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Why Forming Friendships Can Be Difficult for Me as an Autistic Person

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I have always had problems with forming friendships. This may be a part of me having autism. I have had some really good and bad relationships with friends, and most didn’t last that long. I’ve heard it said that people with autism aren’t interested in forming any kind of relationship, but this is not true. Many autistic people, including myself, do want friendships and romantic relationships. It just may be that we have problems maintaining and creating them.

Social imagination, interaction and communication are three things autism can affect, and it can make this whole process more difficult. There are people with autism who are married with children and who still have lifelong best friends, and others who may not, but this doesn’t mean I will never have those kinds of relationships. It just means I may find it harder to form them.

There have been times I have believed I would never have a boyfriend/girlfriend and that I would never keep friends. There have been a lot of times I would go out and I would have little to no problem chatting and communicating with other people. I have even had people want to hang out. And there are a lot of times when the opposite would happen and the person I am interested in would simply not feel the same back. This is normal.

Sometimes in the past, people approach me first and they start off a conversation, but then it can start to become overwhelming when I really try to have a conversation back with them. I stand there silently and blankly with no words naturally flowing out of my mouth like they should be. I stand there and think about it while it’s happening, and then the bad eye contact and silent staring begins to start, along with the “wrong” facial expressions. Firstly if the music is too loud or the lights are too bright, I start squinting my face in a kind of uncomfortable-looking expression without even realizing it most of the time. My face looks angry and I look uneasy and stare with no words. Having an angry face mixed with the lack of conversation may signal to the other person “she’s not interested in getting to know me.” Usually when they have processed this, they tend to give up and walk away.

 

If you’re speaking to me and this happens, it may be because I have autism. It’s not that I am not interested in getting to know you and being friends. I actually may be very interested in getting to know you and I may really try to communicate that the best I can. But it may take me a lot longer to get comfortable with someone before I start a conversation, and I need to take some time to get to know the other person to start a conversation and also to hold one down. At times even the opposite happens and I have a conversation and I cant stop talking, but then I become tired and completely find myself stopped in my tracks with an awkward silence. This indicates to the other person that I have given up, and they usually say, “It was nice to meet you” and walk away. At times, that may be because the other person feels the same, but this usually happens because I am taking a break, or at times it is like I have forgotten how to communicate mid-conversation.

If I do come across standoffish, please keep in mind that I have Asperger’s and that may mean I’m not able to recognize or adjust my facial expressions at times. From the outside I look disinterested, but on the inside I do actually want to get to know you. Another reason why you may be standing in front of me or even across the room thinking, “Why is this girl giving me a strange look” or “Why does she look so awkward?” Well, keep in mind that the florescent bright lights are probably hurting my eyes. Or the reason I’m sitting beside you and seem aloof may be because the music’s too loud for me to get into a conversation right now, and sometimes sitting in silence helps me cope with these surroundings better. But this is just me, and every individual copes differently. This used to happen more often before I got diagnosed at 20, but it has gotten better over time.

It does get better, as there are people I am still good friends with. Usually that is only one or two people, but I have become very close to that small circle of people.

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When I Talked to Kevin Hart About Being on the Autism Spectrum

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A common problem I’m faced with, as a mentor to students with disabilities, is that a majority of them have experienced bullying. To help with that, I’ve often told them about celebrities who have overcome bullying in their childhoods. For that reason, people such as Bruno Mars and Jennifer Lawrence have become inspirations to them. Then, a movie came out called
“Central Intelligence” starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Kevin Hart. Many of my mentees were inspired by the underlying message of the film: that you shouldn’t bully others.

Because of this, when I heard Kevin Hart was coming into town, I wanted to meet him in the hopes of telling him how this film had made an impact on my mentees.

But then something I wasn’t expecting happened.

Kevin Hart, who I met at a book signing for his new book, said when he arrived in that NYC bookstore:

“One of the things I did was never give up on my dream.” – Kevin Hart #NeverGiveUp

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“I’m the person that dealt with the word no for a long time. I’m the person that dealt with a lot of negativity and adversity that people don’t know about. I wanted to share this story so you guys could understand that regardless of your position in life… you’re human… One of the things I did was never give up on one thing that’s very simple, that’s my dream.”

To hear him say that truly resonated with me. Growing up on the autism spectrum, I was often told the word “no.” I was often told growing up that I couldn’t achieve amazing things in my life because of my disability. Although my path and Kevin’s path were different, I can now say as someone who has lived his dream of being an international motivational speaker, I’ve been able to live my dreams today just like Kevin.

