Thoughts and illustrations on living on the autism spectrum.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Plugging Away

Hi. I don't have a post for today. Is it Sunday again already? Hmm. Well, in that case, I'll just plug a few things I'm doing:

First, I'll be doing the 2012 Walk for Autism Delaware again this year! Last year I raised $463 for this cause, with the help of many of my readers! This year, I'm teaming up with my friends at Juniper Hill Farms. Help us reach our goal when you support us through the Dude, I'm an Aspie fundraising page! The April 21 walk will benefit adult vocational services, teen game night, parent information, and autism awareness and education. Thanks!

Second, please visit me on deviantArt! I've been posting some of my favorite cartoons from the past, with the backstory behind them. I'll also be putting up some never-before-seen things I've done. So do connect with me if you have an account, and stop by even if you don't. I've received a llama already. I don't know what that means, but it was quite nice. :)

And lastly, don't forget I have T-shirts! There are five designs now, including "I Need a 1-Up!" and "Neurotypical Is My Second Language." Is there a cartoon you'd like to see on a shirt? Tell me, and I can probably make it happen.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Juniper Hill Farms: It Just Works.

I’ve met some very cool people through this blog, but perhaps the most awesome of them all have been right in my own backyard. Juniper Hill Farms is an independent living community of adults on the autism spectrum. These folks found me a few months ago, by way of thAutcast. We got to messaging, and turns out, they’re only a 20 minute drive from my house. So I went out to see them!

Juniper Hill consists of Diane Belnavis’s farm, her six tenants, their support people, and lots of animals. It’s not a licensed facility or a group home; it’s simply a household of people living and working together. All the residents are either on the autism spectrum or have another disability. Most are in their early 20’s and need assistance to live independently. They work on the farm, pay rent, and receive assistance from their support people several times a week.

Diane’s background is in the disabilities field, and she currently works as Housing Director for a local agency. Juniper Hill was a project she started about a year ago, as something she always dreamed of doing. Her adopted son Brent, who has autism, has lived with her family for thirty years. Juniper Hill applies her knowledge of what works, based on that professional and life experience. Her own role is one she describes as "bossy big sister," but that doesn't really do it justice. What she has built is simply incredible.

It is a real mix of personalities on the farm, and everyone's differences have been the greatest challenge, Diane explained to me. Some of the guys are quite talkative, some not so much. Interests and hobbies vary greatly, from Star Wars to Halo to Barbie. It didn't always go smoothly during the first year. Everyone needed to just get used to one another, but now, Diane says they get along really well. Now, they do much more cooking, and much less arguing.The guys all want to tell their stories too, which they are doing through their own pages on the Juniper web site.

As for the animals, there are alpacas, which are used for fiber, cashmere goats, and big fluffy angora rabbits. There are the exotic and very loud guinea hens. And some chickens, and sheep, and pot bellied pigs, and an emu, and Kit the Chihuahua, who followed us everywhere. Feeding time is best observed from a safe distance outside the pen, because they all tend to go nutso for food.

Inside the house, a fire is going, DVD's line the wall, and a pool table is covered in figurines and Lego. Brent’s specialty is crocheting blankets, which he sells through Blankets by Brent. Dude is fast, too! He hands me a ball of yarn and motions for me to hold it while he works. I quickly find myself unwinding and unwinding continuously to keep up with him.

In the spring they’ll be planting sunflowers to sell, making birdhouses, and much more. On weekends they often have social activities, such as today's Harlem Globetrotters game which they received donated tickets for. Sunday dinner is one of the highlights of each week. Diane has all kinds of big dreams for the place. You can read all about it on her excellent blog. Very exciting stuff.

I’ve started to visit the farm once a week or so, to see where I can help out. It’s been great fun so far, and remarkable to see all that goes on. It's a place filled with stories, and I've only just begun to scratch the surface. But it's made quite an impression on me in a short time. It strikes me a peaceful place where people are allowed to just be who they are, and coexist with others who are very different.

"It just works…" Diane says. "We didn’t plan to not have a plan… it is just evolving this way." It’s that simple.

And hey, one more thing... if you need any further proof of how awesome this place is, Juniper Hill was where this Animal Collective video was filmed a few years ago. (Before a rehab project on the house, much needed after all the splattered paint and eggs!)

Photos belong to

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Stoking the Fire

Are cartoon characters alive? Do they die? Do they know we exist?

When you’re on the spectrum, it’s not unusual to bond more easily with a fictional character than with real people. It’s neither right nor wrong; it’s simply a fact of life. So, philosophical questions like these take on legitimate importance. Because if you've found, as I have, that obsession over fictional works is a state of bliss, it follows that you want that obsession to last. But how?

Discussions on the topic abound on Wrong Planet: "Do you wish fictional characters were real?" “Yes, I do. Sometimes desperately enough to make myself feel sick. *shrug*,” says BelindatheNobody. "Sure would bring color and smiles to this grey and unhappy world... Sigh... :(" adds Celtic Frost.

"Does anyone think of a favorite character as your alter-ego?" another topic asks. "I go so far as to have 'conversations' with some of them," says a user named conundrum. "On occasion, this actually helps me figure stuff out. :)" "I pretend… they are my imaginary friends who support me and encourage me," writes IdahoRose. "Oftentimes [they] possess characteristics that are present in my own personality, so I guess you could say they bring out the best in me." CMD explains that she identifies with characters who are fellow outsiders. "Whenever I become upset over how different I am from others, I try to figure out how they coped."

