergent. I’m willing to say he was a rooster with autism spectrum disorder, if you’ve ever heard of one. He was awkward at times, somewhat introverted, in need of a routine, and simply adorable. Ginger spent a lot of his time living in the small animal hospital due to his condition and the fact that he had a different personality than a lot of the other roosters. Oh, he’d try to be like the others, but time and time again he was just Ginger, a very special rooster. I’d pick him up and cuddle him as much as he’d let me. He often did. I’ll never forget that bond.
Two years ago, while an intern at the farm, I was given the chance to be trained on feeds. I had a trainer who was less than compassionate about my need for visual learning. I needed her to show me what I had to do, as opposed to just telling me. Verbal instructions are a nightmare for me, as (like Temple Grandin) I think in pictures. Telling me that the “perfect-looking” pig gets a certain amount of food means nothing to me, for example. Well, it means confusion.
It turned out that I was seen as “too slow” to do feeds. I’ve always been slow to process and now I was being told I was slow. It hurt me to the core. I knew I could learn the job, if I just had the right teacher. The person who told me I was slow was actually let go not too long afterward for various reasons. I still couldn’t help but take it personally. I loved those animals so much and wanted a chance. I completed my internship and went home.
Two weeks later, the director of the farm emailed me and said she wanted to give me a chance! She believed in me! She made sure someone trained me who would train me well. I was shown exactly what to do, and when left on my own to feed the animals, I was no longer slow at all — I met the daily goal of being finished by 5 o’clock!
I don’t know if the director knew I was autistic, a visual learner, or just somehow different, but she believed in me and I’ll never forget it. If only autistic people — and people in general — were seen as different, not less, we’d all have the ability to shine.