When I got to meet him, I was absolutely speechless. He met me with open arms, giving me a hug, asking me about my story and then taking a photo with me to boot. I told him first about how I was told, just like him that I couldn’t things in my life but I persevered. I told him I could achieve greatness in my life. The three words he said to me still resonate after I said that:

“Yes you can.”

For a celebrity like Kevin to look me in the eye and tell me I could do amazing things in my life truly meant the world to me. While I continued to speak with him and told him how he inspired my mentees, he said, “That’s the greatest compliment I could ever ask to receive.”

It’s people like Kevin who truly made me realize the power of humility. Kevin, who had hundreds of people out to see him that night, gave me the time to talk with him. He didn’t rush me off, and every minute I spoke with him, he was actively listening to me like I was a dear friend who had known him for decades.

To Kevin, I thank you for treating me not only as a fan, but a friend in that moment. I hope we can only to continue to pursue our dreams in the future. You bring so much laughter and joy to so many people, and I can only hope to bring love and inclusion for our community. I can’t thank you enough.

Kerry Magro and Kevin Hart

A version of this blog originally appeared on Kerrymagro.com.

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When Reactions to My Son's Autism Diagnosis Become Teachable Moments

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“There is nothing wrong with him!” “He doesn’t seem autistic!”

It is OK if you thought this or said this to us. (People have — and then some!) I say that because it then becomes a teachable moment. It becomes a time when I can raise awareness of autism spectrum disorder, and brag about how awesome (AU-some!) my son Jr is. And maybe some tips on how to better communicate with him.

“What? He has no problems communicating!”

You are right! It isn’t a problem. His brain just works differently (perfectly) than those of us who are neurotypical. (Get used to that word — neurotypical and neurodiverse are huge parts of my vocabulary right now.) Little things can make a huge difference to Jr to help him focus on communicating, like not expecting eye contact, and not seeing the lack of it as disrespect. Or having patience when asking him a question, especially if he has to stop something he is already focused on. He isn’t ignoring you — he is walking his mind through the process of tuning out of one thing and switching focus to you.

 

“But he doesn’t flap like someone I know of with autism.”

No, he doesn’t.

Yes, he does.

It depends on the day/hour/minute.

One of my favorite phrases right now is “Once you have met one person with autism, you have met one person with autism.” It is a spectrum. It is different for everyone. The intensity of his reactions depend on a lot of things we don’t even know about yet.

He is a “typical” almost 7-year-old. He is a wonderfully unique, kind, loving boy of two nerdy and proud parents. He has fantastic friends. He will go far and do so much. It is our job to learn how best teach him, then get out of his way as he soars.

William has autism.

There is nothing wrong with him.

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Why I'm Proud to Be Autistic

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On this Autistic Pride Day 2017, I have a lot of positive things to reflect on. Let me highlight some of the things that make me proud to be autistic!

My unwavering sense of youth: I’ve felt and acted younger than my age for as long as I can remember. I’ve always looked at this as an asset! It’s allowed me to see the fun side of life, and to have simple pleasures. Life doesn’t have to be as complicated as many people make it, and I know this firsthand. I have an optimism about life.

My tech savviness: I’ve always taken to electronics and the way they work. I love operating my multiple Android devices, usually at the same time. I love figuring out how to use a device just by taking it into my own hands. Do you have a tech issue? Bring it my way! I love to problem solve.

 

My never-ending childlike wonder: I’ve always been one to notice the little things. The simplest things intrigue and captivate me. I’m able to stop and smell the roses.

My loyalty: Once you’re my friend, chances are, you’ll stay my friend so long as nothing happens on your end to make me decide otherwise. As long as you’re there for me like I am for you, be prepared to have a friend who is willing to stick by your side for life!

My genuineness: I’ve always known how to be only myself and no one else. There are no such things as false fronts for me; I wouldn’t know how to put one up if my life depended on it. What you see is what you get. I keep it real.

My ability to see things from a unique point of view: I’ve always looked at things through the autistic lens. Sometimes, this means seeing the world through rose-colored glasses; however, that doesn’t have to be a bad thing! I see the good in people. I see things others may not notice. Life is very colorful and detailed through my eyes. It’s a wonderful experience.

Being autistic is the only way of life I’ve ever known, and to have been diagnosed just three years ago was such a validating opportunity. I’ve always taken pride in being unique, and now I have a title: autistic and proud!

