June 2017


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Jun. 18th, 2017

I’m standing on a bridge. It’s a good bridge, with a walking path, which shows they thought about people like me when they built it. There are people walking and biking all around me. Over on the road I can see cars and buses and loud motorcycles going way too fast. A barge passes slowly under the bridge next to me and small pleasure boats and a tourist boat go by. Ahead is the varied ribbon of a freight train passing in front of me, too far away to count the cars. I don’t know why I count train cars, anyway, since I never remember the number to compare it to any other trains I may see, but my family taught me to count train cars as a preschooler when we were stopped at railway crossings and it stuck. A light rail train goes over the next bridge over. I hear rotors and look up to see a helicopter. Automatically I search the sky in the direction of the airport, but I don’t see any airplanes. Later, I relate this story of transit near-completeness to another autistic friend who said, “no airplanes?”

Transit geekery is stereotypically autistic, although I know non-autistic transit geeks and plenty of autistics who could care less about transit. Mine is a pretty mild case, compared to folks who know the engine numbers of the local trains that come through at various times of day. I know very little about transit outside of what I need to get myself from point A to point B. And I’ve been counting train cars for nearly 40 years.

Straight ahead lies my immediate destination, an inclined or funicular railway. At one point, there were 23 funicular railways along this cliff. Now there are only two left, one of which is solely a tourist location and the one I am approaching, which has been incorporated into the local transit authority. I ride it on my transit pass, although it’s not really a pass in the way I think of as a transit pass, where one can purchase unlimited rides for a set period of time. It’s more of a transit debit card. At any rate, my ride up the Incline, as it is called locally, counts as a bus ride. I am amused that we call it the Incline. The Incline is the slope up the mountain, noun. The railway is Inclined, verb form. And more specifically, it is a funicular, where the weight of the car going down does most of the work to propel the other car to go up. The Italian song, Funiculi, Funicula, which many of us sang in our childhoods, is about a funicular railway.

Now I sound as though I’ve swallowed an encyclopedia, a taunt frequently lobbed at me throughout my childhood. I was actually in high school before I sat down to read an entire encyclopedia, and I skipped the sections on geography that did not interest me. The diagnostic manual says that autistic people have reduced ability to share our enjoyment and interests. The autistic community describes a spontaneous sharing of interest, regardless of the interest of the audience, as infodumping.

Some “experts” have claimed that autistic people have unusual interests, while those with Asperger’s are the ones who collect information about their interests. This seems as false a distinction to me as the one between autism and Asperger’s itself. I like trains but don’t have very much information about them, or desire to obtain more. I have gathered a few facts about funicular railways, mostly from Wikipedia, but I wouldn’t begin to call them a special interest. I do collect information on other interests of mine, from disability to show tunes to favorite TV shows.

I am watching old ER episodes now, after not having seen them for many years. At one point, I had seen all the episodes multiple times. I have videos of most of them. (I have no working VCR.) The first web pages I sought on the internet, when internet was first a thing, were ER episode summary pages and ER discussion sites. ER, at one point, was a very highly rated, popular show. It was still on the air when I was in medical school, and every now and again I would try to join a conversation about ER. The only thing is, even with this shared, very popular interest, I was apparently doing it wrong. I was interested in the medicine, the portrayal of a specific disease, and the practice of medicine, such as the way residency or hospital hierarchy was portrayed. I was interested in – well, more like infuriated by – errors in continuity. I was interested in the way disability was portrayed on the show, particularly the character of Kerry Weaver but also other characters and arcs throughout the series. The conversations I tried to join were almost invariably about who was romantically interested in whom.

Apparently, I was doing ER wrong. I did Harry Potter wrong, also, fascinated by the language choices and world building and characters, not the romance. I’m probably doing something wrong by making sure I used the word “whom” correctly in the above paragraph.

In autism, one of the diagnostic criteria is the presence of an interest that is considered atypical for age either in topic or intensity. Garbage trucks are considered an unusual interest for anyone at any age. Horses are a common interest for 10 year old girls, but an interest in horses to the exclusion of all other topics, is considered unusual, or abnormal by those doing the considering. Those doing the considering are generally non-autistic professionals.

Sometimes the one doing the considering is me. I know the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house (, but right now I can only push the limits of the master’s framework so far. Sometimes I have to decide whether an interest in Mickey Mouse or My Little Pony or physics “counts.” The fact that I’m using my special interest in autism, also called my professional degree, to help make these determinations, is both funny and frustrating.

We’re allowed to like things. And we’re allowed to like things in the way that we, well, like to like them.

We’re allowed to like cars and flags and Mickey Mouse and bottle caps and pigeons and specific brands of soda and show tunes. We’re allowed to like trains, whether Thomas in particular or trains in general, whether we memorize the engine numbers or count the cars or plan rail trips across the country or apply for work at the local transit authority or just vaguely “like trains” in a way that standing on a bridge seeing a train makes us feel all happy inside.

This isn’t pathology. We don’t need to have our time with our special interests restricted, beyond reasonable restrictions such as having to meet requirements of work or participating in class or sitting down for meals. We don’t need to have our favorite toys put away to make us play with other things. We definitely don’t need to have our interests held hostage as the positive reinforcers of behavior therapy.

All around me I see people wearing the color of their favorite sports team and talking about games. They seem happy. I have no idea if they feel the same happy watching sports and talking about sports that I do when I am watching an ER rerun for the 50th time and repeating the dialogue, or looking up the books that served the bases of musicals or counting cars on trains. I hope so. I can’t ask because there’s no way to put that feeling into words. The closest I’ve seen is" (The obsessive joy of autism.)

The internet tells me this is the 12 annual Autistic Pride day. Laura Hershey wrote the amazing poem about disability pride," You Get Proud By Practicing So I suppose every time we continue to count, play with, talk about, learn about, collect and otherwise delve into our pleasure, we are practicing our pride.
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