Once a year, my children and I spend a week immersed in autism-centric culture.
I love that name. Autism/Retreat. Not a retreat *from* autism, but a retreat *to* autism. A time in which I don't have to guess if the person sitting near me at lunch wants to have a conversation. I can look at that person's interaction badge--if the green tag is showing--a potential for conversation. If the red tag is showing, I won't intrude on that person's need for private space. Concrete. Simple.
Participants are asked not to wear perfumes or use scented personal care products. I don't have to wrestle with my gag reflex for strong smells.
No one will give me pointed looks when I fidget in a meeting or play with a squishy ball. No one will assume I'm bored or being disrespectful to the speaker if I don't stare at the podium.
If I get up and leave abruptly from a gathering, no one will take it personally. It will be understood that for whatever reason, I am overwhelmed and need increased personal space.
I was scared before I went to autreat for the first time. My boys were (I think) in K and 3rd grade; I was still coming to terms with 'coming out' (to borrow a phrase from another minority movement) as an aspie. I didn't ask my husband to come with us and it was one of the first times I attempted to travel on my own with my 2 children.
This may not seem like a big deal to many of you reading this. A grown woman, a professional, competent woman, taking a trip with 2 school aged kids to a campground where there would be children's activities and structure. But for me, it was huge.
I have a problem with direction-sense and driving on my own to upstate NY from the Boston area, where I had never been before seemed daunting. Planning to spend a week with strangers seemed frightening. That those strangers were individuals on the spectrum, including people who were autistic, seemed overwhelming.
I had created a little world for myself where when I stepped out of my house, I inhabited a persona who protected me from the vagaries of "NT" life. That persona was competent, resourceful, successful. But I paid a price in stress and anxiety for using her. Once safely home, I could indulge my sensory needs, my need for predictability and wind-down time. Me and my boys could be ourselves. Home was (and is) sanctuary.
But I needed to learn to be my aspie self beyond the door to my house. So attending autreat that first time was an act of bravery and of faith. A gamble. Would I belong? Would "they" (whoever they were) accept me? Was I 'aspie' enough? Or would I forever feel between two worlds, never fully inhabiting either? How would the kids deal with a non-verbal autistic adult? Would they be frightened? Could I trust them to honor an individual's personal space or interaction preference?
I was just a whole bundle of insecurities.
And in the end, the most difficult part of Autreat was coming home. As my friend Phil calls it, 're-entry'. Having to put on that "NT" persona felt like I was encasing myself in medieval armor--for weeks I was heavy, cumbersome; the memory of lightness almost impossible to hold onto.
In a little over a month, I will be able to shed that armor again for a week where I will be myself.
To use another metaphor, 51 weeks a year, I must immerse myself in a foreign country and speak a language other than my mother tongue. At Autreat, I no longer have to translate my language into another. My passport is always valid.