Don’t Feed the the “Animals”

Over the Easter vacation, my family attended an aquarium in New Jersey. I wanted to do some hands-on research about seahorses and poison dart frogs (remember- I also write comic book scripts). This experience became a moment for autism (self) advocacy.

We spent about two hours going through exhibits. However, near the end, I felt overwhelmed. As more guests trafficked, I became a pinball and bounced off of people. Then, I found myself under a speaker, which further disoriented me. I asked for a break, and my family agreed to meet me in a few minutes while they completed the tour.

Again, I became disoriented as I made my way through a sea of people to where I thought I was supposed to be. I rested for a while (10 minutes?). Sadly, I did not become aware of some facial tics or finger/hand stimming until people began giving me odd looks. To curb this expression and embarrassment, I walked around the lobby near where my family would reconvene.

However, I made a poor choice in hindsight. My anxiety swelled and I felt like vomiting. I began breathing heavier, and tears trickled down my cheeks. I asked for help to find my bench I left just a few minutes prior. I know that some people can be cruel by making fun of kids. People made fun of me- a 40 year old, 6’5″ man with a cane.

Not one single guest offered any compassion but worse- not one employee or designee offered help. Perhaps my stuttering, exaggerated by anxiety, made me seem less approachable. Maybe professionals are unfamiliar with some common symptoms of anxiety and/or autism. I plan to write the aquarium and ask about staff training about these two and more challenges for future guests. I do not want anyone else to have any experiences at this aquarium like I did. After what seems like hours to me, my wife and family reconnected and we decided to simply leave immediately.

When fans read our comics, my hope is we can lend legitimacy to the autism experience. In my mind, this is why none of the largest comic book creators have an autistic superhero. How could a non-autistic writer capture subtle nuances of sensory overload if they’ve never experienced it, or only experienced it second-hand? How closely will the fictional behaviors match real-life diagnostic criteria or experiences common among many person with autism? This is why we made Face Value Comics. This isn’t “just” a comic book. This is the world’s FIRST autistic comic book hero – reaching the first generation of autistic students who graduate schools largely unprepared to help them face a world that stares back with equal confusion about what to do. This post is likely an unprofessional mix of emotions and advocacy. However, one cannot remove human experiences from a…well…human experience. This post took me about an hour to write. Near its end, I finally regained powers of speech without stuttering, and I wear a band-aid where I repeatedly, absent-mindedly rubbed my skin raw from during my experience at the aquarium.

In conclusion, my heart is still pointed towards kids- kids who need heroes like themselves – like OURselves – because the real world has enough villainry and too few champions. If you’ve read this far- thank you. You are unlike the many people who walked away from an autistic adult having a sensory overload in a New Jersey aquarium.

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