Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Autistic Coding in Pokemon Black and White

This is the 100th post on this blog and I'm using it to talk about video games, go figure. 

I've been playing a lot of Pokemon to deal with the stress of the pandemic. (I've actually discovered I'm pretty good at breeding for stats!) The more I've gotten to know the characters in the franchise, the more I've noticed a lot of them resonate with me as an autistic person, and I think that's worth discussing, if only because various sources cite Satoshi Tajiri, the series creator, as autistic (and whether or not it's confirmed, it's definitely possible if you look at certain elements in the series, in particular collecting things, animal empathy, and eye contact being a form of aggression). Original protagonist Red, who last appeared as an adult in Sun and Moon/Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon, is portrayed in the games as a man of few words; although in the first games, Red and Green/Blue, this was because he was the player character and was designed for the player to project onto, in later games where he appears he often seems selectively mute, which I've seen many autistic Pokemon fans run with, many even drawing fanart of him communicating using sign language. 

I'm going to talk about a game that's a bit closer to home, though - literally. 

The fifth generation of Pokemon games, Black and White and Black 2 and White 2, take place in a region called Unova, which is loosely based on my home region of the greater New York City metropolitan area. The first games to not be based on a region of Japan, Black and White introduced a number of new features and were more experimental than probably every other Pokemon game to date, and as such they were received with mixed reviews from fans at the time but have largely grown to be cult classics in the fandom since. Their greatest strength was that they had more emphasis on the story than games past and provided more engaging characters to interact with, one of whom is widely regarded as one of the most beloved characters in the franchise altogether, if the amount of fan content is anything to go by. 

And said beloved character is very much autistic-coded.

In fact, Black and White actually have at least two autistic-coded characters, and interestingly they can actually be contrasted with each other in terms of family experience. You'll definitely interact with the first one, since he plays a major role in the plot, and depending on what you enjoy challenging in the postgame you might bump into the second one if you're good enough at the game. Let's take this one at a time here.

N as he appears in Black and
White 2. (Image description:
a light-skinned young man
with long green hair and a
gentle smile glances sideways
at something or other, his
cap in his hands.)

The first one is, of course, the beloved one, who introduces himself to you as just N. N is short for Natural Harmonia Gropius, his name referencing both his love of math and of the natural world - despite being human, he's capable of talking to and understanding the speech of Pokemon, having been raised by them as a small child before being adopted by his foster father (who may be his biological father and temporarily abandoned him only to re-adopt him as part of a greater plan, but this is never stated). N initially believes that people and Pokemon should be separated, as he's been raised to believe this since the only Pokemon he was allowed to interact with by his father were Pokemon abused by their trainers, and he's installed as the puppet leader of a PETA-like group named Team Plasma who state that their goal is to get everyone to release their Pokemon and make this a reality. The truth of it all is that the real leader of Team Plasma is N's father, Ghetsis, who just wants to be the only person with Pokemon and plans to take over first the Unova region and later the world, and he revels in his cruelty. The player eventually defeats Ghetsis, and N goes off on a two-year journey to do some soul-searching as his entire world has just come crashing down around him, but he returns just in time to help defeat Ghetsis during his second attempt to take over Unova in Black 2 and White 2. Now more worldly and understanding the connection between people and Pokemon, he's ultimately completed a more compelling character arc than...pretty much any character in the series to date, and players adore him for his depth of character compared to other characters, antagonists or not. (A large number of players also adore him for his looks, but that's its own thing.) 

To many fans of the series, N reads as autistic, and I'm wont to agree with them - although a lot of his lack of social skills comes from the fact that his father essentially kept him socially isolated for his entire childhood, he still has noted autistic conversation traits - he talks very fast, for one. His text will move at the fastest possible speed, and if you set the game text to go as fast as it can he actually will still talk even faster (which was programmed just for him). He has the stereotypical autistic math skills that not all of us have in real life, sure, but his actual hyperfixation of choice is Ferris wheels, and he'll happily tell the player how beautiful he finds them, even confessing his role as the King of Team Plasma to you when you're on a Ferris wheel with him. He also very firmly believes that he's doing the right thing, and his animal empathy - a common trait many autistic people report having - allows him to bond easily with Pokemon around him and ask for their support as his friends. Ultimately, his worldview is shattered when his father's true motives are revealed, and he proves to be an anti-villain, his father's betrayal of him and his compassion for Pokemon motivating him to stand with the player against Ghetsis.

Ghetsis, it should be noted, has not been a very good father. In fact, he's an abusive parent, keeping his son locked away from society save for two adoptive older sisters, shaping his behavior by infantilizing him and keeping him in a room filled with child-like things with his Pokemon, and grooming him to be a puppet ruler who genuinely believes in Team Plasma's stated motives whilst Ghetsis machinates in the back and prepares to take over. In the end, Ghetsis actually turns out to despise his child, referring to him in the climaxes of both Black and White and Black 2 and White 2 as "a freak without a human heart," which resonates with a lot of autistic players - how many of us have been told we weren't human enough, or we weren't being human correctly? It stings, and many of us have even heard it from our own parents or other people we love, which brings us in particular to empathize with N even more as he's already processing his father's own betrayal and childhood abuse. It's no wonder that N goes off on a journey for two years after the events of the first games - he needs to get away and see new places and experience the world on his own terms, not those of his abusive father. When he returns in the sequel games, he's still the same gentle young man he was in the first games - and is certainly still somewhat naive in some respects - but he's definitely far more mature and is willing to stand up to his father directly. 

The second autistic-coded character has a much better relationship with his family, or at least the family member of his we see in the game. (In fact, they're extremely close with each other and have impeccable teamwork - because they're twin siblings.) He's also the character I see the most of myself in out of every character in the entire franchise, except for the fact that I don't resemble a weird Muppet.

A screenshot of Emmet from the Pokemon anime.
(Image description: weird train Muppet with huge
sideburns beams delightedly at something or other
- okay, for real, this is a subway conductor in an
elaborate take on a Japanese railway employee
uniform with large pointed sideburns and a
face drawn in a way that resembles a Muppet.)

This is Emmet. He likes double battles. He likes combinations of two Pokemon. And he likes winning more than anything else.

He also likes infodumping, oversharing as a method of introduction to other people, and scripting when he's talking to people he doesn't know (probably in an attempt to prevent said oversharing, but it doesn't seem to work). Emmet and his brother Ingo (their names respectively are derived from 'outbound' and 'inbound' and in Japanese are directly this - Ingo is Nobori and Emmet is Kudari) run Unova's battle facility, the Battle Subway, which is an optional feature you can challenge in both Black and White and their sequels and is, like other battle facilities, usually recommended for postgame because taking these on generally requires you to have a deeper understanding of the game. Emmet is in charge of double battles specifically, and you'll also eventually run into him if you do multi battles, where he'll team up with Ingo against you and your teammate. 

