Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Autism Acceptance Month 2014: Matt Friedman

This month we're asking our autistic community members What Do You Want? What Do You Need? We're featuring their answers all April long, right here. Today we're having a conversation with Autistic artist Matt Friedman. Please read, listen, and share.

What are some things you like people to know about you?

I self-identify as autistic, and am happy to remain so. I work as a grant writer for a national nonprofit organization serving children in poverty. Besides raising funds, I also record and categorize all donations we receive. It’s a role that’s well-suited for my systematic mind. My employer knows I am autistic and lets me know how much my talents are appreciated.

Superficially, people would describe me as quiet, polite, and intensely private. Those who care to look beneath the surface have an inkling of my strong convictions, passions, and irreverence. Peer pressure is nonexistent for me. I prefer to be liked, but I’m quite accustomed to being “that odd fellow who makes us all a little uncomfortable.” I also like to draw cartoons.

What are some things that make you happy? Why?

I enjoy cooking adventurously. New and unusual flavor combinations excite me. I like to make exotic, yet comforting food: savory waffle dishes, hot and spicy stews with cold toppings, and foods with fun names, like bibimbap and shakshuka. I’m not an overly talented chef, so cooking for one takes the pressure off. But I’m pleased to say most of my experiments turn out well.

Every week I draw a new cartoon I’m happy. I’m in my fifth year of doing my webcomic [] with the obvious topics long since exhausted, so to keep going has meant learning how my creative process works, and how to find inspiration in unexpected places. Each week I start with a blank page and try to fill it with something uniquely my own. If I can find something that demands to be said, and translate my vision to paper, then I’ve done something worthwhile for the week.

What are some things you avoid whenever possible? Why?

My peace of mind and well-being come first in all I do. To that end, I seek to minimize chaotic and unpredictable elements, the source of which is often other people. I shop at stores that are uncrowded. I drive the back roads that have less traffic. I go for walks in quiet, natural settings, where I’m unlikely to see other people. I avoid the news. I also avoid travel, because it’s a maze of decisions and logistics, but I hope to find a workaround for that, because I’d like to experience new places.

What features does your ideal living space have, and why?

My home is the only place I’m truly at ease. My house is far from ideal for me, but once I’m settled I don’t like change, so I’ve been here ten years and counting. My furniture and material things are minimal. I have plants but no animals. Some of my walls are painted bold colors. My computer room is jungle green, which makes a serene space. My ideal home would be far out in the country with open space, but with access to all the comforts of civilization. And I’d probably thrive in a climate without a real winter.

When I’m working, my ideal space would be free from distractions, because my job demands careful focus. I work in an open office with no walls and no doors, which is a challenge, to say the least. I prefer not to listen to others’ music, have others control the temperature, or have others sitting or conversing in my proximity. However, today’s workplace requires compromise, and at times sacrifice, for the good of the team. I think any open plan office should include a dedicated quiet space. Quiet should always be an available option.

What are your favorite books, movies, and/or TV shows?

My current obsession is Breaking Bad. I came to it very late, and very unintentionally, because it’s a drastic departure from my usual tastes. I’d say that I’ve found my own inner Heisenberg. And that’s a good thing, stay with me … being autistic means life pushes you around, a lot. If you’re going to survive, there are times you need to act decisively, be a hard-ass, and look out for yourself above others. I think self-advocacy is a lot like that. Furthermore, many of us on the spectrum have times we don’t like ourselves very much, so we fantasize about being someone else, who doesn’t have the problems we do. It’s a thrill to cheer on Walt as long as things go well, and then when all hell breaks loose, we can say, “Okay, maybe my old boring self isn’t so bad.”

My musical tastes have also undergone a recent metamorphosis. When I have music on, it’s either classical, chillout, or ambient. I found myself craving something different in music, whatever unclutters my mind and distracts me from everyday anxieties and concerns.

What autistic experiences would you like to see more of, when it comes to storytelling efforts like books, movies, and/or TV shows?

Too many movies portray white male Aspies, with a dead relative as a catalyst for their quest for “independence” or whatever. My favorite autistic movie character is Nick in White Frog, who is Asian. That movie is great because it spotlights lesser-known autistic traits, like persistence, and the pursuit of truth, more so than special interests and talents. Sonya Cross on The Bridge generated positive awareness, and thoughtful discussions about autism in the review comments. Some people say Lemongrab on Adventure Time is autistic, but I don’t see it. I think he’s just a nut.

What are some things you'd like the media and other people to stop saying about autistic people?

My blood boils whenever I see an anti-vaccination spokesperson given a platform under the guise of “autism awareness.” Their movement is a public health threat, and we cannot ignore them; we need to call them out on their B.S. There’s a lot of fear out there about autism, and for some people, that fear is bigger than the risk of infectious, potentially fatal disease. It seems impossible to even begin a dialogue with them, but as a starting point, why are they so afraid of autism? Imagine if we could just get past that fear.

If you could change one thing to make the world more friendly to autistic people, what would it be?

I feel that most people are fundamentally on a different wavelength from me, so that we’re incapable of completely connecting. Many autistic people experience this devastating disconnection, feeling “alone among others.” Many of us turn to escapism to make it through each day, through video games, or role playing, or internet communities. I think these things make good distractions, but poor substitutes for human companionship. We do have a need to belong, to form emotional bonds, to relate to others on more than a superficial level, yet we can’t find these things by traditional avenues. I hope people know large numbers of us have these unspoken, unmet needs, and maybe new mechanisms will arise to meet those needs.