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What Children With Disabilities Face in Kenya

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Growing up poor in rural Pennsylvania, I thought I knew poverty well. But nothing could prepare me for real poverty in the slums of Kenya. I am educated in psychology and early child development and I have work experience in behavioral therapy, specializing in autism spectrum disorder. When I first moved to Kenya, I had little to do with my time so I began volunteering at a school and church that offered activities to families with children with disabilities.

The school was falling apart; the classrooms were exceptionally tiny and overcrowded with students struggling with all manners of disorders and disabilities. Educational resources were practically nonexistent and the teachers had very little training. Difficult children were beaten because the staff knew no other way of dealing with them.

The church was even worse. I entered a large, dirty shamba with no less than 30 children with cerebral palsy lying on the floor while their mothers sat around them looking lost and helpless. One physical therapist was doing what he could with limited time and so many children to see alone. Volunteers were there coloring and playing with the children with mental and intellectual disabilities, but with no training or experience they could not provide useful therapy.

When first arriving, everyone was served tea and porridge, and then at lunch given rice and boiled meat with beans. For most present, this is the only meal they will have for the entire week. The mothers of the children with CP force the food down their children’s throats and when the food comes back up, it’s pushed back down again. They have no education about nutrition or healthy eating habits. They have no idea what to do with their disabled children.

Disorders such as autism and intellectual disability are seen as a curse or witchcraft by some cultures in Africa. These people are beaten, run out of their villages, raped and even killed. The police bring no justice for those subjected to this terrible abuse; in most cases, they are involved in the beatings because they fear these disabilities due to ignorance. The government does not offer them any support or services; they are not even acknowledged. The whole situation is extremely disheartening.

After seeing the dire conditions these people are subjected to, myself and another teacher formed a nonprofit organization, the Autism Support Center Kenya that provides therapy services, vocational training, and mentoring support for those diagnosed with all disabilities. We have also started a training course for parents and caregivers to prepare them for caring for their child; the course includes the basics of autism, nutrition and diet, and so on. But with a lack of funding the going has been tough. It took us almost five years to get a space to use as a therapy facility, and we can barely pay any staff.

In first world countries we are used to our children with disabilities being provided with state of the art care, trained and experienced therapists, and free services. Our schools are, by law, obligated to provide the necessary care to help our kids progress. It is absolutely not the case in East Africa, or all of Africa for that matter. I have been asked if white people get autism. If rich people have intellectual disabilities. They think they are being punished. Only within the last few years is awareness being spread.

Despite the heartbreak I experience every day, I go to work. I will continue to dedicate my time fully to helping these people who are unfairly subjected to neglect and abuse. They don’t deserve to be treated this way, and it’s about time someone steps up to do something about it. Maybe when I die, I will be remembered as warmly as my heroine, Audrey Hepburn, who once said, “As you grow older, you will discover you have two hands. One for helping yourself, the other for helping others.”

Learn more at Autism Support Center Kenya.

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'Atypical,' Netflix’s New Comedy Series About Autism, Premieres This Summer

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Netflix’s new original series about a boy with autism spectrum disorder, “Atypical,” will be streaming this summer, the video streaming service announced on Friday.

The eight-episode series follows a high school senior named Sam (Keir Gilchrist), who navigates dating, school and family as a teenager on the autism spectrum. The show also follows Sam’s parents Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Doug (Michael Rapaport) as they try to determine how to parent their son now that he is a young adult. So far, no one in the cast is confirmed to be on the autism spectrum.

The show’s creator, Robia Roshid told USA Today that while they cannot exactly reflect the life of every person with autism, they hope that they can unify under a common idea and broader story about family and coming of age.

While creating the show, Rashid said she consulted with a California State University professor who worked at UCLA’s Center for Autism Research and Treatment. Leigh, who plays Sam’s mother, added to Rashid’s statement about authenticly representing autism, telling USA Today, “Keir is really perfect. He never gets cute with it. … You feel like he’s very much in Sam’s shoes.”

“Atypical” joins the growing number of shows representing disability on major networks and streaming services. ABC’s “Speechless” follows J.J. DiMeo, a young man with cerebral palsy who uses a letter board to communicate. It stars Micah Fowler, who lives with cerebral palsy in real life. Last month, ABC announced it will renew “Speechless” for a second season.

Also joining ABC’s line-up is “The Good Doctor,” which features Shaun Murphy (Freddie Highmore), a doctor on the autism spectrum. Similarly to “Atypical,” it does not appear as if any cast members are on the autism spectrum.

All episodes of “Atypical” will be available to stream on August 11.

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