Finding the Courage to Be Ourselves With Autism

I met “David” (not his real name) at a support group meeting last week. It was his first time. I had been away for months and had no idea which room we were meeting in or whom to ask for directions.

David was pacing back and forth outside the building when I arrived. He no sooner saw me than he pointed toward the meeting room and walked me in that direction. He was a polite young man, not too busy working off his own anxiety to help someone he’d never met before.

I got to know David better over the next two hours as we talked about why we were at the meeting, what we hoped to gain, how long it had been since our autism diagnosis. Never once during this time did I hear him complain or talk about how difficult life might have been.

Instead, with some encouragement, he told us about how he had taken over running a social support group for young autistic adults when the parents who started it lost interest. He didn’t drive or live independently, but he was more than willing to reach out to others and work to build the social connections so many young autistic adults are missing.

I asked him about his hobbies and interests, which led our conversation to the new “Star Trek” series on CBS and my confusion about how to watch the show online. Five minutes later, I had more information about CBS Prime, the show, subscription costs, etc. than I knew what to do with. It was wonderful that he felt comfortable talking to me at length about a favorite subject.

A diagnosis very early in life. A range of autistic expression impossible to miss. Self-consciousness at times, but the courage to take a chance on finding a place where, for at least a while, he could just be himself. He was smart, articulate, compassionate and completely charming. His willingness to risk putting it all out there was inspiring and incredibly moving for me.

I don’t know where David finds his courage and determination. Mine seem to be slowly draining away the older I get, which is an embarrassment and a shame. I feel I have fewer challenges and should be braver and more resilient.

Yes, it’s easier to withdraw than to explain, safer to be silent than to risk embarrassment, better to be apart than rejected. It’s also wrong, especially for older adults like myself who can show young people that being “different” needn’t mean not having a full and rewarding life.

What would it take for this to be easier and safer? Certainly, more understanding of the differences that, in the end, make each of us special and unique. More acceptance and less judgment. More opportunities and support. More love and compassion from those around us. It could end up being a long list.

At the top, however, is a need for more courage on our part… the willingness to get up, go out, risk just being ourselves around others and keep working to make a difference in this world. Every so often, life introduces us to someone who shows the way.

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