Playing Roles

I have always been a pretty big nerd. Looking back over my life, I’ve got Star Wars: check, Anime: check, Comic Books: check check check. This year, I decided to add another scoop of geek cred to my pile by doing something I’ve always wanted to try. Enter Dungeons and Dragons. It worked out that some friends of mine had been wanting to start a new game, and what better way to learn than with friends? I spent hours making my character. Seriously, his backstory is pages long. Since the best way I know how to do something new is to absorb all the information I can find on it, whir it up in my brain blender, and then make it my own by reassembling it, I took advantage of the almost 45 years worth of character building literature out there. I know his alignment (true neutral), I know his race (Tengu), I know about his family, I know how fast he is, I know his motivations. I also know that his name translates into ‘Garbage’ (his parents were clearly very cruel). I know so many things about him that I’m starting to feel really comfortable playing him. But I had a thought recently and I’m still mulling over it. If I’m playing Taaka, does that mean he’s autistic too?

 

One of the great things about Role Playing Games is that you get to be someone who is entirely unlike you. And I’ve found that to be really freeing. In real life, I’m definitely a rule follower. Granted the rules I follow are my own, and not always those accepted by society, but still, I usually follow rules regardless of what I want to do personally. This character is not like that. His short life has been hard, and he has no qualms about doing whatever is necessary to survive. So in that way, I can reconcile him being different from me; we have totally different backgrounds. I can imagine his past well enough to guess what he would do in a given situation. But what I’m not sure I can do is imagine what a neurotypical person would do. Life experience has proven that I’m not very good at predicting what a non-autistic person will think or do or say. So does that mean that my autism is coloring how my character experiences the world?

 

I think it comes down to the issue that often comes up when neurotypical writers try to write autistic characters: that even if they get past the stereotypes, they are still trying to understand the world in a way that is entirely foreign to them. It’s hard to teach someone to think in a different way. It’s why ABA doesn’t actually work. People can be taught to imitate the thoughts of others, but it’s sort of like learning a second language as an adult, you may get fluent, but you’ll never be a native speaker. So can I treat neurotypical as a second language of sorts? I spend most of my life scripting, and people learning languages rely heavily on that as well. I fake nonverbal communication, and language-learners fake accents.  In the beginning, they can probably only order coffee, find a train station, and count to twenty, and on bad days, that’s about all I can do too. So the major question is, are my neurotypical ‘skills’ enough to let my character be neurotypical? If I’m faking it, is he faking it? Is his big picture colored by my autistic lens?

 

I’m asking a lot of questions because this is the sort of philosophical thing that really gets stuck in my head. Mostly because I’ve spent such a large chunk of my life trying to observe and imitate other people. I’ve gotten good enough that sometimes, I can pass. Sometimes I can even understand the thought process behind what I’m doing (which let me tell you is so cool!). But neither of these things makes my brain any less autistic. It’s just like a native language, I think in autism, I dream in autism, and I communicate most organically in autism. Which has led me to the following conclusion: I can never truly play a neurotypical character because I’ve never lived a neurotypical life. I can research it, I can understand it, but in the end, my character will never be able to interact with his world in a truly neurotypical was because I can’t. It’s easy to play a character with a different alignment than you, with a different temperament than you, with a different religion than you. People play dragons and elves and gargoyles all the time. Hell, my character is a giant bird-man, and I manage that ok. I can pretend to have feathers and a beak, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to pretend that the way my brain interprets the world can be anything less than autistic. So Taaka will have a small trace of my autism, and I think he’ll be better for it. Maybe my next character will actually be autistic. Or whatever they call autistic in Golarian. There are things about me that I can stop from translating to my fictional role, but I think it’s ok that autism isn’t one of them. I’m playing him as an Autistic Tengu Magus, and all three of those parts of him are important. Maybe not as important as him getting his hands on a bag of holding, but we all have priorities.

What Do We Want? Language!

I was in my 20’s the first time I heard the word autism. I thought-hm, that sounds awful. And I didn’t really think about it again. It wasn’t until much later, when I learned about autism symptoms that I thought-that sounds like college, when I hid under my bed all the time and had to drop a class because I couldn’t find it. When I lost it every time someone burned popcorn and the alarm went off at 2 am and I couldn’t get back to sleep. Group projects were hell because I couldn’t figure out what my classmates wanted from me. All of these situations happened to me. I failed out of college. I knew my experiences weren’t typical, but without the words to describe what was happening to me, I didn’t know how to ask for help. I didn’t even know that I needed help. I didn’t get diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder until I was 28. Lots of factors went into me being diagnosed so late in life. I am very book smart, which meant a lot of my social deficits were given a pass, especially since I have a strange knack for making people want to be friends with me. I also dropped out of school at the ripe old age of six, and was homeschooled until I went back to public school in the 6th grade. Homeschooling was great for my little autistic self, but not having teachers or guidance counselors around meant that no one realized that my quirks might be a part of something more. I knew I was weird. I knew I was different. So how did it take another twenty years for anything to be done?

The human race is obsessed with language. More precisely, they’re obsessed with communication. We teach gorillas and babies sign language so they can talk to us more easily. We’ve coded bots to learn language and communicate in ways that seems eerily close to Artificial Intelligence. So here’s the question. What happens when you give people language? And even more, what happens when you give people the language to talk about what’s happening to them? For me, the first step was not one of relief, or understanding, but one of confusion. How had I never encountered this before? How had not a single person in my life looked at me and saw these words? And lastly, and most importantly, how did these new words describe me so well?

From the professionals: sensory, sympathy/empathy, high functioning, theory of mind, ABA. From the brand new community I found online: stim, neurodiversity, ableism, samefood, hyper-empathy, Red Instead, identity first language.

My whole life,, I would all of a sudden seem to lose my words, especially when I was stressed. My wife and I tried to find the humor in what would otherwise be anxiety producing, so we turned it into charades. There’s a word for that you know: it’s nonverbal.

Another word I quickly learned was proprioceptive. Although it took me a bit longer to learn how to spell it. Proprioceptive is a sense, like sight or smell, and it measures where your body is in space. And since I’m heavily proprioceptive seeking, it’s really just a big word for I like roller coasters. And swings, and rolling down hills and spinning around in circles. So you see, all of these things already existed in my life. Everyone in my life knew about them. Meesh has quirks, and rules, and routines. That’s just who she is as a person. And I’m not saying that isn’t true. I’m a member of the ‘you can’t separate me from my autism’ camp, so yes, I believe all of my behaviors are because of who I am as a person. But I also believe that that makes it even more important for me to have the language to describe and discuss who I am and what I experience.

Of course I don’t mean just me. I don’t even mean just autistic people. Everyone deserves access to language that allows them to communicate effectively. Just like access to medical and clean water, it is a human right. Put simply, if the vocabulary exists for a person’s experience, than they should have access to it. And if one doesn’t exist, I’m all for making it up. I’m learning American Sign Language, and while I have the vocabulary of a preschooler, I’ve already encountered some words that are important to my life that don’t have signs. So, I made a few up. And honestly, in marginalized communities, this is how it works. An individual or a small group comes up with words that fill a space, and usually nothing happens. But sometimes. SOMETIMES. Something magic happens and the words spread and grow like a beanstalk and sometimes they change. But. The magic can’t happen if no one’s planting the seeds. So let’s all remember: We all need language to describe our experiences. Sometimes the words don’t exist yet, but it’s ok; making things up is how we grow. Vocabulary gives us power, and because of that, it is a human right. And lastly, I hope you use your preferred method of communication to empower yourself, and your community.