I know, there's a very obvious point I can make here: he works with trains. He and his brother run the Unova MTA. There's a big stereotype with autistic people and trains that actually does have a basis, and it's actually a stereotype I can occasionally fall into much to my chagrin (I love historical steam locomotives - and one electric locomotive called the GG1 - and am my family's go-to for, ironically, navigating the New York City subway system because I took to it like a fish takes to water). So before we get into the actual autistic-coded behavior, I just need to get this out of the way. Yes, he's a subway conductor who does pointing and calling and whose signature Pokemon is a nearly 200-lb 7-foot long levitating electric eel that isn't unlike the third rail that powers the actual subway. Anyway. Moving on now.

In both the games and the Pokemon Special manga (which isn't canon to the games), Emmet is blunt and direct, contrasted with his older twin brother Ingo's more dramatic way of speaking, and in the manga especially this leads to him saying things he probably shouldn't:

Here Emmet bluntly tells White (the stand-in for the female player character in the games) that her inability to win battles is helping develop the Battle Subway as a facility by describing her as "an example of a trainer who gets overwhelmed and loses every single match." The smile on his face clearly indicates that he doesn't realize he shouldn't be saying it this directly.

His overeager tendencies when it comes to battling can be off-putting on top of that, and he spends a lot of the manga actually getting yanked around by the collar by Ingo whenever he gets too overzealous about it. Besides the image above, here's a few more:

A collection of images of Emmet being yanked by the giant collar on his coat by his twin brother that I've curated. In nearly every image Emmet seems almost oblivious to the fact that he's about to be pulled away.

For whatever reason, the manga artists decided to give him this big arm-swinging walk, which is weirdly similar to my own (though mine is on a smaller scale) - I recently actually identified it as a sort of stim I have, which only adds to Emmet's lack of neurotypicality. 

The thing that stands out to me here is that Emmet is more or less allowed to be autistic. Ingo's there to make sure he doesn't unintentionally make anyone uncomfortable and lets him know when he's done so, but otherwise he's just allowed to exist as himself, and he has an overall supportive and positive relationship with his twin brother that especially shows itself in their seamless teamwork when they're battling together. It's actually a notable contrast with N, whose autistic traits are actively shamed by his own father, who refers to him as a "freak" for existing the way he does. In fact, this is actually shown very clearly - although we don't see a backstory for the twins, the fact that Emmet is completely comfortable with himself indicates that he probably grew up in a more supportive environment and was allowed to be his weird self, as opposed to N, who was shaped and groomed into an image Ghetsis wanted and was abused and forced into compliance for someone else's goals - not unlike what ABA therapy does to those of us who are unfortunate enough to go through it. The fact that they appear in the same games makes it especially interesting. I don't necessarily think their autistic coding was intentional, and I don't think they were intended to contrast each other, but it happened that way for people like myself - autistic people looking for representation - to go and find it. 

And you know what? Even when it's not intentional, it means a lot to a lot of autistic people to see ourselves in human characters. So often the characters most like us are aliens or robots, or otherwise non-human creatures, so every time a human character reads as autistic - whether they're canonically so or not - it makes us feel more seen. Pokemon Black and White released in 2010, with their sequel games arriving in 2012, and since then we've actually had many strides in positive autistic representation in media - the series Everything's Going To Be Okay (featuring an autistic actress playing an autistic character!) and Entrapta in the reboot of She-Ra being confirmed to be canonically autistic are two examples, and ironically the outcry against Sia's film Music even coming from non-autistic people technically counts as a third because it means we're getting there and our voices are being heard more. That said, it's both fun and deeply comforting to look back at characters - often dearly beloved characters - and see that we were there all along, if not by name. 

And we always will be.

Friday, January 1, 2021

In 2021, Let's Stop Burying Our Trauma And Start Dealing With It

 I don't think I really need to say it, but 2020 was not a good year for anyone on earth. Humanity experienced a collective trauma due to years and years of negligence and poor policies coming to a head, and we're still in the thick of it now. As someone who's experienced trauma (like, unfortunately, most autistic people have), there's some very important advice I need to give you all right now.

Talk about it.

For whatever reason, we're taught to hide and suppress our trauma. We're told to bury it and carry on as usual; my biggest gripe with "positivity" culture is that it doesn't allow space for people to feel and process negative emotions, which we all have! If you're telling people that they can only have "good vibes only!" and that they need to practice gratitude, you're also telling them they can't be upset when bad things happen in their lives, and that's not right. That is absolutely not the right attitude to deal with a collective trauma like a pandemic.

Many, many people are currently suffering from mental illness without access to treatment. I have OCD and I often wonder how many people realized due to the pandemic that they have a contamination or a harm subset for the first time and now have no resources. The necessary isolation required to save lives has a side effect of depression. People like myself, who are following the rules, are dealing with a lot of anger over those who flout the regulations and make things go on longer and sicken and kill others by being flippant. Essential employees - medical workers, grocery store employees, mail carriers, and many others - are putting themselves at risk every day for not enough pay, and many of them are shell-shocked. Some have even committed suicide. 

This is not the time to sweep this under the rug. This has affected everyone on earth.

A collective trauma can be difficult to comprehend. Other events in the past, such as the Shoah or slavery, traumatized populations on such a massive scale that the descendants of those involved have possibly inherited trauma. Historically, our understanding of mental health was not where it is today, and since we have the knowledge we now have we need to use it responsibly. We cannot be silent about what we've experienced this past year and will continue experiencing in 2021. 

I'm very open about what happened to me in the past for a number of reasons, even though it was very personal. I sincerely hope that no one else experiences a friendship like the one I endured, or the bullying I survived as a child, and speaking about those experiences increases awareness of how to handle them. More importantly on a personal level, however, is that talking about my trauma actually helps me heal from it. If I bring it up in conversation, it's not me being stuck on my past and reliving things - it's me being open about what happened to me and showing that I've actually come to terms with it. I prefer to own my past and my trauma rather than hide it or bury it away. It's mine, I survived it, and I'm empowered by my survival. I came out of it a changed person, but we all do. In my case, surviving the things I did actually turned me into an advocate for disability and mental health issues because I realized through my experiences that things needed to improve. 

If we want to end the cycle of passing trauma on this way, we need to face ours directly and deal with it, and the best way to do that is by being open about it. I've accepted that I had a friend attempt to use me as a replacement goldfish for her deceased mother and repeatedly forced me into situations I was uncomfortable with to meet her own emotional needs instead of going to therapy. It's what happened to me. There's no reason for me to hide this. Sure, I'm not going to tell people about it when we first meet, but people who know me well and know I experienced this usually understand that if I mention it, it's because it's relevant to the conversation and isn't me just harping on my past or being stuck on something that ended ten years ago. I just don't see a reason to keep suppressing it. It's unhealthy to do that. Sometimes, to move on, you need to stop burying things and accept that they're a part of you. 

