“Country roads, take me home // to the place where I belong”. I’m currently sitting in a bar across the street from my new apartment in Brooklyn. It’s also across the street from my co-worker with whom I stayed many times before moving here myself so this is a bar I’ve had my eye on for a while and just now have finally carved out the time and space to get in here.
Because that’s where I go when I have work to do that requires my full focus. I go to a bar. In Portland, ME I always went to Ruski’s. A self-described “dive bar” that serves the best breakfast and the best company. It has always been a place where I can go where everyone is just there. You know how when you’re thinking about which bar to go to and you have to think about what context of your life you’ll be living in by going; what clothes to wear, how many friends, which friends, what’s okay to talk about, what’s the reason for going? You don’t have to do any of that at Ruski’s. I’d go alone, sometimes meet some new momentary friends and talk about anything from politics to phone apps, often just keep to myself and write.
But now, I’ve been sitting at Midwood Flats, not certain if I can do the same thing here, but staring at a blank computer screen still unable to find the first word, the first letter even, to type as I finally dig into the story of my ridiculous road trip. That cross-country-and-back road trip I began 6-months ago, completed 2-months ago, and have hardly dared to face. And here I’ve been sitting, with the space and the time—finally—and I can’t find the words to say.
Then, “Take Me Home, Country Roads” came on over the speakers. A song that was a staple at music group in the developmental disorders unit at the locked-down psychiatric hospital I worked at for nearly 4-years. A song that reminds me of Frank, the 60-something year old from Detroit who has more stories to tell than anyone I’ve ever met. One of those guys who is known for being able to do “whatever the fuck he wants” (his nickname on the unit was “Obama”) and everyone is okay with it. He’s just one of the many people from my work at that place who has deeply impacted my life and the song by John Denver is just one that vividly brings back memories of certain kids and deep feelings and wonderings and hopes about where they might be now. This song in particular reminds me of one specific patient, the first kid to ever punch me in the face, a kid I miss dearly and wonder often how he’s doing.
It only takes a song sometimes to bring up so much memory, to bring someone from a blank brain and a blank screen to the 5th paragraph of writing. This is a commonly understood and very deep emotion that translates across demographics. Yet, we still live in a world that is more full of people who still say “I just don’t know how to talk to them” when asked if they’ve ever befriended, or even interacted with a person with autism. The way in which something so simple can evoke such massive emotion is so common yet the way in which an autistic person reacts so visibly to a sound or a touch makes people afraid. The way an autistic person might crave expectations or consistency or honesty makes other people nervous and self-described as “unqualified” to interact with them. The way in which autistic people might honestly, and fully, and emotionally respond to a stimulus around them makes those of us with more controlled cognitive and sensory systems terrified, for they represent the emotions we try so hard to never show, the worries we tried so hard to never admit, the truth we try so hard to hide.
We’re not unqualified. We’re not afraid of hurting them. We’re not afraid of how different they seem. We’re afraid of ourselves. If there’s anything that I’ve learned from working with and being with people with autism it’s that we are way too curated in our lives. You may have resonated before with how I described the way we approach going to different bars—how we consider things from the clothes we wear to the types of people we’ll invite to be with us—and you may have laughed because of your own examples that you yourself have in your memories. But that ridiculousness, that ability to make so complex the mere event of going out for a good time, is so deeply a privilege in ways that so many of us will never read about in the newspapers or Facebook feeds.
We’re not afraid of how honest or impacted people with autism are. We’re afraid of how real and how present and how connected they make us become when we have them in our lives. And while I live and breathe as a person every trying to get away from “us and them” ways of speaking I intentionally do so here because my life with autism in it and my life without is so dramatically different that I think autistic people and those who support them deserve to be labeled as “us” while the rest of the world, for once, can be called “them” for the absurd ways and excuses they sometimes make for not being more widely inclusive of the ambitious endeavors they set out to have. My privilege, here, is how I get to exist in both worlds. My shadow, here, is also how I get to exist in both worlds.