I am (not) Autism

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When I was 15, I dropped out of school. It was more of a passive decision than an active one. I just decided I was sick of sitting in a classroom for an hour learning facts that I either knew already or didn’t need to know at all. I didn’t announce to my mom “I’m going to drop out of school”. I just didn’t go. I refused to.

This wasn’t unusual for me. I always had a history of hating school, since I was bullied since first grade and the school did absolutely nothing to stop it. But with college looming on the horizon in several years, I think the school district (and my parents) finally decided to do something about it. The district organized several meetings with my parents, the school staff, and my teachers from the previous year. I was never at these meetings, nor was I invited. But every month or so, right on schedule, my mom would come home with printed information and brochures on faraway boarding schools that specialized in disabled children.

That first set of papers was also the first time I realized that the public school system didn’t see me as an individual. To them, I was a diagnosis.

I wasn’t Emma Elizabeth Boers, as it was printed on my birth certificate. I wasn’t a being of any sort.

I was Autism.

After a failed period of being homeschooled, my mom found the Hudson Valley Sudbury School online. We drove down an hour and a half to Woodstock to visit in the middle of a dreary December night. I knew after the informational meeting that this is where I wanted to go. I canceled my meeting with a Montessori school the next day, my mom paid the fee for the visiting week, and it was settled.

My first day, I moped around the halls feeling lonely. The school’s environment was so social, it was difficult for me to even try to fit in. What would they say if I talked out of turn or said something stupid? I didn’t understand how I would ever fit in. I walked into a room of gamers and thought it would be a good idea for me to bring a few video games the next day. And the next day, I suddenly became the game room’s favorite new student.

After a few long weeks of nothing but Super Smash Bros. Brawl, I was slowly becoming more social. I still didn’t understand what was and wasn’t appropriate to say or do, but I at least decided to speak up instead of being quiet and not talking to people. Slowly but surely, my social skills were improving far beyond what they ever were in public school. I was never afraid to talk to different people, new people, people I didn’t know. Bullying seemed almost nonexistent (though I had issues with a few students) and I felt like I was actually accepted by other beings for once in my life.

While at HVSS, I also decided to pursue my old interest in writing. I had written an (unpublished) novella at the age of 13, but stopped writing when I couldn’t get it published. It was bad, and I realized that, but I also felt like with classes and homework out of the way I had the strength to pursue something like that again. I started on the first draft of the novel Leech Child at HVSS, with the support and advice of the staff.

Near the end of my first year at HVSS I was sitting in the lounge, chatting with some of the other students, when the subject of mental disability came up. I offhandedly mentioned something about my autism, not even thinking about how people might respond.

“Oh, you have autism? Wow, I never would have guessed.”

“Yeah, me neither.”

The responses came one after the other, and even as the conversation moved on, I was shocked. Why weren’t they making fun of me? Isn’t it obvious I’m different?

I thought about it for a bit, and a realization came to me - Sudbury, as a whole, was different. The philosophy was obviously different than the compulsory schooling most kids were used to. The kids were nicer, funnier, and more social. The parents cared more about their children, and the staff didn’t take the job for any superficial reason - they loved kids, and they loved to teach them the way they were supposed to be taught.

I thought about it for a bit, and a realization came to me - Sudbury, as a whole, was different. The philosophy was obviously different than the compulsory schooling most kids were used to. The kids were nicer, funnier, and more social. The parents cared more about their children, and the staff didn’t take the job for any superficial reason - they loved kids, and they loved to teach them the way they were supposed to be taught.

We were different, and I loved it.

Several more years passed by, and my mom moved down to Woodstock so I could attend the school more easily. I learned to play Magic: the Gathering, hosted several games of Pokemon D&D, Espionage and Dokapon Kingdom, started school wide projects like making Shrinky Dinks for the craft fair, made Cheeze Whiz flavored gumdrops, and generally had an excellent time. Leech Child was coming along well and I even served on the Judicial Committee, something I thought I would have never been able to do.

At the end of what would be my last year at HVSS, I walked up in front of a whole crowd of people carrying a sheet of notebook paper, and I recited the speech I had written down. I was shaking, and my mouth seemed to move on its own, and I think I cried a bit at the end, but it was beautiful.

It’s been a bit more than six months since I left HVSS, if my memory is right. I’m not in college yet because I wanted some time off to pursue my interests - writing, art, and game development - but I’m hoping to go to Hudson Valley Community College in the fall, and I have little doubt that they’ll accept me. Leech Child is on its third or fourth revision, and I think it’s going well.

Probably the best side effect of HVSS for me was that I began to accept who I was. That I was a being, a person, a somebody. I wasn’t a diagnosis or a label. I could be whatever I wanted to be, within reason, and that was okay.

Today I’m going to announce that in the long run, I’m okay with who I am. Sometimes I might falter or lose faith in myself but for the most part, I appreciate the young adult I’m turning into.

I’m a writer. I’m genderqueer. I’m an artist. I’m a misanthrope. I’m geeky. I’m autistic. Some people know me as Emma, while others know me as Seika or Ness.

But none of these alone are really me.

Sudbury, both the philosophy and the community, helped me realize this. No being is a label, or even a collection of them. We are all a collection of unique experiences and stories, and we each have the potential to contribute something positive to this planet, no matter how small.

It’s okay to be YOU.

And so my story comes to an end. I am NOT Autism. I am Ness, and this is the beginning of a (hopefully) long list of contributions I will make to planet Earth:

Listen to your child. Do they enjoy school? If not, something is wrong. Learning should be an enlightening experience. It shouldn’t be a jail.

Your kid will tell you the truth. After all, kids are the most honest people on Earth.

Well, except for me. I’m a bit too brutally honest for my own good.

And I’m okay with that.