It rained again in the wee hours of the morning, and we were greeted with a steady drizzle when we stepped out for our pre-dawn stroll. Lucy was good, she did not fuss, trotting valiantly in her lovely K9 Voyager Greyhound-specific raincoat. It was well worth the expense. She loves the new beef liver treats, of course, so that helped a lot! It is end of semester examinations period here. Living on campus now, I am right in the midst of the flurry. Students hunched over laptops, notepads and books form visual blobs speckling the scenescapes – library tables, cafes, open spaces and study rooms. The smell of rancid perspiration, unwashed hair and clothes has completely engulfed the library, taking over the scent of aging books. Olfactory signs of life stirring begin earlier, and I am greeted by bacon sizzling in the early morning, bread toasting, jams being spread, even as Lucy and I make our rounds before 6am. I have had to complain twice about unbearable noise just outside my unit, emanating from the study rooms a few feet from my door. Gathered in groups with academic paraphernalia, then spending the night in raucous revelry, replete with potato crisps, soft drinks and assorted takeaways (yes I can smell it from inside my unit, the aromas waft in through the ventilation spaces in the door!), the students wage war on my fraught senses, just as I am trying to retire into the land of nod. How do they manage to ‘study’ at all? I have no idea, but that is a very alien social setting to the autistic mind.
Various student centred initiatives are on offer, to encourage the intense swotting and lift spirits, like free food, drinks, and even super cheap barbecues by the library lawn. I never remembered any of this happening during my undergraduate days. But of course, that was way back in the 1980s, long before most of these students were even born – it was a very different time, space and place. Even if I had come across such activities then, I doubt if I would have availed myself to them, the thought of mingling with the throng, enveloped by bodies, lost inside my sensory fear, makes me shudder even now. I often think about the many autistic students at universities all over the world, and I wonder how each one manages to cope, steering their way through the assaultive cacophony of life in higher education, especially during the confusing undergraduate years, where sociability is highly prized.
One very important element in my own survival were my alliances with neurotypical students. These took different shapes, forms and complexions, and the details are beyond the scope and intention of this casual blog, but there was one friend who stood out from the rest, who has inspired today’s post. My friend Amy. We were virtually inseparable, and along with one other girl, with whom we formed a trio, we did almost everything together. This bond saw me through the most difficult patches, independent for the first time in my life at the age of 19, in a foreign land, and alone, away from family. I did not know at the time about autism, I was not diagnosed with Asperger’s until my early forties, but I always knew I was functionally different from others. My strangeness did not bother my friends at all, though at times I must have embarrassed them with my quirky takes on sociability! We were, however, very different from the students around me now. No noisome pestilence for us, we never engaged in loud, messy socialising. I am sure the undergraduate social scene was not much different then as now, but as music students, we were separated from the rest of campus activity. Our music department was physically in a different location, and the discipline itself demanded a high level of exclusive dedication – we spent almost all our waking hours in the practice rooms, music library, listening booths and, of course, eating. Food was important even then! It suited me well.
Today’s breakfast was a deliberate tribute to my friendship with Amy, remembering the too many meals of instant noodles which we indulged in for convenience and due to budget constraints. She would say that I have stepped up a few notches, of course, we were less lavish with the toppings then, for sure. But now, as then, even though I have gleaned a great deal more insight and wisdom on self preservation and survival, and I now have an Angel to keep me constant company and mitigate sensory contusions, I still need good relationships with empathic neurotypical friends to help me navigate the sea of social confusion.
It is not an Us vs Them world. We cannot afford to develop that animosity. And so we should not anyway, if we truly embrace diversity. Living independently as a middle aged Aspie in the wider world, I am constantly aware of the fact that, despite the neuro-divide, we do actually need each other, people from different mental cultures, coming together to form a stronger and more cogently relevant hybridity – what Ralph Savarese terms as Neurocosmopolitanism. This is my hope for the future, though in many ways, I and my neurotypical friends (in that order) have already begun to evolve into neurocosmopolites!
Thank you, dearest Amy!