I'm anticipating a lot of people burying their trauma from the pandemic, and I'm not looking forward to what that's going to do to them internally. So if you see this, I want you to promise me something: that you won't hide how difficult this has been for you, and you won't be afraid or ashamed to ask for help if you need it. Nothing can replace a good therapist, but accepting that things happened to you instead of running away from it is a good place to start. Suppressing it does nothing but make you more unstable.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Wake-Up Slap

(Yes, the title of this post is a Pokemon move. That's been my biggest survival tactic during quarantine right now.)

The COVID-19 pandemic is roughly nine months old in my part of the world right now. Because I've been essentially prevented from going anywhere or doing anything that isn't my day job, I've been thinking a lot about myself and what sort of person I currently am and who I'd like to be in the future. The problem with doing this is that you realize a lot of things you dislike about yourself and you want to work on, and that can be painful at times as you come to terms with yourself.

I ended up realizing I have a very toxic trait - I struggled to maintain friendships growing up, and so I turned myself into the 'helpful' friend to keep from being disposable. I was the one who would help mediate interpersonal issues by running between sparring friend groups, who would assist with assignments and homework, and who would loan some spare change at lunch. This eventually led to my usual process of doing entire group projects by myself because the teachers noticed and would always pair me with kids who needed help and wouldn't pull their own weight because they knew they could lean on me. (This is relevant now with stay-at-home orders and mask-wearing, too.)

Ultimately, despite all of that, I was still disposable and had trouble making friends at all, so I got very protective of the few friends I did manage to maintain. I feel my friends' problems very intensely (a trait common in autistic people) and I want to help as many people as possible, especially the ones I care the most about. This unfortunately landed me in an abusive friendship that lasted for about three years of my undergraduate life, which you can read about here. By trying desperately to help other people with their problems, I was both ignoring my own issues and spreading myself woefully thin. I studied military history in undergrad and yet I couldn't see that I had overextended myself. 

It actually took a specific incident this year to make me realize what I had done and what a detriment to myself it was. I had several friends I was trying to help at once with various issues, and suddenly on top of that a 13-year-old child too young to be in the Autistic Gaming Initiative server joined and attempted to latch onto me. When he told me within days of meeting me that he was afraid I would die, I wasn't having it. Attempts to grey rock him over the next few weeks and reprimanding his public behavior in the server weren't enough, and when he didn't have an answer when I asked him why he was so desperate to have my approval and validation in particular, I removed him from the server. The stress the situation caused me was a lot more than it should have been, but I'd already had an abuser and his clingy behavior reminded me of hers. I had to prioritize myself and remove myself from the situation, which I did by booting the child from the server and promptly raising the age limit to join. I was lucky in that I had an amazing team of moderators to help me out with dealing with it - AGI's had a few growing pains this year and my mods have helped us see it through spectacularly - but this shouldn't have happened in the first place, because someone should have taught this child not to seek validation from random adults on the internet and never did. I was 18 years old the year he was born, raised in an era with an emphasis on internet safety. Clearly he wasn't taught what I was. 

I was incredibly numb and overwhelmed for a while after that. I had to step back from a lot of other things because I realized that I couldn't help with them in the state I was currently in. And amazingly, when I did so...I became more helpful when I did step in and assist people. I was no longer overextended all over the map, but concentrated in specific areas that needed reinforcements, and I started to see small improvements. I had more tolerance for people again. I had an increased capacity to listen and stay calm. I got better at saying I couldn't help with certain things instead of trying to do it without the skills I needed and making things worse. I started removing myself from situations where I would be more detrimental than helpful because of my own stress levels and issues. This somehow began to make me feel lighter - normally I was the sort to throw myself into work to avoid dealing with my own problems, but this gave me the time to address them instead and look at myself more clearly and in doing so begin to lift the actual burdens I've carried for so long off my (admittedly bad) back. 

Hopefully nobody has a wake-up call that reminds them of an abuser in their past, but I cannot stress enough the importance of actually going and looking introspectively at yourself. You don't have to be harsh or overly-critical when you do it, but it's good to identify traits and things you can improve on. I've found that this helps me far more than meditation or so-called mindfulness for mental health: as an OCD sufferer, it's difficult to meditate without intrusive thoughts worming their way in, so keeping myself actively busy is a lot more effective. Improving myself has started to do things regarding my self-image and self-worth that meditation and mindfulness could not, because instead of just trying to clear my head and sink into toxic positivity I'm allowing myself to feel fully and accept all of myself instead.

And you know what? I actually haven't had a dream about my abuser since June, probably the longest streak I've ever had since getting out of that friendship. There's something to be said for that.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Just Let Me Be Me

 "What's wrong with that baby?" was the first microaggression I heard. I was an infant.

I have no memory of this, of course, but my mom does. We were at a parent-child class of some sort, and there was some form of group singing at one point. Being an undiagnosed autistic child, I started crying, likely because it was too loud and too overwhelming for my tiny infant brain. Another parent snidely made the comment, and my mom overheard it and was furious. My dad somehow prevented her from going after the parent, but they both remembered it and only told me about it as an adult, well after I was finally diagnosed at age 20.

I've been thinking about it a lot lately. When you're not able to go out much because of a pandemic, you have more time to think about things. I've become very introspective in recent months because of the shelter-in-place situation New Jersey has been in since March - without the wonders of NYC to distract me and give me endless places and things to explore, my brain has decided to explore itself. Unfortunately, I haven't exactly liked a lot of the things I've found in there. I've identified a very unhealthy habit of mine that actually is why I ended up in an emotionally abusive friendship in undergrad, started challenging my body issues caused by my thyroid, and remembered a lot of things I wish I hadn't from the worst time in my life (which was, as the first part of this sentence implies, my undergraduate career). The common thread that I've found is that people have consistently refused to accept me as I am and have always attempted to change me, including fundamental aspects of who I am as a person.

And it started in infancy, as that parent's comment proves.

I'm not entirely sure I can remember a time when I was allowed to just exist as I was. As soon as I was able to form memories, I was being criticized for...being. I was incredibly lucky that my parents never tried to pathologize me for how I played and interacted with my toys (or for the fact that three-year-old me was reading adult medical encyclopedias and books about dinosaurs). I didn't watch the same shows as my nursery school peers. I was watching documentaries on TLC back when they actually showed documentaries instead of exploiting people for being different. I drew Jupiter and Voyager 1 on the back of a preschool assignment once. I knew already that I was starkly different from my peers, and already they were asking questions. I just told them the truth: I liked these things, and that was okay. In preschool, kids don't really care that much. They just take things at face value. But I could tell adults thought I was weird for not being a normal preschooler. 

