Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Matt Friedman 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.


Today we're talking with Matt Friedman, whom some of you may know as the irreverent comic artist behind the blog Dude, I'm an Aspie.

What is your name?

Matt Friedman.

Do you have a website?

www.dudeimanaspie.com

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

I’m a self-identified autistic who is the cartoonist and writer of Dude, I’m An Aspie.

Do you have any autistic superpowers? What are they?

My honesty, observational skills, and ability to focus. I think my cartooning ability has a lot to do with these skills. Autism is easier for me to describe through doodles than through words. My readers say I have other superpowers as well. Some tell me my writing has a calming effect, and others remember my doodles as if they were moving pictures. I think being able to touch so many people just by saying what’s on my mind, that’s an awesome superpower.
Matt's commentary on the proposed
DSM-V changes in the definition of autism

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

I’m happy when I go into a social situation I know is beyond my comfort zone, and it goes really, really well. Last summer my friend invited me to a house party, and I never felt overwhelmed, and didn’t have to pretend to be someone I wasn’t, and I had a genuinely good time. And I was really happy at being able to get on a plane and go away for a company retreat that turned out to be an unforgettable adventure. Of course, many situations don’t go as well for me, and it’s hard to predict which way it will go, but I have enough successes here and there to keep me trying again.

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

Going into any place that’s noisy and crowded like a supermarket can be like an assault on the senses. So is any gathering with a group, after which I need time to recharge, or “need a 1-up” as Fuzzy would say. Adjusting to change in my routine is a challenge, even over something as simple as a new computer monitor. And also, extricating myself from a social gathering that seems destined to go on forever, otherwise known as “The Blob.” My worries always provide excellent fodder for cartoons.

Are there specific topics you find particularly compelling?

I had many more special interests as a child than as an adult. But I’ve always been interested in ways of structuring ideas and information, and effective ways of getting a message across. That led me to write and draw my own newspaper when I was ten. Today I continue to have an interest in language and storytelling, which influences the cartoons I do today, and also comes in handy in my job as a fundraising and marketing professional.

What are your preferred ways to be social?

Email and messaging are my preferred ways of socializing. It’s just the right mix of one on one attention that also gives me time to think out my response. I’ve made many online friends through email and I have some of my best conversations with them. I use social media too, but it doesn’t lend itself as well to meaningful conversation, at least for me.

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

Loyalty is important to me. It can be hard to earn my trust, but those who do find I’m very loyal in return. I relate most easily to fellow outsiders and misfits, not just people on the spectrum, but those unafraid to speak their mind and simply be themselves. Lastly, they should have a good sense of humor and be somewhat of a goofball.

Are there parts of your life you wish were easier?

There’s a pressure that comes with being an autistic person who can pass for “normal,” because people expect me to act as NT’s do, even if subconsciously. My differences can be invisible until I do the unexpected, like misreading a facial expression or reacting to an overstimulating environment. So, I always anticipate that others may react with surprise or take offense, because autism doesn't have "a look."

While I'm fortunate to be able to hold a job and live independently, I do put extra energy into things that don’t come naturally to me, like conveying the appropriate facial expression at the appropriate time, making small talk, and being assertive. It’s a challenge to tell the difference between things I can actually get better at, and those I can’t. I'd like others to understand that people with autism often push ourselves far outside our skin, in the name of fitting in.

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

I have some very exciting projects in the works involving my characters, which will take them beyond the medium of my blog. I can’t give details yet, but if it happens, “Dude” fans are going to love it. I’m also looking forward to continuing my volunteer work with Juniper Hill Farms, the independent living community near my home. So far I’ve helped prepare a field for planting sunflowers and build personal web pages for the guys. I really enjoy hanging out there.

What does bliss feel like to you?

The closest thing to bliss for me is obsessing over a cartoon or other fantasy world. I’m currently obsessing over Regular Show, but it’s happened over and over throughout my life. I can get enthralled with a fictional world to the point where the characters insinuate themselves into my daily life, and I can have conversations with them. It’s a feeling of joy, and even though it’s all in my head, it carries through into real life, and makes it a bit more magical. I think fantasy is a valuable thing even into adulthood. It keeps us hopeful, helps us cope with everyday problems, and enables us to feel that much more alive.