Are We Different?

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I have a best best friend forever. She is kind and thoughtful and funny and she can perform one-handed cartwheels with her eyes closed. “Tara,” she says, the corners of her mouth slowly forming a smile. “Have you ever seen a pig play a tin whistle?” I’ve never considered such a question. “No,” I tell her. “Have you ever seen a butterfly ride a bike?” We burst into laughter.

My best best friend forever has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Every Tuesday, I spend two hours at a youth café with her and several other 11-14 year olds with ASD through my role as a volunteer for Galway Autism Partnership (GAP).

Over the past few months, I have discovered there is no one picture of autism; indeed, each of the youth I work with have different challenges and strengths and interests, as well as unique ways of perceiving their environment and communicating with others.

Contrary to common mischaracterizations of ASD, their diagnoses do not make them broken or weak. Nor do they need to be fixed or pitied – only understood, respected, and supported.

The late neurologist Oliver Sacks once asked: “Is there any place in the world for a man who is like an island, who cannot be acculturated, made part of the main? Can the main accommodate, make room for, the singular?”

The answer, I strongly believe, is yes. However, it relies on the attitudes and values promoted in our communities; the compassion and tolerance we practice for one another; and a reverence for diversity – of seeing, and thinking, and being – that we must each protect.

We have all felt like an outsider; we have all felt loneliness and isolation; we have all misunderstood and been misunderstood. And maybe, in this way, it is because we have all carried the experience of being different, or abnormal, or alone, that we – whether autistic or not – are not so different after all.  Indeed, perhaps Sacks should have considered the possibility that there is no main, that we are all islands in the sea – only, as William James had noted, “separate on the surface, but connected in the deep.” To traverse the seas of prejudice, apathy, or conceit that lie between us may be the hardest, but most important, thing we can do.

I don’t wish to trivialize or simplify the struggles or the experiences of individuals with autism and their families – ultimately, I can only remark on the way these kids have made me feel. And that is that they have allowed me to find a home many thousands of miles away from home – a place without judgment or condescension where we can appreciate and strive to accept each other, where we can feel most wholly and completely like ourselves. They have allowed me to learn to consider the world in ways I could not grasp on my own. They have filled me with patience and love and gratitude. And most importantly, they have made me realize, over and over again, that despite all the differences we possess, each and every one of us is merely human – and, in this regard, neither superior nor inferior to one another.

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