Saturday, April 21, 2012

Emily Willingham and Autism Acceptance Month

We're featuring "Slice of Life" conversations with Autistics of all ages -- kids through adults -- throughout April's Autism Acceptance Month

Our goal is to help TPGA readers understand that autistic people are people who have interesting, complicated lives and who are as diverse and varied as any other population united by a label.

We are the people in each other's neighborhoods, and the more we know about each other -- the more visible autistic people and children are -- the more common autism acceptance will be. That is our hope.


Emily Willingham is our Science Editor, and also the parent of TPGA contributor TH.

What is your name?

Emily Willingham

Do you have a website?

Yes. Science editor at TPGA, managing editor at Double X Science.

What would you like a one-sentence description of yourself to say?

I am a compulsive writer and critical and lateral thinker always far too seriously focused on finding core truths, yet I seem instead to find humor in almost everything and laugh far too loudly.

Do you have any autistic superpowers? What are they?

First, I’d like to say that I self-identify as being a member of the Aspie woman tribe, even though I do not have an official diagnosis and have decided not to pursue one because any benefits I might have accrued from that seem far, far behind me now. Because I am older, it’s not something I or my parents would ever have known about in the 1970s when I was an apparently bright child inexplicably struggling so hard socially with isolation and being physically and emotionally bullied that I was deeply depressed and thought often about dying. My identification as an Aspie doesn’t grow out of some delight in being “quirky” but instead from what I’ve found to be a simpatico group of people with very similar backgrounds and experiences and ways of thinking and being.

I might never have completely understood myself as well as I do now had my son not been diagnosed at age three with Asperger’s. But one of my superpowers is the extremely close connection he and I have and our ability to communicate with and understand each other in ways that are not easy to explain. I’ve always instinctively understood what his behaviors mean because many are either ones I do or once did or the motivations are ones I recognize.

On a personal level, my visual discrimination abilities allow me to do the job I love, science editing, because I can tell when a superscript comma is in Helvetica instead of Times New Roman, yet I also can quickly take a global view of the text and its gaps and structural flaws and construct a story that makes sense. Because my mental retention has always been so good, I have at my figurative fingertips a huge assortment of usually completely unnecessary facts and trivia for almost any topic. This store of information comes in handy (I think) in social situations because I simply cannot do small talk, but people seem to like weird facts.

What are some situations that make you happy, or satisfied?

Being at home for a quiet evening with my husband, someone much like me except even more introverted and focused on an inner life of the mind. We are mental twins. Spending a beautiful, clear cool Saturday wandering the mountains or beaches with our boys. Hitting send on a completed editing or writing job.

What are some situations that make you sad, or anxious?

Any new social situation has me completely on edge, especially if the focus is purely social.

I hate to see people treat other people like shit and have never been able to stand by while witnessing cruelty or injustice to someone else -- I impulsively call people out when I see that, even if it’s not always the safest or smartest move.

I become very anxious when I see people become extremely emotional even though I am fully capable of being quite emotional myself.

Are there specific topics you find particularly compelling?

My obsessions -- which I’ve had for decades -- include Victorian literature (Dickens, Trollope, Thackeray, Brontes, Wilkie Collins, et al.), medieval history (not in a “Medieval Faire” festival kind of way, either, but the gritty stuff), all things related to the sciences, turtles, bears, reproductive biology, and studying people.

What are your preferred ways to be social?

I used to go out a lot mostly to get rid of a superabundance of late-night energy (primarily through dancing wildly alone with myself) and to self medicate with alcohol in a socially acceptable environment, although I’ve also spent plenty of long evenings pickling myself alone with a Victorian novel. I don’t socialize much at all any more, having lost that superabundance of energy, and I find social occasions stressful and extremely tiring.

I do have some close friends whom I see once or twice a year in very small groups, and if I’m going to be social, that’s my preferred way to do it. The ability to interact online has been a boon to me because it doesn’t require interpretation of nonverbal communication, so I can be interactive without the stress of that.

What traits do you prize in a friend, or companion?

A quiet spirit. A great sense of humor and irony. A love of books, being outside. A lack of drama. An ability to not talk constantly just to fill silence.

Are there parts of your life you wish were easier?

I wish I weren’t as impatient with the “outside” world as I am, that I didn’t accidentally piss people off as much as I do. I used to wish I could do “small talk” better and socialize better, but I’ve come to realize that the world has a sufficient number of people who don’t require that, so it’s not an issue for me.

What's the next big goal you have for yourself?

I’ve got two books I want to complete.

What does bliss feel like to you?

Being outside in the pine trees in a cool dry breeze in the midst of an extraordinary quiet, or that half hour or so when I’m in bed, reading while the whole house is silent and I’ve got all that quiet and my book to myself.