Veronica Federiconi has been working with the autism population for over 30 years. Her work first began with direct support, but she has since found her place in the Director’s chair at Autism Services, Inc. As someone who has spent half her life working with the autism population, a common question she hears is, “What is Autism?” Depending on who you are asking, the answer will vary from clinical to clueless. Veronica’s answer: “It is another way of looking at the world. Some people are African- American, Italian, Hispanic… and others have autism. It is a population with a different perspective on life.”
Physiologically, people with autism do have a perspective that is not shared by typical society. A typical brain is hardwired to modulate the sights, sounds and smells that inundate the senses. A person with autism lacks this neurological function. The result is either a sensory-mind encumbered by too much stimuli, or, one that is edacious for even more sensory stimulation. Colors, sounds, smells and even motions become tactile. The “meaning” of things, an already fuzzy subject, becomes even fuzzier. If you happen to meet someone who fits this description, you will figure out quickly that the two of you are not sharing the same reality. Not even close. Because autism offers no physical cues to alert us to its presence, it is spared the usual first impression prejudices of other disabilities. With 1 in every 88 people being somewhere on the Autism Spectrum, it is safe to say that this autism perspective is poised to make the next Paradigm Shift in our society.
Other populations have made major Paradigm Shifts in the past. Think Civil Rights, Workers’ Rights, Womens’ Rights. All of these groups remember a time when they were relegated to societies’ peripheral. But from each group emerged artists, writers, musicians and orators – all with a new perspective on life. Today, from the autism community, we find conduits of literature, the arts, and yes, advocacy; all prepared to show us the world through their eyes.
Elizabeth Harzewski is a high functioning Autist. Along with being the leader of a growing group of Self-Advocates who belong on the Autism Spectrum, Liz is also a prolific writer and poet, who has seen her “Obama the Wise” poem make print in the Buffalo News; or Ricky Nesbitt who recently stepped foot into the photography community by becoming a CEPA member. He entered the galleries’ 2009 Members Exhibition and captured the Best in Show prize, an honor awarded to only two entrants. Dan C, another artist with autism, hung his work on the walls of Brodo Restaurant back in September 2008. The enthusiasm of the owner, coupled with the favored reactions from customers, has resulted in Dan’s work remaining on display seven months later. Elaine, the owner of Brodo quips, “The people are still looking.”
Neil Sanders speaks declaratively, like a news anchor, pulling from memory an exotic list of media and broadcasting facts that rivals a Wikipedia search. His announcer voice and encyclopedic memory is now put to use for his weekly podcast called the Neil Sanders Show, where his 30 minute rants are posted on the Autism Services’ community website, friendsofasi.org. Early on, the podcast caught the attention of local media. Eileen Buckley of WBFO produced a special segment, “Meet Neil Sanders”, which was acknowledged by the New York State Associated Press Broadcasters Association with “Special Mention” honors. Neil was also a featured person in Autism Services’ documentary production, Autism: A Self-Portrait, which aired on WNED’s cable program, Think Bright.
As far as advocacy goes, a Google search alone will reveal just how many people on the Autism Spectrum have gathered together to support each other and their efforts toward Autism Acceptance. One such group is organized by Veronica Federiconi. This group, which goes by the straight forward name of, “The Asperger’s Group,” meet once a month at the Autism Services’ location in Buffalo, New York. Asperger’s, or Aspies as they call themselves, are often referred to as a higher-functioning Autist. But Veronica will tell you that they are just higher functioning, period. “The level of higher intelligence in this group is just staggering,” she says. “Especially, in areas of history and mathematics, their depth of knowledge is exceptional.” One such Aspy is Michael Segal. Mike holds a degree in Advanced Mathematics and studies physics as a side passion. Mike credits autism for his high aptitude. “Autism means that I think on a very literal level.” Mike says. “While this sometimes makes communication challenging for me, it makes my ability to understand the logic of math exceptional. Not a bad trade off, since I love math.”
It may be too soon to declare the beginning of an Autism Renaissance Era, but it certainly is not far off. Now that Autism Services has opened its Arts Work Gallery, the world through the eyes of the Autist is only an appointment away. The Arts Work Gallery takes the creations of people like Liz, Dan and Ricky and offers an enigmatic artists’ view that you just will not find at typical art galleries. Artists. Poets. Photographers. Physicists. All with autism. All under the same roof. An Autism Renaissance may yet be on the horizon.
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