By the time I was in elementary school, the differences were becoming more and more pronounced. In kindergarten, we were asked to list parts of the body on a chart. The other kids listed external items. I listed internal organs and blood cell types. I was five. My parents remember this fondly, because they were instantly able to pick out which chart I made. I often think back on this as a moment when it was obvious I was autistic and nobody diagnosed me. There are a lot of those moments in my life, but this one stands out to me the most because of my young age. 

Kindergarten is when the bullying started, although it was lower-key at first because five-year-olds don't really think much of differences. There were still a few kids who thought it was okay to start being mean at that point, but for the most part they were shrugged off. This number of children increased until by 3rd grade people were beginning to ostracize me and publicly shame me for liking the things I liked. I still had friends, but it was becoming more obvious that I really wasn't fitting into the suburban town I grew up in. I talked funny, walked funny, liked weird things, and didn't act like the other kids. Occasionally, teachers attempted to intervene, but that didn't seem to be much of a deterrent, and it continued in 4th and 5th grade. 

Middle school was, of course, the worst of it. Between the ages of 11 and 14, I went through a period where all my elementary school friends left me for greener pastures, i.e. normal friends they'd actually be okay with being seen around. I had few, if any, friends at all during this time. I took my solace in playing video games at home alone - online gaming was still in its infancy at that time - and writing fanfiction online. I fortunately met internet friends through the latter that I'm still friends with now, which is honestly amazing to me. That probably was what kept me going at a time when I was intensely isolated from my peers.

People were very cruel to me in middle school. This was when I became the ostracized 'other' that no one wanted to touch or even be seen in association with. I became the joke spouse in games of MASH. In a digital imaging class I took in 8th grade, some kids got into the photo files of all the students in the class and edited the photos of people they didn't like - I was one of them. I was frequently told I was ugly (often specifically that I "looked like a dog," a really pathetic insult because dogs are cute). I went to a guidance counselor, who told me the kids making fun of me were "jealous" of me. I could find nothing they were jealous of. I knew it was because I chose to exist as myself. 

I wasn't wearing what the other kids were at the time. I dressed for comfort in oversized t-shirts and jeans because I needed things to be loose-fitting. I didn't know this was because I was autistic yet, but I did know it felt better. I was also intensely self-conscious and wanted to vanish into my clothes at a time when fashion was very showy and revealing. Between 2002 and 2006 or so, very low-waisted trousers were in fashion, and these were frequently paired with babydoll t-shirts and tops that were intentionally sized very small. I didn't want anyone seeing my midriff at all, so I went with the oversized shirts and normal-waisted jeans instead. I didn't wear makeup, either, which was another sensory issue that I didn't realize until far later. These were all things people tried to change about me, with even my parents attempting to get me to be more fashionable - albeit so I wouldn't be made fun of, which they apologized for later when I was diagnosed and they realized I had been dressing for my sensory needs. 

At this point in my life, I was apparently mature enough for people to start telling me not to be who I was. I frequently received subtle messages that I was too much. I was too excitable, too passionate about the things I liked (which at this point in my life were anime and video games - it was my weeaboo phase), too different. At this time I likely began to internalize the idea that I wasn't good at being a girl because I wasn't performing femininity like my female peers and was happy to be healthily androgynous. I never questioned my gender identity, but I was one of those people where the phrase "I'm not like other girls" was actually true - I didn't ever say it to feel special or appeal to boys, but I somehow knew I really wasn't like the other suburban girls I went to school with, who wore top fashion brands and knew how to navigate the social landscape.

High school was more of the same - my bullies were all male at this point, which is why to this day, at age 31, I haven't attempted to date. I had it completely hammered into me that I was repulsive, an "other," ugly - not someone anyone would want to be with. My interests were repeatedly shamed as "stupid." I wasn't even allowed by my peers to like things. I got lucky in that my high school had an anime club and I made friends there who are to this day some of my best friends, so I was no longer alone off the internet, but it was still very clear that the school population at large rejected my presence and existence. I wasn't allowed to be myself without fear of derision. I probably started properly masking around this time, although I still permitted myself to be incredibly passionate about things, which led to me making some solid connections with my history teachers, at least one of whom suggested I go into professorial work/academia. (She knows I'm an archivist now. I made sure to let her know.) Ironically, despite all of the bullying for existing and daring to passionately like things, I developed my most enduring loves during this time - history (military history was an early specialty and still is, but by my final year of high school the seeds had been planted for the type of history I currently devote myself to researching) and baseball. I also developed my habit of constantly wearing hats because we were allowed to wear hats in high school, and whilst part of it was likely a sensory thing to help me remove brightness I also really liked looking like a street urchin or, if I was wearing baseball stuff, supporting the teams I loved. I was beginning to develop a sort of visual identity, but it wasn't a very effective one because I didn't know how to coordinate things yet or really style myself. But it wasn't in fashion, and so I was still ostracized except by my friends, and I was still told I was ugly and the things I liked were stupid. I longed to just exist without criticism, but that seemed impossible. 

I thought I'd get a fresh start in undergrad. I went to Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania because they offered a minor in American Civil War Era Studies, which I couldn't get anywhere else. I figured I could find people there who cared about history as much as I did and it would be good. Instead, the Red Sox, one of my two main baseball teams, proceeded to make the playoffs and win the World Series within my first two and a half months of being away at school, so my baseball fandom exploded and everyone on my floor my freshman year thought I was really weird. I was just really excited to have something good happen to me whilst I was away from my family for the first time, because I was already having trouble making friends as it was, but it was evident to the entire floor that I was the "strange baseball girl" who didn't go to frat parties and stayed cooped up in her room a lot of the time because she didn't have anyone to do things with. I was even afraid to use the communal showers because I knew people on my floor talked behind my back, and given my experiences thus far in my life I had reason to be prepared for people to be mean to me or take my keys whilst I was in there and essentially lock me out of my room. (This never happened.) Again, I turned to the internet for my social life, and again, I made lifelong friends there, this time because of baseball. I've had the great fortune to meet many of my baseball friends in real life, and I'm so lucky. They helped carry me through what would become the worst period of my life.

I managed to make a real-life friend in one of my history classes because we both went to an anime convention in D.C. called Katsucon. We both liked sports anime, so we hit it off very well, and before long I was added to her friend group. We created a fake university for all our favorite sports anime characters to attend together and made Livejournal accounts for them to interact. By all accounts, things seemed good. During the first semester of my sophomore year, we decided to room together the next year. At the time, I was living alone in a Civil War-themed house (this would become helpful in April 2009), and she was living across the street. We went on a lot of baseball trips and other 'adventures' together, but as winter approached, her mental health began to take a turn for the worse.

