This blog entry was submitted to us as a story and testimonial of the 2017 Love & Autism conference.
By William Tole
Although I didn’t fully understand it at the time, 40 years ago, I went to Liberty Station to cure autism–my own autism–by joining the Navy. The beautiful complex of food, vendor, artist’s stalls, hotels and conference center that is Liberty Station now, was once the Recruit Training Center for the U.S. Navy; where I went to boot camp after my Mom & Dad signed me into the service when I was 17 upon dropping out of High School.
In 1977 autism was not known to be a “Spectrum Disorder” as it is today. As a broken-hearted and confused teen, I thrust myself into an environment which forces conformity, to break me of my stims and oddness. This was a big step for someone who is inherently non-conformist, but stims and oddness embarrassed me. Don’t get me wrong, now that I know I am autistic, I do not see it as something that needs to be cured and I continue to work on acceptance.
As far back as I could remember, I would come home after school and try to flap my way out of the sensory overload that the interactions of each school day would bring, not understanding the separateness I felt locked out by in dealing with other kids my age and the mask I would have to wear all day. Some days I would be bullied, most days I sat on the sidelines in gym, never being chosen for the team. Band was a refuge and passion that allowed be to hang on until High School. By the time I made it to 9th grade, I started cutting classes, cutting myself and hanging out with the wrong crowd where I found some degree of acceptance – to a point. The breaking point would inevitably come with too much social interaction, too little understanding of the nuances of communication and a veil between me and every one else which I could not seem to fully penetrate. I knew I had to do something to find hope, break myself of what I perceived to be bad habits and find my way into the adult world. I had a romanticized obsession with what it was like to be out at sea on a ship in a Peacoat and saw this as an opportunity to escape my weirdness. I hated the Navy right away, but found within its structure a way forward which allowed me to pursue another passion; cooking.
Back then, there wasn’t a name for the kind of spectrum experience I lived every day, but to now be validated, years later by a formal diagnosis, I can begin to heal. I have enjoyed success through the years, morphing my culinary career into broadcasting where I can harness the skills of autistic scripting, understanding sequences and formats, but communicating with, relating to and being comfortable around other people are challenges I face every day. In my 20’s I began to hear about autistic experiences that I could relate to and identify with. By my 40’s I began to find community in the digital world through on-line resources like Oddizm, Wrong Planet and Tribe Net where I began to see there are other people in the world like me. By my late 50’s, after a bit of a meltdown, I finally pursued a formal diagnosis and got help from a professional who could guide me, providing coping skills, self acceptance and understanding.
After going through boot camp and school at Liberty Station, to return there for Love and Autism was like awakening from a very bizarre dream, but it has helped galvanize my sense of community, brought an understanding of the diversity within neurodiversity and given me the chance to find my tribe. I write this to you, because I want to express my gratitude to you for being a part of this experience. Have a nice day. —-Bill