Suzana Herculano-Houzel

Column_436 Yes I have special needs

What a wonderful thing to recognize that

I like to joke that autistic adults like me need adult supervision, but it’s great when we remember to take the joke seriously. A particular problem with autism is that part of the constellation of characteristics is a lack of self-awareness about one’s own emotional state: others notice before we do that we are upset or worried about something. That’s why it’s so common for us to only realize that we really need help when it’s already happened – or when things get bad and we finally throw in the towel.

That was me at the airport a few days ago. I’ve travaled for work so much that I’ve received preferential boarding, still after special needs, children, the elderly, military personnel and ultra-super VIPs, so the problem I didn’t know I had was already semi-resolved. But this time, I was busy trying out the green sunflower lanyard that signals invisible difficulties that I had finally taken out of my bag and hung around my neck an hour earlier, when I noticed (without adult supervision, hooray!) that the crowded train was giving me the creeps (literally).

Wearing the cord for the first time had a curious effect: I don’t know if the others around me knew what it was, but I did, and I immediately felt better for doing something for myself. Having control is wonderful, but the feeling of control is what really matters.

With a string of sunflowers around my neck (and mine is beautiful, with a sunflower hanging from it; I refuse to wear the badge that some suggest), I realized that I had suddenly changed categories. I was no longer the amazing-but-bewildered-neuroscientist (I love the paradox!), trying to function in a noisy and troubled world like a child who puts her fingers in her ears, squints her eyes and sings-la-la-la when the adults start shouting (by the way, my new image to explain what stimming is). Now I was a person who recognized that I had particular difficulties and the special needs that come with them.

So I did what had never occurred to me: I stood at the mouth of the boarding gate, and as soon as the special needs passengers were called to board first, I went with conviction and a smile on my face. I don’t know if the agents recognized the lanyard, but they didn’t hesitate to welcome me.

And once on the plane… oh, how wonderful. Only then did I realize what a difference it makes not to try to negotiate thirteen things at the same time, which others do so easily: finding a seat, storing my passport and deciding which bag to put where, all without accidentally elbowing people trying to get through, or getting in the way of anyone I didn’t notice who was trying to do something. It was me and an empty plane. Let me say that again, because it makes me emotional: empty.

I sat down, opened the game on my phone and that was that. I’m an entertained child, I’m not in anyone’s way. Get on board, please. The aspie neuroscientist thanks you!

Originally published in Folha de São Paulo in May 2023.

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