In January 2008, my college roommate lost her mother to cancer. They had been very close, so it was an especially devastating blow for her. I found out later just how close they had been, but for now, I figured it was best to be a good friend and support her as much as I could. She began to lean more and more on me for support, texting me constantly, and by Thanksgiving 2008 I felt like if I didn't respond quickly enough and stay up late as she texted me that she would die and I would have blood on my hands. I was intensely depressed over the holiday break. I didn't know what to do. She continued to force her emotional needs on me more and more, and I continued to take them on because I was desperate to have a real-life friend at school. By February 2009, I was evidently at my breaking point, because that was when obsessive-compulsive disorder finally found an opening.

I'd struggled with undiagnosed OCD for most of my life, too. I was pretty sure it was OCD by the time I was in high school because I frequently would convince myself I had managed to poison myself in chemistry class and would spend a significant amount of time after school looking up fatal doses of chemicals I'd worked with. I instinctively knew this was OCD but never really brought it up with anyone. I didn't know how to. Somehow, I more or less managed to keep it at bay until a night in February 2009. My brain suggested that because I was trying to be a good friend and taking on all this emotional labor that I must be a lesbian because I wouldn't have done that if I didn't have romantic feelings for my college roommate. I was punched in the brain by what is known as Sexual Orientation OCD, wherein sufferers obsess over what their orientation actually is. This affects people regardless of their actual orientation and is different from an actual crisis of sexuality in that the obsession is over whether or not one is or isn't a particular orientation instead of what would happen if they did turn out to be one or the other. I logically knew I wasn't a lesbian because I'd felt attraction to men throughout my life (although nothing ever came of it because the vast majority were fictional characters and no men at my high school would have wanted to be seen with me anyway, not that I ever liked them) and I'd never doubted this or felt compelled to perform heterosexuality when I didn't feel it, and I certainly didn't have romantic feelings for my friend (who wasn't even my roommate yet). But my brain continued to insist, and before long all I could think about from the moment I woke up to the moment I went to bed was whether or not I had been gay all along and not realized it, despite my very obvious crush on a baseball player that was happening simultaneously. 

I had a temporary reprieve from this in April 2009, when I found a six-week-old kitten and smuggled him into my dorm room for a week, hence why having no roommate at the time was helpful. He gave me something else to focus on for a while and enabled me to survive the semester. My parents came to visit me for my birthday and picked the kitten up, and then I went home after finals and, after a bit of work, got the diagnoses that I needed - I was autistic, I had social anxiety, and I had OCD. I went on Zoloft for the OCD, which incidentally helped with the anxiety as well, and I began the long road to recovery. But even here, old patterns reemerged - the psychiatrist who was prescribing my Zoloft repeatedly insisted I try dressing more femininely and wearing makeup to boost my confidence, both things my mom, who typically accompanied me to the appointments, and I explained were frequently sensory issues for me. Once again, here was someone telling me who I had to be instead of who I was because I wasn't "doing it right." I just wanted to be me, not who someone else wanted me to be.

This would, unfortunately, come to define my time between fall 2009 and spring 2011. 

My clingy friend officially became my college roommate during that time. In retrospect, I shouldn't have continued with this, because I already knew things were bad and had the potential to get worse. But I didn't feel like I could get out, and I thought if I left she would kill herself, so I stayed in the friendship, which proceeded to get more and more obsessive to an unhealthy degree. My college roommate would get jealous if I was talking to my internet friends when she was there with me, wanted my undivided attention if I wasn't doing schoolwork, and would break down over the slightest things that I couldn't predict. She got physically clingy, often hugging me and holding my hand in public despite the OCD and autism that she was told repeatedly about, refusing to respect any boundaries I had. Her actions caused me frequent sensory issues and OCD spikes. She insisted on sharing a bed, which made me incredibly uncomfortable because of both of these issues, as well. I eventually found out throughout this time that she and her mother's relationship was, to say the least, close in a very unhealthy way:

  • They shared a bed frequently, even when my college roommate was a teenager and adult
  • Her mother would visit her at Gettysburg every weekend, driving out five hours from Long Island, even when dealing with cancer treatment
  • She referred to her mother as 'Aniki,' which actually means 'older brother' in Japanese; this was a reference to a Prince of Tennis character but was still really unusual
  • Her mother once got confused and disappointed because she wanted to be alone with her then-boyfriend on a date in high school
  • They frequently wore matching clothing, again, even when my roommate was an adult
  • Most importantly, there were no boundaries between parent and child that should have been there, and they acted more like co-dependent best friends than a parent and offspring

It turns out there's actually a name for this, and it's called covert or emotional incest. I didn't know the term at the time, but I knew it wasn't normal. I was lucky to grow up in a home with two emotionally and mentally healthy parents who established normal boundaries with their children, so I had a good idea of what was supposed to happen and what wasn't. This wasn't supposed to happen at all. This wasn't right. 

I'm not sure exactly when I realized I was being used as a replacement goldfish to fill the void left behind when her mother died, but it was fairly early in the Bad Times of the friendship. I felt like if I left it would be my fault if she died, and she had made herself so emotionally reliant on me that I couldn't separate myself easily. As we lived together for the final two years of my undergraduate career, I became more and more depressed because if I did things differently than her mother would have, I was sharply criticized. I was frequently removed from the kitchen for cooking differently. I was blunt and direct - autistic traits that usually benefit me in relationships because I'm honest - instead of softening the blow. One time I explained that clinging to people pushes them away and she broke down sobbing. She legitimately didn't know it wasn't normal. More and more, despite her insistence that she loved me for me and cared about me and my friendship, I felt like I couldn't actually be myself in the friendship at all, and I felt suffocated and like a shell of myself. I wasn't allowed to be myself here. I was only allowed to be a projection that my college roommate saw of her mother. I still have some letters she wrote me, and in one of them she informs me that "I remind everyone of Mom." I didn't want to remind anyone of her mother, especially not her. I wanted to be me.

In 2011, I graduated from Gettysburg College with my history degree and Civil War Era Studies minor and returned home to New Jersey, where I began the process of weaning my college roommate off of my constant presence. By Thanksgiving of that year, we weren't speaking anymore. I was free of her, at least physically. From time to time, she would still attempt to contact me - and still does if I comment on a mutual college friend's Facebook posts, because I don't have her blocked. I intentionally never blocked her because I always want her to see how happy I am without her in my life if she comes looking for me. I don't know if this has any effect, because she always acts like we were just "fighting a lot" at the end. The reality of it is that she emotionally abused me for almost three years and can't bring herself to realize or admit how much she damaged me. A lot of the psychological issues I've been facing in shelter-in-place have to do with her and what she did to me. She, like all the others, made me feel like I couldn't be accepted as I was and that I had to change to be lovable. She made me feel like I was impossible to live with. I still apologize frequently to my current roommate that she has to live with me, to which she invariably responds that I'm perfectly fine to live with and that my college roommate was a terrible person for me to be around. Abuse does that to your brain. 

