Autism Interview #74: Austin Shinn on Advocacy in Childhood, College, and Beyond

Austin Shinn is an author, editor, film buff, husband, father, and advocate for individuals diagnosed with autism. Austin is diagnosed with Aspergers and blogs mostly about his life with perspectives on autism, disability, and advocacy at A Flickering Life. He is also the author of A Flickering Life: A Memoir of Autism, which chronicles his struggle to live life no different than anyone else. This week he shared some specific supports and advocacy strategies that resonated with him in childhood, his college years, and adulthood, and offered advocacy advice for parents and caregivers of other autistics.

Tell us a little about your life. Where did you meet your wife? Where do you work and how did you obtain this position? What do you enjoy most about your work?

My name is Austin Shinn. I’m a 34-year-old man who grew up and still lives in the Little Rock, Arkansas area. I met my wife, Amanda, on OKCupid in 2011, and we’ve been together ever since. In June 2016, our daughter Lola Faye was born. I work at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette as a page designer/copy editor, a position I’ve held for 10 years. I actually went to school for journalism, which made it a good fit for me. I like getting my hands on the important information of the day. I’ve been in the room when major local news broke, and it thrills me.

You’ve blogged about your concerns about the possibility your daughter may hurt like you have in life. What are you most worried about?

I have to worry that Lola will be autistic. There’s a 50/50 chance of it, and I worry she’ll struggle like I have. In particular, I worry about how she would struggle in a society already hostile to women which amplifies its issues when they battle being neuroatypical. I don’t want her to face that gauntlet of issues.

Tell us a little about your college experience. You’ve written a post about your recommendation for autistic individuals to live in a dorm if they have the opportunity. Is there any other specific advice you have for parents or college students on the spectrum to help them either prepare for this transition or succeed while in college?

My college experience truly was the best. I really fed on the joy of being independent. I was lucky to have good people around me for support. In particular, my freshman R.A., a dear friend of mine even now, was an incredible ally. I’d go so far as to say the college staff, most of whom were my peers age-wise, were better than 99% of my teachers growing up  My best advice would be to take advantage of this digital age. You can keep your life relatively stable with computers and phones in a way I couldn’t 15 years ago. Also, prepare as much as possible by going to the campus and especially the town. At least a few days should be spent knowing the town. But college itself? I’m dead serious: it’s much easier than high school. It’s not a lot of the small assignments that we can easily get tripped up by. Instead, college has more of the tests and giant projects that we succeed on.

What were some specific supports you received either in childhood or adulthood that you found especially helpful?

The biggest one I can think of is ironically becoming the norm. I was lucky to get computer access long before a lot of people to accomplish my assignments in school. I’ve always struggled with handwriting, but feel at home behind a keyboard. Computers have helped me on everything from schoolwork to meeting my wife. They also help me organize my life. Social networking is a gift to us and how I’ve met many of my peers.

Anything someone tried to do for you (or to you) that was harmful (or, at least, not very helpful)?

This is a tricky question to answer, but I think the best answer would be people forcing me to conform when it wasn’t to my advantage. I had teachers who were big on shaming me into line when I wouldn’t eat something or wouldn’t quite do something as they liked it. I understand requiring someone to behave in class, but if I don’t feel like having my issues pushed, please let me be. A lot of what we do looks rude, but it’s a survival strategy.

What mistakes do neurotypical autism advocates make?

They think once they understand us, they can speak for us. I’ve seen very well-meaning people speak out as experts when we could do as well. They also generalize us, not noticing that refusing generalization is our hallmark.  They also push us hard in places where we’re overrepresented, such as in STEM fields, while ignoring those of us drawn to liberal arts heavy fields who still need help.

If the most important autism advocates are autistic individuals, how best can neurotypicals serve this population? What do they do well, and where do they overstep?

The best way they can serve us is just to lift us up. Cite us when they’re doing their own work. Promote us. Suggest us for speeches. And these are things the best have done. Steve Silberman is a prime example, constantly retweeting and sharing our words. Where they overstep is what I noted above, thinking they know better than us. I see this a lot, and it gets tiring. If you have an autistic child, you can’t express the condition as well as they can.

How can parents help their children develop a positive autistic identity?

I’m going to have to go with a cliche. The best way parents can help their autistic children is just to let them be them. Certainly teach them the social rules, but let them go deep into their weird interests. If they don’t feel like they fit in, celebrate who they are. Don’t shame them for how they don’t do things like eye contact. Tell them that they can succeed.

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