Latching onto a fantasy can be incredibly uplifting, and practical, however illogical it might seem. Fortunately, there are many ways for us to feed our daydream.

Fandom today goes far beyond watching a TV show or reading a book. It’s creating fan art, writing fanfic, partaking in cosplay, joining online communities, and more. In this way, I think fictional characters can be said to be alive. They live inside us when we draw them, or write stories about them, or debate what they would do. Fantasy universes are our modern-day legends, like folklore of old, handed down through past generations.

At the same time, our obsessions can also be deeply personal. I watch a cartoon by myself, but in a community, I encounter other fans, each with their own personal interpretation. Maybe another fan’s vision supports my own, or maybe it clashes. Personally, I won’t read fanfic when it comes to my most beloved characters. Shipping? I find it juvenile and offensive. As for fan art, when it's respectful and faithful to the original, it can be awe-inspiring.

Can you imagine if our real-life relationships worked this way? If you had to draw a caricature of your best friend instead of talking with them? If you included a quote from your pilates partner at the bottom of your signature? If you put your sister and your former roommate into a romance, and then wrote scenarios for them? 

And yet, we go to these great lengths and more, to stoke our obsession with an imaginary character. Maybe that’s because even the most basic social interaction is prohibitive. Like talking to them. Like being able to shake their hand, Aw, heck, we'd like to give ‘em a big sloppy hug! It’s only a natural desire when you meet a real-life person you like; so why not fantasy characters, who are the most awesome people we know? Whoever develops the technology for personalized interaction with fictional characters, will make themselves a lot of money. I say, if we have Siri on our phones, why not Harry Potter? Pikachu? Sheldon Cooper? Insert your own preference.

So if fictional characters do possess a sort of "life," can they also die? We hate to see our favorite shows or books end. It can be like losing a friend. I found one take on this topic in a most unexpected place.

Angry Beavers was a late-90’s Nickelodeon cartoon. A show worth watching, if not worthy of obsessing over. Recently, I happened across the unaired final episode, "Bye Bye Beavers," on YouTube. What I found was far more edgy and profound than anything ever scripted in the show. In a fascinating 10 minutes of dialogue, heavy on ad-libs, the beavers learn they are animated characters in a cartoon, that is now ending, and they will cease to exist.
Norb: We’re over! How could they do this to us? There is no dog! My doofy brother, we’re goin’ buh-bye!

Dag: Bye-bye? Why-why?

Norb: Because we are over! As in done, through, finished, ended, terminated, extinguished, down for the count, adios …. We aren’t real! We’re animated characters in a cartoon. Real beavers don’t have appliances, they don’t use bathrooms, and they don’t talk!
The characters then proceed through the Stages-Of-Cartoon-Being-Over, from denial, to bargaining, to acceptance. They offer a few choice words for the network honchos who pulled the plug. Best of all, they interact with their own voice actors, and name-drop other characters they played in other cartoons. Basically, they confront the concept of "cartoon death" by obliterating their "cartoon reality."

"Bye Bye Beavers" is the kind of awesomeness you'd only expect from a hardcore fan. How cool is it, seeing it done by the people who made the cartoons? They acknowledge that the characters are something bigger than the show. They get it. They know what matters to fans like us.The characters cannot die. How can they, when we're here discussing them, ten years later?

A Beavers fan named dpstq expands on this point in a video commentary called "Bye bye beavers and its overall impact." "There’s more to this than just two characters breaking the fourth wall," he explains. The show’s creators, in making this final episode, "wanted us to see this not as a show, but as an experience."

Yes, most definitely, cartoons are an experience! True fans have known this for years. When you hear the Wrong Planet members talk about how much their favorite characters mean to them, can you doubt we’re no longer talking about just a TV show? Sometimes it’s a coping mechanism, or an imaginary friend, or a splash of color in an otherwise hopeless world. We live this stuff. It's something sacred.

The Beavers commentary goes on, “Imagine the kind of ending that last show would have had, if the creators, still making the characters aware of what they were, also made them aware of what they meant. It would have been a melancholy, bittersweet, but perfect ending. Even though Daggett and Norbert may vanish away forever, they knew that they were made for a reason.”

This is the key. What if fictional characters could speak to their devoted, emotionally invested fans, which describes the majority of us? Animaniacs spoke with tongue in cheek to its crazy, nit-picky fans in 1995’s "Please Please Pleese Get a Life Foundation." But I doubt the sincere approach has ever been done. What if our favorite characters knew we love them, and they loved us back?

That may be beyond the realm of the possible, so we depend on our imagination to make our fantasy last. "Don't stop imagining. The day that you do is the day that you die." goes the refrain of a song called "Seventeen" by Youth Lagoon. Indeed, fantasy is vital long past our youth. It keeps us hopeful, helps us deal with everyday problems, and enables us to learn about ourselves. As long as we keep imagining, we keep our inner fantasy worlds alive, and thereby, our own selves as well. Stoking the very fire of life energy within us.

I admit I have the most amazing conversations with my favorite fictional characters. They tend to be one-sided conversations, but, eh, what can you do? Not with my own characters though. That would be weird. Or maybe just redundant. But maybe some of you have talked with Fuzzy?

I haven’t stopped imagining. Have you?