I've spent the past nine years more or less coming to terms with the fact that I'm not a bad person. Most of my life and my interactions outside of my family have made me feel like I have to be, because very few people even tolerated my presence, let alone liked me. Nearly everyone I had come into contact with up until that point had criticized me, told me I was wrong in some way for existing as I was or doing the things I did, or flat-out treated me badly for being myself and liking things. I still struggle with a lot of it and mask intensely until I really trust people - the lone exception is on the internet, where I can just be myself and make friends as me. As mentioned above, I haven't dated because I'm so afraid of instant rejection because of how my male peers treated me, but it's also because there could be an initial acceptance followed by an attempt to shape me into someone else or treat me badly because I wasn't who they projected onto me, like my college roommate did. She made me feel unlovable as me. I even felt criticisms - even valid ones - from friends as rejections of myself, because up until that point in my life they always had been. I was bad to so many people, and I hadn't even done anything except exist.

I've been spending a lot of my time lately coming to terms with just how much of my life has been spent being criticized by other people for harmless things, like how I do certain activities, what I enjoy in my spare time, or even just how I look or exist. It explains why I took until my late 20s to start dressing more fashionably, because I was finally ready to stop hiding myself. It explains why I'm so afraid of men my own age, who rarely noticed me anyway because I was hiding in the first place. It explains why I'm afraid that every mistake is a catastrophic failure that will lead to rejection or being fired or being verbally berated - in the past, it often was. I simply wasn't allowed by other people to be myself without judgment, and it was all I wanted from others - really, a simple thing to ask of the people around you, but something I never received outside of my family, who I often assumed were obligated to love and accept me just because I was related to them. (It turns out they genuinely care about me, but when everyone else outside of your family treats you like that, you start to wonder.) 

It took me a long time to write this post once I had the revelation about it. I knew it would bring up a lot of old traumas and reopen some old wounds, and I've spent a good three hours just sitting here with it right now penning it because I have to keep stopping to process everything and let the emotions flow through me. It's very difficult to be sitting here at age 31 and know logically that you're not a bad, unlovable, ugly person but still fear desperately that you must be somehow and that everyone who cares about you will eventually realize this and leave you like all the others did. It's exhausting to live with it every day. I sincerely hope that by writing it down and leaving it out here in the open instead of maintaining it within myself that I'll be able to begin to heal from it. 

I just want to be me without being told not to be. Surely that isn't too much to ask.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Targeting Autism 2019 Conference Recap

So I went back to Illinois for round two.

I had the honor to speak at the Targeting Autism conference's 2019 iteration this past Friday, and I might have enjoyed it even more than I did the first time I spoke. You can read about my first-ever trip to Illinois here, where I discovered that Springfield shuts down early, people are almost scarily polite, and you can stand in the middle of the street at rush hour and not get hit by a car. This time, we didn't have to leave Chicagoland because the conference was at Dominican University, which is a little Catholic university in Oak Park that quite literally was designed to look like a medieval monastery. I loved the way the campus looked, mostly because I joke that I'm the reincarnation of a 13th century monk who was in charge of the monastery library and drew really weird marginalia in all the books I copied over.
Dominican University, which looks like a medieval monastery where someone like me would have been sequestered away making illuminated manuscripts featuring knights fighting snails in the margins.
I arrived at the hotel the night before much earlier than I did the previous year because I didn't have to drive three hours to get to it, and I was delighted to find that it opened in 1928 so I had basically walked into a Poirot novel when I had stepped into the lobby. Relieved to have only had to drive for about 25 minutes in suburbia instead of several hours in nothingness, I slept wonderfully in a fancy room that I felt like I wasn't rich enough to be sleeping in. The next morning, it was incredibly easy to roll out of bed, get ready, and head over to the conference because I wasn't half-dead.
A bed I probably didn't deserve but slept in anyway.

Once I was settled in at the conference with way too much bacon and eggs, I found my good friend Alyssa Huber and her friend Miranda, who were selling their neurodiversity jewelry and copies of Alyssa's documentary, and we proceeded to hang out whenever we weren't in panels watching other people speak. You can see Alyssa's video recap of the conference here:


There were a ton of incredible speakers on day one of the conference, most notably the legendary John Elder Robison, author of Look Me In The Eye,  and awesome folks we met last year, including Gyasi Burks-Abbott, who was on the group panel with me last year. Day two was equally stacked, with professional autistic Toastmaster Tom Iland, another fellow panelist from last year, Erin Miller, and Library Journal Mover and Shaker Renee Grassi. There was also discussion of how best to provide autistic services in the Muslim, Latinx, and African-American communities, which are really important things to bring up because these are clearly underserved populations (autism is still stereotyped as a "cisgender white boy" thing).

And then I spoke, too, and I guess I was okay.

Some weirdo who thinks she's funny. Photo by Alyssa Huber.

Here's the full video of my talk:

I really appreciate this conference for giving me a platform to voice the concerns of autistic self-advocates (and my own personal concerns, as well). As mentioned above, this was my second time speaking here, and I've found both times that the gathered attendees have been incredibly receptive and ready to learn. They all come into the conference with open minds, ready to receive new ideas and novel methods of helping their communities grow, and I have confidence that they're going to implement what they learned when they return to their homes and libraries. After I spoke, multiple attendees came up to me to inform me that they were now thinking differently about their own children and about autistic folks in their communities and in the world at large, so I was really happy to know people were listening and were taking what all the speakers were saying to heart!

Also, to everyone who complimented my art or told me I was funny: you're the best. I put a lot of work and effort into drawing and being funny, so it means the world to me every time you like my art or laugh at something I said. I'm sorry that every time I do a talk it morphs into a stand-up routine, but that's the best method for me to get things across, I think, so I'm just relieved when you all appreciate it and then still tell me that despite all my jokes and wisecracks you still learned something in between it all. Thank you all for being an amazing audience!

After we were all done for the day, Alyssa and I recorded a message to the Autistic Gaming Initiative team and server at large, with help from Miranda:

My contributions to this video mostly consist of me mugging, but they're contributions nonetheless.

Other things I got to do in Illinois during the time I was there include:
  • Portillo's being delivered to me via DoorDash!
  •  Seeing Chicago in person for the first time, even though I didn't get to spend too much time in the city proper!

