In kindergarten, I loved one thing more than just about anything else: the Care Bears. I loved their rainbow colors and their magical land of clouds. Unfortunately, most of my classmates did not share my appreciation for these whimsical bears. The teasing began on my first day of school. “Care Bears are for babies!” “Hey, C.L., there’s a Care Bear behind you!” I often retaliated by hitting, which earned me several detentions.
I already knew how to read, write, and count. To relieve boredom during an adding lesson, I drew Care Bears on my worksheet. (I guess counting Care Bears was more fun than counting boxes or circles.) Of course, my teacher wasn’t pleased. Before long, children weren’t the only ones shaming me for my special interest.
“You can borrow any picture book you want,” my teacher told my classmates as we headed to the school library. “Except C.L. She isn’t allowed to borrow a Care Bears book.”
“I’m not punishing you,” my mom said as she removed my Care Bears videotapes from my room for an entire week, “but you’re obsessed.”
It was a punishment, even if it was not meant to be. The shame I was made to feel for liking the Care Bears as much as I did was definitely a punishment.
But that was a long time ago. I wasn’t even diagnosed with autism until fourth grade. They were more understanding once they knew how intense autistic people’s interests can be, right?
Not exactly. Even after adults in my life knew I was autistic, the unintentional shaming continued. “Girls don’t want to talk about Pokémon all the time. Why are you so stuck on Pokémon?”
By age fourteen, I was concealing the fact that I even had intense interests. My parents thought I didn’t have “obsessions” anymore, but they were wrong. Past rejection had sent me into hiding. I thought that once I turned
eighteen, I would no longer have to worry about interest-shaming, but I was wrong. When I was nineteen, a therapist asked me if I thought it would be okay to wear Hello Kitty accessories. When I answered yes, she looked disdainful. “Really? You don’t think that’s age-inappropriate?” The fact that I’d seen several students at my community college with Hello Kitty accessories apparently didn’t matter.
Things are much better now, because I have friends and allies who accept me. I can talk excitedly about my favorite things without anyone telling me I can’t. But the pain and anxiety of the past remain inside me.
I wish all professionals, parents, and teachers would work with autistic people’s interests, not against them, and I know that some do… But some don’t.
A fairly recent article by Lisa Jo Rudy, entitled “Ten Kinds of Gifts Autistic Kids (and Their Parents) Will Hate” reminds me that pathologizing our passions is still a thing. Some of Rudy’s holiday gift-giving “don’ts” are sensible suggestions, such as not giving a child toys that will cause sensory overload, or food their diet doesn’t allow. Unlike my past therapist, Rudy understands that pushing “age-appropriate” interests will only upset us. One suggestion, however, makes me sad and angry—Rudy says not to give “toys that encourage an obsessive interest”. She claims that if a child spends their holiday counting and sorting baseball cards, it’s “not really a positive gift to give”.
Can you imagine telling a non-autistic child’s family never to give that child their favorite thing for Christmas? Saying that autistic kids shouldn’t be given their favorite things for the holidays—when most non-autistic children do receive gifts related to their favorite things—is completely ableist.
Our passions help us cope, too. Holiday gatherings can be chaotic. After being surrounded by noisy conversation, overly affectionate relatives, screaming babies, and flashing cameras, a nice long card-sorting session could be just what an overstimulated autistic person needs. I’m unsure how not giving a child baseball cards (or waiting until it is no longer the holidays to give them, as Rudy suggests) is going to make that child more sociable at a crowded party.
In my kindergarten days, the Care Bears were not the problem; the fact that adults treated them like a problem was. What if adults had instead discouraged the children from teasing me, or taught me to defend myself in more peaceful ways? The Care Bears’ emphasis on understanding and dealing with emotions would actually have been a great way to teach me this! Incorporating the bears into my lessons now and then wouldn’t have hurt anything (although not making me sound out vowels when I could read fluently would have helped too).
Autistic people’s interests are much more than “symptoms” or “obsessions”. They are part of us. They matter to us. They matter at school, during the holidays, or wherever and whenever we happen to have them. Of course we need to balance them with other activities, and we don’t need to neglect our school work, but our strong focus on what we love is one of our strengths. Making us feel that we are wrong to like what we like, or that we should like it less, is damaging. Our interests are ours; they aren’t yours to take from us.
If you are a professional who encourages autistic people to excel at what they love, and love it unashamedly, thank you. We need more people like you. If you notice someone shaming an autistic person for liking something unusual or liking something too much, please speak up. Remind them that our interests are ours.
About C.L. Bridge: C.L. is an autistic person who enjoys art, games, and aquatic animals.