I was a kid who felt isolated from his peers, alienated by society, and lost in a chaotic world of countless variables and inputs. I felt lonely and found more comfort in teacher figures who didn’t truly understand me than in children my own age. Everything was constantly changing in the world, and I was trying to process that change. I am on the autism spectrum and have faced the stresses of being an outcast from society all my life. It has been difficult for me to make friends in the past, and for those that I did make, I wondered if they truly were my friends. I found more comfort living in a world of my own imagination than interacting with peers. I mostly played at children my age rather than with them. In order to keep adults from touching my hair or asking me questions about school, I would immediately drop down to the floor and play with whatever dust I could find. I hoped that maybe the adult would think I was busy and leave me to my own devices.
I lived my childhood finding new groups of people that wouldn’t understand or accept me. If I hung around people my own age, I would risk getting bullied physically and emotionally. Countless adults demonstrated prejudice towards me without actually meaning to be prejudiced. I never really felt like I had a specific place. I always had an affinity towards technology, science, and math, but every potential job I imagined I would take up as an adult would always involve me being a follower and completing a list of specific tasks. I imagined I would fulfill duties and move on with my day, never assuming a position of leadership. I didn’t realize that the constant bombardment of prejudice was subconsciously molding me into a follower and pushing any sense of leadership into the background.
I was a socially awkward fifteen-year-old trying to find his place. I was offered a volunteering position at my local Boys & Girls Club to teach STEM programs in the technology center. At first, I was very nervous and afraid that I would not be accepted by the staff or the kids but quickly found out the complete opposite. I felt empowered by teaching students about technology and loved to see them grow. Most importantly, it made me feel important to empower other children through their imaginations and watch the progress they would make, and the discoveries they would find.
When I was of age, I started working at the Club. Working with different kids from various walks of life gave me a broader appreciation for the impact I could have on kids. I have worked with many kids who are on the spectrum, and when I work with these kids, I relive all the experiences I had as a child. Watching these students face the same challenges with their peers and society frustrates me to no end. This is prejudice that must be ended, and as humans, we have a duty to build each other up instead of pushing groups of individuals to the back of society.
I am autistic. It’s who I am. I am unashamed by my neurodivergence (divergent from the ‘standard neurotype’), and everyone else should follow the same mentality. Before I thought I could only tell a select group of people or some specific mentor figures in my life about my autism, but this mentality is toxic and dehumanizing. Autistic people should not feel abashed at their diagnosis or afraid of whether or not they will be accepted. They also shouldn’t feel romanticized by the world, continually viewed as a “supercomputer” only to be exploited for monetary gain. Autistic people are individuals, with lives, passions, emotions, and dreams. Pushing them into the societal schema dehumanizes them and further pushes them into a corner from which they struggle to escape.
According to the CDC, 1 in 54 children are on the autism spectrum. This number has increased over time due to the increase of testing and information professionals have on autism (remember that the reported number of children on the spectrum only addresses children who are diagnosed; countless people are diagnosed as adults, and women are highly under-diagnosed). This is a large group of people that goes underrepresented, and there is a severe lack of attention, awareness, and action to allow these children to feel empowered and responsible. The response remains unaddressed. Perhaps society should be asking, “Should we be teaching autistic people to be ‘like us’ or should we try to learn from them?” Perhaps society should be forming connections and relationships with autistic individuals while simultaneously learning from them. We strive and very much need to strive for cultural and ethnic inclusivity, but when it comes to neurodiversity, the general public would like to think that it is much more practical to “fix” autistic individuals than interact with them. Interacting with autistic individuals shouldn’t be a big ask, but for some reason it is. It used to be easy for racists to excuse their racism by saying, “I just don’t like the culture” or “I just can’t understand them.” It generally is pretty obvious to modern society that these statements are racist, but somehow, many people don’t acknowledge that they are using this same logic to enable their ableism. How long will society tolerate this?
Ultimately, the message to my movement is that I hope that we can learn to Pursue the Forward in all aspects of life. If time is perpetually moving forward, why don’t the humans who exist in time progress the same way? It is easy to set one tangible goal for oneself. “I’ll work out today! I can pursue this specific career path! I will put my thoughts down on paper!” Once that one specific goal is met, one has no mental path forward. It is as if a life with constant ebb, flow, change, heartbeats, and flapping of wings suddenly flatlines. Pursue the Forward is a vector of motivation and creativity; it is not a terminal line segment but a path with direction and magnitude. Resistance to change is an uphill battle. The only way to derive new solutions and create a better world is by taking prior knowledge, expanding it, and Pursuing the Forward. My goal is to shift the narrative of what it means to be on the spectrum and encourage others to Pursue the Forward in all aspects of life.
Who do we listen to? Where do we get our information about neurodivergent individuals? Dear reader, I would like to congratulate you for taking the first step: listening to neurodivergent individuals! If society never listened to women fighting for their rights, women would not be able to vote. If there was no ear lent towards ethnic minorities, the ethnic majority wouldn’t realize the seriousness of the societal problems that stand against these minorities. People fought for their voice, and there would be no change without actively listening to those voices. The voices of neurodivergent individuals have always been treated as insignificant, fixable, or modifiable to society to fit its schema of what it is to be human. This is ableism to the core.
Discrimination may always exist in culture no matter who it is against, the reason behind it, or the degree of blatancy. How long will ableism exist? How long will we let ableism stand in culture? I would argue until the end of time, but this does not excuse the lack of a good fight put up against it. I dream that future neurodivergent kids will feel included, loved, and accepted by society. As the world stands right now, the possibility of that may seem very bleak. However, simply looking at a bleak situation without moving forward is foolish. If, as a collective, we push the needle and Pursue the Forward, we can continue to build a brighter, inclusive, neurodiverse future for generations to come.
Josias Reynoso was named Boys & Girls Clubs National Youth of the Year for 2020. He is currently studying at Central Connecticut State University and Interns as a Brand Ambassador and Robot-Assisted Instruction Specialist with MOVIA Robotics, Inc.