  •  Messing around with optics with the Bean!

  •  More Portillo's, this time in an actual Portillo's restaurant!
  •  Riding on L trains!

  •  Finding a portrait of myself as a child painted in Oak Park...?
  •  Getting stuck at the airport for almost 8 hours because my 11:30 am flight out of O'Hare was delayed until 7 pm! Wait...what?
  •  Getting some great sunset and moonrise photos to make up for having to wait 8 hours doing nothing!

All in all - great conference, even better people, and overall a wonderful experience except for the part where United decided I needed to spend eight hours hanging out in the airport. Definitely looking forward to whatever happens with the conference next year - and more than definitely interested in going back once more! 

Monday, December 10, 2018

Could You Just Love Me Like This?

When you're autistic, you find that a lot of people think it's okay to criticize you for existing as yourself. Even when you do things right, you'll often be criticized because you didn't do them the way they wanted you to. And if you're like me and you're good at passing and get things right most of the time, for some reason your failures get amplified to some people. As a result, any unprompted criticism I receive now feels incredibly intense even if it's not meant to be so.

A lot of people are simply just sharing their feelings - which isn't a bad thing! - or offering advice, but when a person is trying as hard as they can just to stay level and exist in a society not meant for them, it hurts. I've always been sensitive to criticism, likely because in my life it's mostly come from judgmental people questioning my way of being. I'm so used to people criticizing me for existing that any time someone says they want to talk with me I'm flooded with anxiety and can't function because it automatically makes my brain think they're going to toss me out. I've had enough friends drop me in the past that my brain's default reaction to doing something "bad" is that I'm going to lose a friend, be fired, or something else of that ilk. I end up living in a near-constant state of anxiety, worrying daily that I'm going to ruin everything good in my life by being myself.

I saw a poem by Hollie Holden recently making the rounds on the internet that hit me particularly hard. It's about body positivity, but the final line just keeps popping into my head lately: "Could you just love me like this?"

This particular image of the poem was found here.

That line is exactly how I feel about myself with relation to the rest of the world. That's all I've ever wanted. It's such a simple thing, really, to just be loved as I am. That doesn't mean I'm not working on improving myself, of course, since I'm doing that every day and I'm always working on growing as a person, but I just want, more than anything, to just exist in a world where I'm not subject to criticism for existing. I want my family and friends - and anyone I encounter in life -  to know I'm always trying my best no matter what and that I appreciate them for loving me as I am, but that I'm not perfect and I'm going to make mistakes sometimes and to not hold me to a standard that's unrealistic for me (or any human being) to live up to. I actually do feel like as the so-called "responsible friend" that I'm not allowed to make as many mistakes as my other friends are, and it's actually really exhausting to have to be like that all the time. I need to be allowed to fail and be forgiven when I do so and apologize for it. Sometimes, I'm going to mess up, and I need to be allowed to do so in order to grow as a person. I need that room and holding me to an impossible standard where I'm not allowed to fail isn't going to get me there.

Please, could you just love me like this?

Monday, May 21, 2018

Targeting Autism 2018 Conference Recap

This past Thursday, I had the opportunity to speak on a panel of fellow autistic self-advocates at the Targeting Autism conference held by the Illinois State Library in Springfield, Illinois on the topic of autistic employment in libraries. It was an honor to share the stage with such amazing fellow autistics, and on this trip I got to meet some long-time friends, make some new ones, and learn a lot about both myself and the weirdly polite and courteous Midwest.

My mom, who wanted to see me speak, flew out with me the night before. Springfield, IL is a fairly small town despite its population of over 117,000 people (if the sign is anything to go by), so we couldn't fly directly into the state capital. Instead, we caught a flight from Newark to Chicago and then drove a rental car three hours south to Springfield. Due to a two-and-a-half hour delay caused by our plane arriving late from Miami, we got into Chicago later than planned and didn't arrive at the hotel until around 2 am, driving through three hours of what appeared to be nothing once we left the Chicagoland area. I'd never been to the Midwest before (except for a stopover at the Cincinnati airport once, which is in Kentucky), and I was pleased to discover you're allowed to drive 70 miles per hour on the highways but was nonplussed to find out that this was because there were no people or things around at all. At one point, my mom and I saw rows upon rows of blinking radio towers with no civilization nearby to tend to them. (These turned out to be windmills, but at night there was no way of knowing we were going through a wind farm so it was very unnerving.)

In summary, this is what I learned about the parts of Illinois that are between Chicagoland and Springfield:
  • Almost nobody lives there
  • The only fast food is Subway, with the occasional McDonalds
  • You can drive really fast, which is good because you probably don't want to be there very long
Eventually, we made it to the hotel, crashed immediately, and got up for the conference the next morning. It's probably worth noting that the hotel, built in 1973, is the tallest building in Springfield at 30 stories and ruins a really picturesque skyline:

After acknowledging that we were sleeping in an ugly flashlight for a few days, we settled in at the conference, and I got to speak about what it's like to be autistic and working in the library/archival field, which was great. I was on a panel with some other incredible people:

L-R: Charlie Remy, Gyasi Burks-Abbott, me, Erin Miller, Max the service dog (on the floor near the dais), and moderator Russ Bonanno. Photo by Alyssa Huber.

The panel fielded questions for two hours from both the moderator (Russ Bonanno) and the gathered attendees. As anyone who knows me will understand, I was incredibly pleased to know that everyone in attendance thought I was funny and had good comedic timing (I got a huge laugh with a joke about my student loans at one point and was in seventh heaven), so consider my stand-up career launched right now.

My view from the panel. That microphone allowed me to advocate for autistic people and simultaneously be funny and I'm forever grateful to it.
More importantly, however, we were given a forum to discuss the impact libraries have on autistic folks, why they're great places for us to work, and how the workplace can be more accessible to people like us. It was an amazing experience and I was so grateful for how accepting and receptive the audience was to us! Being listened to is honestly really wonderful given that autistic self-advocates are frequently talked over, so to hear so many people enjoyed listening to us and gained important insights from our words was very nice. A lot of attendees came up to us after our panel and thanked us and asked us more questions in private, and I made quite a few new contacts who I'll be more than happy to work with in the future!

The best part of the conference for me, however, was getting to meet a long-time friend and fellow advocate for the first time in person. One of my fellow Autistic Gaming Initiative streamers, Alyssa Huber, was there to screen her Asperger's documentary the following day, and we got to hang out for the first time in real life!

Alyssa on the left, me on the right. Photo by my mom.
This was a long time coming since we've been talking and advocating together for years and now stream together for AGI, so we were obviously very excited to finally meet. Alyssa is so kind and gracious in person and it was an honor to finally be in the same place!

