Autism Interview #138: Faith Douglas on the College Transition and Inclusive Theatre

Faith Douglas is a rising junior at Northwestern University. They study Theatre and are waiting until the very last second to formally declare their second major. Outside of school and their duties as Research Chair for Seesaw Theatre company, they act, write, and play more video games than they probably should. This week Faith discussed their transition to college life as well as their theatre work creating multi-sensory performances for otherwise disabled audiences.

You were diagnosed with autism at 11 after being admitted to a psych unit for anorexia nervosa. How was that diagnosis described or explained to you? Do you remember understanding autism as something good, bad, or neutral?

With all due respect, my caregivers during my hospitalization dropped the ball on my diagnosis. Within hours of my arrival at the psych unit, they had called my parents and suggested that I might be autistic. Shortly afterward, I was tested. But the doctors at the hospital didn’t tell me and forbade my parents from telling me about my diagnosis. It was only several weeks later, while I was on a walk around the hospital with my dad, that my dad let slip that I had Asperger’s. This was before Asperger’s Syndrome was gathered into the autism spectrum in the DSM V. Now I simply consider myself autistic.

I was confused. I had never heard of Asperger’s Syndrome, or even autism, before. I thought he meant I had something like Down Syndrome, or whatever issues the kids in the Special Ed classes at my elementary school had. All I got out of that conversation was, no, it wasn’t like Down Syndrome, but it did mean I had sensory issues and was the reason why I had no friends. My autism was never mentioned again in my treatment or therapy at the hospital, and I only began to learn more about my neurotype when I returned home and could access the internet again.

After learning, through message boards and blog posts, that there was nothing wrong with me, only a differing neurotype, I became angry with my parents. They would choke up when talking about my diagnosis and act like it was the end of the world. They told me that they, “didn’t like to hear that I would struggle.” I was already struggling. The struggle had become apparent, at least to me, when my parents had to talk me down from killing myself at 7. I was still the exact same person from before the diagnosis. Only now I was free of the guilt and shame and fear of having something “wrong” with me. And now I work with autistic kids and am looking forward to participating in the Autistic Advocacy movement, to free others from those same feelings I had before my diagnosis.

So, parents – please tell your child about their diagnosis. You may think that they “can’t tell that they’re different,” but, as a former child myself, I assure you: yes, we can tell. We stay up at night wondering why we can’t satisfy our parent’s needs for physical affection, why we can’t make friends, why we feel so out of place and alien. So, tell your children and equip them with the tools they need to navigate a hostile world. Or that hostile world will start to raise them for you, and the results aren’t pretty.

Did you have any difficulties with the college application process or accessing support services during and after this transition?

The college applications process was hellish for me. I was in the midst of an autistic burnout after pushing myself to fit in with the neurotypical over-achievers at my school and heading into a field I knew very little about (Theatre). I have issues with executive dysfunction and procrastination, and those issues heavily affected my applications process. If I could, I’d go back and re-do my college applications process, but I’m actually happy with the school I ended up in.    

I didn’t receive support during or after this transition because I, mostly, didn’t know how to ask for that help. I also, on some level, didn’t want to feel like a burden, so I kept my problems to myself. I think there’s a lot of stigma around asking for help when you are highly neurotypical-passing. Your internalized ableism takes over, and you don’t want to be one of “those people” who need support services. I’m slowly trying to unlearn this way of thinking, but I think that will be a long journey.

Can you talk about the Seesaw Theatre company you are a part of? How large are your audiences? Where do you get input about what accommodations you should build into each show?

I only recently became the Research Chair for Seesaw, but I have done workshops with them for the past two years. Seesaw was originally founded in 2012 under Theatre Stands with Autism (TSWA) by the lovely Melanie Gertzman and Anna Marr, who believe “that theatre is a basic human right and anyone denied access because of ability status is unacceptable.”

Eventually, we became Seesaw Theatre, and we continue to put on shows not only intended to be accessible for our audiences, but tailored for the autistic and otherwise disabled audience, through sensory experiences. During our shows, each child is paired up with an Adventure Guide, who helps guide them through all the experiences the show has to offer. Therefore, the size of our audience is limited to allow each child to be accompanied by an Adventure Guide. Each show is designed to be as accessible as possible for an autistic or otherwise disabled audience. Accommodations are made for those in wheelchairs, those who are non-verbal, etc. It is very important to Seesaw that everyone be able to have fun at our shows!

We also offer workshops to community schools, where we offer short sensory experiences to a class of kids, assisted by two to three Teaching Assistants. Seesaw is also responsible for organizing the Inclusive Theatre Festival at Northwestern University, where advances in the world of accessible and inclusive theatre are discussed. Currently, we are still planning to host ITF virtually via Zoom.

I’m honored to be a part of a group that offers such great experiences to kids and look forward to being a part of Seesaw’s growth in the future.

How does the college environment differ from the high school environment in terms of sensory sensitivity (in your personal experience)? Was one easier to navigate? Explain.

College is a lot easier for me in terms of sensory sensitivity, because I can just get up and leave the classroom if need be. The sheer amount of people in lecture halls, however, is slightly more concerning, as well as the bright lights in some. Dining halls are also filled with people, noise, and bright lights. I tend to try and find quiet corners or wear sound-proofing headphones.

But these issues were present in my high school as well, just at a slightly lower level. At least now, I can leave the classroom or discuss my issues with the professor ahead of time, which makes things easier. I can also take a day off or leave campus and go home, something that was very difficult to do in high school. College is much easier to navigate, sensory-wise, due to the flexibility. 

In a recent article, you were quoted saying the Autistic support services at your University were lacking, and that it was difficult to identify or meet other Autistic people. What types of specific support services do you think would benefit you personally, or that you would take advantage of if they were offered?

I would love it if more “adult” theatre productions on campus had sensory-friendly performances. I miss a lot of friends’ and acquaintances’ shows because I need to divert the energy I would spend on handling the sensory input to more important things, such as classwork. The same practice could be applied to a lot of other events on campus, as well.

Secondly, I would love a simpler and clearer process to apply for accessibility services. I tried my first year, thought I had submitted everything that was needed, and then gave up when I realized that wasn’t the case. And, of course, more funding for the university’s counseling services is always needed.

I would probably take advantage of accessibility measures that let me take more absences and turn in more late work. Or that put me in places that had less people. Those are the issues that affect me most strongly.

Who is your best ally and why?

While my family is a great support system, I would have to say that my best ally is myself. Maybe it’s because I’m an ally that I had to win over, or because I’m always there. It’s important to learn how to self-advocate, and while that is a skill I’m still learning, it’s worth all the time I put into it. Slowly but surely, I am becoming more cognizant of my own wants and needs and limits. I am learning to respect my own boundaries and encourage my own growth and that’s the most I can ask of an ally.

For more information about Seesaw Theatre, please visit their website.

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