My friends say that one of my best personality traits is compassion: I really care about other people. Everyone has some personality trait that’s good. I don’t like when people stereotype you based on labels (both official and unofficial) so that you can’t have a certain trait. As a person with developmental disabilities, I get a lot of autism stereotypes and a lot of intellectual disability stereotypes thrown my way. That means some people expect me to be a heartless mind and other people expect me to be a mindless heart. And they actually believe those expectations to be honoring my strengths. But that’s not necessarily how it works. There are autistic people with huge strengths or interests in social areas. There are people with intellectual disabilities whose main strengths or interests are intellectual. We don’t have to have a stereotypical set of strengths.
Arguably the most famous — in terms of sheer name recognition — person with autism in the world is Susan Boyle. Yet you never see her on lists of famous autistic people. Even though practically everyone everywhere knows who she is. She’s world-famous. And I always wonder if she doesn’t make the lists because her strengths stem from social skills. The way she sings, she has to identify somehow with the song. She has to form a personal identification with the character she’s potraying. If she can’t do that, she can’t sing well. If she can do it, she sings spectacularly. Her entire strength that makes her famous is based on social and emotional skills and empathy. And I suspect that makes her not so well-received even though she’s officially diagnosed with autism and everything. And she doesn’t make a big deal about her labels, so she doesn’t push the issue. But I always feel bad not seeing her on those lists2, and I always wonder how much of it is because her biggest skills are social and emotional and that doesn’t fit a stereotype of what kinds of things we can be good at.
And people will either doubt your disability or doubt whether you really have the strengths and interests you do. They’re always trying to prove that autistic people’s empathy isn’t real, that the intellectual achievements of people with intellectual disabilities isn’t real, that autistic people can’t be compassionate and people with intellectual disabilities can’t be geeky or nerdy or have cognitive talents.
And they’re always trying to say that different disabled people are allowed to have certain things and not others. Each type of disabled person is supposed to be missing one thing and have something else: Body, mind, heart, whatever. So we have bodiless minds, mindless bodies, heartless minds, mindless hearts, and whatnot, and that’s supposed to be a good way of looking at us! The truth is that however you divide it up, every person really has a mind, a heart, a body, a soul, whatever you want to call these things. I don’t personally divide people up that way, but if you’re gonna, those things are universal. Disability doesn’t mean one of them is missing.
So it’s important to me to be able to say compassion is one of my strengths without having to justify it against what type of disability labels people think of me as having. It’s moreimportant than usual because so many people say people like me can’t even have real compassion or empathy or anything like that. That we can’t have social strengths or social interests. And it’s totally fine to fit a stereotype, but it’s also totally fine not to. And it’s important to recognize that these are stereotypes, and that they’re wrong, that nobody can be confined like that.
So here goes: I really give a shit about people. I really, genuinely give a shit. It doesn’t mean I get everything right in showing it. It doesn’t mean that I’m some kind of model citizen or something. It doesn’t mean I can’t be an asshole. It just means that overall I do care about people. I am genuinely interested in knowing about people, learning about people, learning about how people’s minds and lives work who are very different from me. I like learning about people’s lives. I like learning about what people need and trying to make that happen. I like learning about people like me, people different from me, all kinds of people. I love documentaries that feature people, and biographies. I love thinking about what it’s like to be someone else.
And my extreme attachment to objects is the exact opposite of how people take it. People take that as, “You treat people like furniture.” No, it’s more like I treat furniture like people. At least, that’s a closer way of putting it than the way most people would. I automatically have always seen everything in the world as alive, having its own point of view, deserving thought and compassion. It’s not that I think rocks are little mirrors of human experience. Rocks are their own thing. Their perspective is a rock perspective, not a human or animal or “living thing” perspective. But I still see them as having one, as interacting, as feeling, in their own way. I can’t explain it in words and I’m not sure it’s possible. When I try, people get the wrong idea.
Dora Raymaker wrote a book called Hoshi and the Red City Circuit. I didn’t know what to expect from it. I was blown away. Because the main character has this connection with the city she lives in. With the place, and the spirit of the place. It’s not part of the main plot, or whatever you want to call it. But it’s there, throughout the whole book. On a sensory level, on a cognitive level, on a spiritual level, it’s just there. And she writes better than anyone I’ve ever seen, about what it means to have that kind of connection to something other people see as inanimate.
I have that kind of connection to places myself. There’s parts of California that feel like they’re just in my bones. The redwood forest, particularly Redwood Terrace, I have a connection that reminds me strongly of Hoshi. But also those hills, those hills full of dry yellow grass and oak trees. And the long flat expanses of the San Joaquin Valley, that most people think are just ugly. All those places are part of me and I’m part of them.
And that’s not a lack of empathy. It’s not giving human attributes to things that aren’t human. It’s extending empathy and compassion to things that most people in some cultures wouldn’t. It’s having those things more broadly, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with not doing that, either.1 But there’s certainly nothing wrong with seeing the world the way I do, and I wish people wouldn’t misrepresent it as the opposite of what it is.
Go read Dora’s book though. Empathy and compassion for a city is a hard thing to pull off in words and Dora does an amazing job. I went into that book with sorta mediocre expectations and was blown away by what I actually found there. I don’t have the words to do it justice. I first was just trying to use it to keep out of delirium during a hospital stay last summer but it did a whole lot more than that. Books don’t usually hit me that hard out of nowhere and this one really did.
1Not everyone has to have the same strengths and interests. I’m only saying this because sometimes when I say I value certain traits, people think I mean that people are bad or inferior if they don’t have those traits. That’s not what I mean at all. I’m just valuing things that have been robbed of their value or recognition by people who don’t want to think of people like me as doing those things ever at all. I think it’s great that there are people who really aren’t interested in people and are more interested in abstract intellectual pursuits, who do fit certain stereotypes. That’s a perfectly fine way to be as well, and so are most of the ways people can be. I think it’s great that there’s different kinds of people with different skills and interests. I don’t think everyone has to be like me. I just )
2 Sometimes it can feel bad being on this kind of list. But what I don’t like about seeing her on those lists is what it means about how other people see her. I doubt she cares one way or the other, she might even find it slightly unpleasant. It can feel like being recognized for a diagnosis rather than being recognized for your work. And being recognized at all can be uncomfortable for some people: I always want people to see my art but I’m less thrilled about them seeing me. So when I say I feel bad about her not being on a list, it’s not that I think she’d feel better, it’s that I think people leaving her off shows something about how people see her.