A simple blog post celebrating the creativity, resilience and inner strength of people on the autism spectrum. This list is written in no particular order and includes both friends of mine and autism/Asperger’s celebrities whom I’d love to meet. Each has a unique set of challenges to overcome, yet has still made a significant contribution to society, and their presence makes my world a brighter place. When I struggle with communication or sensory overload, when I lie awake at night a small part of me wishes I was a little bit more like everyone else, I think of the people on the list and I am reminded why I should be proud to be autistic.
Fleischmann is a young woman with autism and an oral motor disorder that prevents her from speaking. Most of the specialists Fleischmann visited assumed she was ‘moderately retarded’, that is, until she started typing. Given a method to communicate, a very intelligent, self aware young woman emerged, and that young woman continues to amaze me to this day. I first came across Fleischmann’s story when I was sent a short Youtube clip about her. I immediately purchased the Carly’s Voice, a memoir about Fleischmann’s childhood, her struggle to communicate and her determination to attend a mainstream high school. As if Fleischmann’s sunny disposition and confidence in herself despite all the challenges she’s faced weren’t remarkable enough, she’s also the first non verbal talk show host! There’s some fantastic footage of her interview with Channing Tatum on Facebook, where Fleischman steals the show by flirting, making jokes, and reminding everyone that just because a person can’t speak doesn’t mean they don’t have anything interesting to say. Carly Fleischmann, you inspire me. Your determination to succeed and not let anything hold you back has given me the strength to work on overcoming my own barriers. Although we’re roughly the same age, you’ll always be my role model and my hero.
Brian is a friend I met at University when I was receiving additional support for my autism. He’s also an avid Doctor Who Cosplayer who describes himself as ‘proud to be Asperger’s’. I’ve always envied how comfortable Brian is with himself. When we met I was in the closet about my own diagnosis, and he was the first person I’d met who discussed his experience of Asperger’s openly, without the smallest hint of embarrassment. Once, we were having lunch together in the university cafeteria, and I distinctly remember him yelling ‘this is the Asperger’s table!’ I wished I could be as open as he was. Two years later, outed myself as autistic, something I might never have found the courage to do without meeting him. I saw Brian recently when he visited Bradford. He’d received news that a close friend had passed away the night before but still spent several hours on the train just to meet me. I’d expected to be met by someone close to tears, but Brian had a huge grin on his face and was positive throughout the day, repeatedly explaining that he was going to live life to the full because that was what his friend had wanted. I was stunned; I had no idea were he got this inner strength. When I asked him, he claimed he got it from his friends. Brian Cooper, you inspire me. Your strength, pride in yourself and determination to stay positive and embrace life has encouraged me to be more social and place trust in others.
Of course, I couldn’t write about people on the spectrum who inspire me without including Temple Grandin. For those of you who don’t know, Grandin is a professor of animal science and autism advocate. She invented the Squeeze Machine, a device based on cattle chutes that can be used to calm people on the spectrum. Grandin has written several insightful, remarkable books about autism, which have helped me to understand myself better and provided invaluable information for my work with autistic children and adults. Grandin’s memoir Emergence: Labelled Autistic is particularly important to me because it depicts Grandin before she was famous… when no one understood her fascination with cattle chutes and everyone did their best to discourage it. But she persevered, showing great strength and resilience… and look where she is now. Temple Grandin, you inspire me. You’ve done so much for the autism community, and your wonderful writing has encouraged me to tell my own story. I even have your words ‘different, not less’ tattooed on my left shoulder blade.
Beth Whitaker is one of my oldest friends from school, and I’m privileged to have watched her grow from a slightly awkward child into a remarkable young woman. We met when we were roughly eleven years old and hit it off right away. I didn’t know about her diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome (nor had I come to terms with mine) I just knew that we both had a similar temperament. So similar, that once puberty hit and those hormones kicked in we ended up having our fair share of arguments. Beth was always quick to forgive, and fiercely loyal to all her friends, two qualities I really admire. When I started the Seeing Double blog Beth casually mentioned to me that she was on the spectrum too, which surprised and delighted me. All those years at school, thinking I was the only weird one… and she’d been right with me the whole time. As she’s got older, Beth’s hard work and determination to succeed have shone through. She ran her own comic book shop for a year (a huge achievement for someone so young and faced with so many difficulties), which became a haven for the geeks and the socially awkward of Bradford. When I found out the shop was closing I expected Beth to be distraught, but she’d already found a new job! Beth Whitaker, you inspire me. Your hard work, resilience and inner strength have taught me that I can’t just sit around waiting for something to happen. I have to put more into my life in order to get more out.
Rory McNeil is another childhood friend of mine, whom I’ve known since I was quite young. It would be fair to say he has some difficulties with socialising and managing stress. But it would also be fair to say that he’s an artistic genius- and incredibly humble about it. I have two of his paintings in my home (both were given to me as gifts, and the hours he’s spent doing so many detailed brush strokes illustrate how dedicated Rory is to his friends). The first painting is of a gothic seamstress standing over a mass grave, and is based on a fairytale I made up for him after researching gothic literature. When he handed it to me I was completely blow away, but Rory just looked at the ground and muttered something about the perspective being off. It’s rare to meet an individual who’s so talented and yet so humble at the same time. The second painting is in my living room and depicts black sheep on a background of rolling hills. The longer you look at it, the closer the sheep seem to get, until it feels like they’re going to step right through the canvas. I believe this painting was inspired by my Welsh heritage and it’s complimented by almost everyone who comes to visit. Rory McNeil, you inspire me. Your talent, hard work and unique view of the world have encouraged me to nurture my own creativity and take pride in my work while doing my best to avoid vanity.
Tito Rarjeshi Mukhopadhaya
Tito Rarjeshi Mukhopadhaya is an accomplished writer, whose poetry has strongly influenced my own. In some ways his story is familiar to Carly Fleischmann’s, as many of the people around him believed him to be moderately retarded until he learned to communicate through writing. Mukhopadhaya started his first book, The Mind Tree (also published as The Voice of Silence) when he was just six years old, and it was published during his early teens. This would be a remarkable achievement for a neurotypical child, but for someone with Mukhopadhaya’s difficulties it’s astounding. His writing is filled with valuable insights into life on the spectrum, and completely changed the way I looked at none verbal autism. The Mind Tree, which is partly autobiographical, portrays a person who is highly imaginative, and despite all his challenges, has a great love of life. Tito Rarjeshi Mukhopadhaya, you inspire me. Your fantastic writing has encouraged me to write about my own experiences in a more imaginative way and continues to remind me that no matter what, the world is a beautiful place and there is always a reason to stay positive.
Is there anyone on the autism spectrum who inspires you? Any celebrities you think I should have added to the list? Comment below!