After the first day of the conference, Mom and I went to investigate some of the Abraham Lincoln stuff in the neighborhood around the hotel. Lincoln lived in Springfield for many years and left when he became President, and his family home is still here. The neighborhood is conserved beautifully, which warmed my Civil War Era Studies minor heart.

The Lincoln family home. Lincoln, his wife Mary Todd, and their children lived here from 1844 until Lincoln left to become inaugurated as the President in early 1861.

We would go in the house the next afternoon, but for the time being, we just wanted to check out the area since we were running on very little sleep. Important things we found included a cat:

Lincoln, like me, apparently would collect cats and bring them home. Relatable content.
Springfield is a very quiet city, even during rush hour. On Thursday around 5-6 pm, when the area I'm from is overflowing with traffic and commuters, I was able to stand in the middle of the street and take this photo of the State Capitol Building:

It became quickly apparent to my mom and I that people in Springfield don't seem to appear very often. We didn't see too many locals outside of the park rangers and the restaurant and hotel employees when we were outside of the conference, and being from New Jersey just outside of NYC, that was more than a little jarring for us. Eventually, we went and ate dinner in the hotel and crashed for the evening, but not before discovering that almost every bar and restaurant in Springfield has video poker and slots:

The city of Springfield appears to be obsessed with video poker and virtual slots, which is interesting to me for some reason.
The next morning, we returned to the conference, and Alyssa screened her documentary, Through Our Eyes, which you can view on YouTube here. The conference attendees asked a lot of thoughtful and intelligent questions afterwards, which was excellent.

Alyssa speaking at the conference after the screening.

After the panel was over, we ran to the designated quiet room and filmed a quick hello to everyone, especially our fellow AGI streamers:

Before we headed out for the day to do some historian things, we got a photo of all the autistic presenters at the conference!

Back row, L-R: Kerry Magro, Alyssa Huber, Erin Miller. Middle row, L-R: Gyasi Burks-Abbott, Morénike Giwa Onaiwu, Charlie Remy. Front row: some short Italian from New Jersey.

After all that was said and done, my mom and I visited the Lincoln House and had lots of History Feelings, and then we dropped Alyssa off for her train home and I ran off to meet up with some internet friends of mine who had converged on the area so we could all be in the same place for the first time. We have weekly video chats in which we use my favorite horrible writing program from 1994 to create terrible things (see my solo streams of Storybook Weaver here), so we were so excited to finally meet. (Out of respect for their privacy, I'm not including any of the photos we took together, but we had an incredible time being together and I was incredibly happy and lucky to get to be with everyone at once.)

Springfield, we discovered, closes early. The restaurant we ate at closed at 8 pm. The only place we could find that was open for us to hang out in past 9 pm was a Cold Stone Creamery, so we got ice cream. We all got an odd vibe from Springfield in particular. One of my friends is from the greater Chicago area and the other one is near enough to Branson, Missouri, both of which are places that do not have dining establishments that close at 8 pm. The entire surrounding town around the downtown area had a sort of eerie vibe, perhaps best evidenced in this photo I took the morning after:

Springfield's downtown was very pleasant and the conference was amazing, but the fact that the rest of the town looked a lot like this, combined with the fact that very few people were out and about the entire time despite a listed population of 117,000+ people, was bizarre.

After my friends and I had a farewell breakfast at IHOP the next morning, my mom and I made a stop-off at Lincoln's tomb before we headed off to St. Louis for the final leg of our journey:

Lincoln's tomb. He wouldn't have wanted something this big.

The sarcophagus. Lincoln's remains are about 10 feet below it.
Seeing Lincoln's final resting place was very emotional for both my mother and I - it was an honor and a privilege for us to be able to visit.

To cap off the trip, we did what I always try to do when I travel, which is go to a baseball game. In this case, it was a Cardinals game at Busch Stadium:

Busch Stadium is gorgeous. Cardinals fans are so lucky to have it!

Right after Dexter Fowler (the runner on third) arrived at home plate, the tarp came out for a rain delay.
There was a rain delay during the game, which explained to me exactly why the Midwest has tornadoes - the storm came up out of nowhere and vanished just as quickly about 30 minutes later.

The Arch in the rain.

At least I got to see one exceedingly pleasing thing on the screen as we waited for the radar to give us the all-clear:

Yes, you're reading that correctly - Jed Lowrie is still in the top five on the RBI list for the 2018 season with 37.
During the rain delay, I met up with one of my internet baseball friends, and before we left the stadium at the end of the game my mom got a picture of him and I in front of the disproportionate Stan Musial statue. Stan Musial deserves much, much better than that statue.

After the game, which the Phillies tragically won (Mets fan here), Mom and I checked into the hotel, which was delightfully baseball-themed and made us very happy, and went to bed early so we could make our flight back to New Jersey. The view outside our hotel as the sun rose over the Mississippi River and St. Louis Arch was absolutely worth it:

Now THIS is a city.
We delightfully had no delays on the return to Newark - in fact, we arrived about 20 minutes early. Despite loving traveling, having an amazing time at the conference, and getting to see so many of my friends, I cannot describe the amount of relief I felt when I looked out the airplane window and saw this:

One World Trade welcomes me back to my city.
A large part of that relief stemmed from the fact that I'd been away from my favorite person in the entire world for five days, a very long time for the two of us to be separated. But Murphy and I had an absolutely wonderful, loving reunion when I arrived home:

Not long after this photo was taken, he bit my face. I now have a huge gash on my right cheek.

So my takeaways from this trip, to summarize, are:
  • The Targeting Autism conference was OUTSTANDING. I'm already asking to go back and speak again next year because I had so much fun and got to meet some amazing fellow advocates and learn from them too!
  • I don't fit in very well in the Midwest. Nobody swears much and they're really polite even if you get in their way. I had to get the rental car over to a turning lane and when I cut into what Springfield considers traffic the loudest protest was a tiny car honk. Where I'm from, we lay on the horn for at least 30 seconds when that happens.
  • People must go to bed really early in Springfield because things don't stay open too late. As a nocturnal person running on New Yorker time, that was weird to me because I'm used to 24-hour diners and being able to get whatever I need at Duane Reade at 3 am.
  • I like St. Louis! I want to get to see more of it since I only got to spend less than 24 hours there. There's a lot of history and museums to explore, and I'd love to go to another game at Busch Stadium. Cardinals fans, you've got a great house! 
  • My friends are all amazing people and meeting so many of them in person for the first time made me super emotional and I am so, so lucky to have all of these people in my life.
  • I need to get Murphy certified as an emotional support animal because I was very cut up about being away from him for so long. I actually bought a stuffed cat at the Lincoln House to serve as a surrogate Murphy until I got home.
Can't wait to hopefully do it all again next year!