Tuesday, 24 March 2015

The Puzzle Piece: A Misconception of Incompleteness

Subway train at the end of the line
Though I remember having a jumbo ten-piece Sesame Street puzzle about fifteen years ago, I don't recall being too fond of puzzles. Rather I was interested in complex or real-life questions to be answered and challenges to pursue. For example, why are we getting on the train that just entered the station from the opposite direction? (Because not all trains reaching terminal stations go straight to the Train-yard.) What procedures do you follow when the fire alarm starts ringing? (As a child I took a liking to my then-apartment building's information guide. Not only did I learn about waving a cloth on your balcony if you can't evacuate a fire but made my sister laugh at the rule barring bringing furniture to our swimming pool.) Will Harry survive his encounter stopping Snape from snatching the Philospher's Stone? (You seldom need a spoiler alert to know one cannot survive book 6 without surviving book 1.) What mass of sodium hydroxide do you need to react one litre of 1.0 M (Moles per litre) hydrochloric acid to make salt water? (Abut 40 grams. Meanwhile I am not responsible for the result of any at-home experiments with home-grade Muriatic Acid.) What speed must the car maintain on the inclined ramp if it will stay on it? What plot will bridge my character between the first and last pages in my novel? What path does the road connecting a lecture on electric flux to fulfilling my envision of a fossil-free city take? Or, how do I stop the world in believing my worth as an incomplete jigsaw?

I don't know from where I heard it. I don't remember whether it was another person, the SONY HD crowding my living room or the screen of a Windows Vista projecting bits and binary digits from a blue Ethernet wire. Yet at a time in my life I heard that the puzzle piece symbolized Autism as a simile to that the Autistic way of seeing the world differently fits to us. Everything falls into place. Everything makes sense.

Imagine the twelve-year-old FA's perceptions. Imagine that a person having been bullied for not being able to shoot a basketball into a net and excluded for reasons I still don't understand, gaining attention for something she could do. Though I was a bit confused how everything to me fit into place, I was glad that the world gave me attention for something I could do.

Childhood innocence began to falter. I started wondering why Autism Speaks, an organization advocating to remove Autism from Society and setting its logo a blue puzzle piece, had 'abused the puzzle piece.' About a year ago, attempting an unsuccessful research for facts on Autism for my World Autism Day announcement at my school, I saw the glimpse of a person stating he wanted to find the "missing puzzle pieces." He was referring to his Autistic child. Aside from finding and distracting one of my high school's kindest teachers also on spare from a marking pile to complain to about until I felt better, I wondered why the man on the internet abused the puzzle piece sign. In fact, how were so many individuals and organizations abusing the puzzle piece sign? Had the sign but not the meaning itself become the norm in portraying Autism?

Trees in a thin soil are meant to uproot. For what it was meant, Autism Speaks, the man in the news and countless more organizations weren't abusing it. The puzzle piece was not meant to represent completeness but incompleteness. To the person that first introduced the puzzle piece idea to the human realm, I was not a person whose view fit in my own way, but one missing fundamental parts of being a person and I deserved to have my 'missing pieces found.'

Working on today's blog post
But Autistic people, including I, are not your incomplete jigsaw. We are simply those with their strengths, weaknesses, pet peeves, passions and quirks just like you. Yes, I have a hearing sensitivity which rendered sharing a bus with a group of teenagers yesterday almost impossible and sometimes has me reroute my commute. Yes, if you show me a violent movie (I'm already shuddering) I'll stay distraught for at least a few hours. But if you give me a musical keyboard, I can take advantage of my hearing sensitivity to fall into the emotion of a song. The same compassion rendering me distraught for several hours last month in leaving a lecture hall when an instructor showed a graphic video on an engineering disaster can jump in the face of inequality to offer some advocacy. Give me a Science class and my hand will almost glue to the air above it in an excitement and curiosity so extreme that in high school I had to ask all my teachers to let me answer all the questions for my birthday. Do I sound as though I'm missing anything? Therapy, perhaps? Squish a puzzle piece into the outer boundaries of a jigsaw? I think not.

It is not only with me. I have witnessed success and still see wide potential in a few other Autistic people I know or have seen. An Autistic person (that wasn't me) won my high school's Film Fest last year. This week I met two Autistic people, one a supervisor and another a Ph.D. student, in their lab lab. They showed me the diversity of their projects, toured me around their workspace, showed me a sewing machine which uses photos to embroider designs and two 3-D printers and engaged in a conversation with me about both being Autistic and their research. I come across stories of Autistic people with their talents in my twitter feed. I don't think I need to contact Hasbro. Definitely not Toys-R-Us either (with its Autism Speaks endorsement).

However ideas still persist that we, the spectrum, are incomplete. Lately I find it hard to read an online Toronto Star article without seeing an ad on the side saying "Causes of Autism" portraying the face of an angry child. (I believe I look nothing like him.) I wait for a train and a headline on the screens above me flashes an idea about Autism research or causes to me, even though I try not to look at them. Last year researching facts for my announcement had been almost impossible with the negativity swarming the internet. (It was one of the reasons I switched to faking that I had interviewed a person with Autism. But why Google Autism when you are Autistic yourself?) About two years ago, window-shopping a mall with my sister, my cousin and his grandparents, we entered Toys R Us at his insistence and I walked under a banner with the blue puzzle piece. (I believe it was I who convinced us to leave.) Even recently, without my mentioning of Autism, a person told me he didn't want to lower his voice for me so I can accustom to it and told me to keep it in mind during a job interview. (For the record a job interview yesterday mentioned nothing of it.) Plus I still remember the time my tenth-grade history teacher tried not to accommodate me, leaving me still with shudders from some of the videos that semester. These are only my experiences. Read upon E (from the Third Glance) as she tells how her parents constantly told her off for her Autistic qualities. Take a look at the Autism advocates being told by Lindt to contact Autism Speaks when asking why it supports it, as Easter approaches with its Lindt chocolate bunnies donating to Autism Speaks. We, those with Autism, need a world where our right to dignity and to be ourselves is accepted.

As World Autism Day approaches, I ask you - and urge you - to play your part in accelerating the perception shift from incompleteness to completeness, a perception shift as if we are transitioning from segregated bus seating to the first-come-first-serve-unless-you-really-need-it system on Toronto's Yonge-University-Sandwich. (Did I say sandwich? I meant Spadina.) How? The answer is simple. If you do not already defy the notion that we are incomplete, it's time to see us as complete. Have you already abandoned the incompleteness model before reading this post or never accepted it to begin with? Then congratulations. Keep it up. Look at an Autistic person through the same lens you use on your best friend, the ordinary student you teach in class, a client you serve, or the person at No Frills that pointed you to the potatoes when you couldn't find them. See us for the individuals we are rather than the stereotypes raised about us such as that we cannot have empathy (Surely an Autistic Rights blogger needs empathy to begin with?) or that we cannot communicate or that our ability to focus on our passions have no benefit. Embrace the power in our differences, the power in communicating in alternative ways when non-verbal, to demonstrate empathy while avoiding eye contact or selectively choosing those to hug, or the excitement in the stutter responding after an instructor notices my hand magnetized to the air in a 12 PM lecture. See the beauty in the power of difference.

Most importantly, do not eye me as though I am a clump of grey, painted, processed-cellulose shapes with a gap in the middle. As World Autism Day approaches on April 2nd, I will rephrase a statement trending amongst the community of Autistic advocates. I am not a puzzle piece. I am not an incomplete puzzle either. Regardless of my thought process, what better identity do I deserve than a person?

- FA

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