Interview by Jenny Bristol
Illustration by Rebecca Burgess
You didn’t think you could get out of here without learning a bit about me, too, did you?
Jenny Bristol (that’s me!) is a freelance writer and author, homeschooling parent of two teenagers, and classic nerd. She’s published 2 1/4 books (so far) and spends her days reviewing educational websites/games/apps and facilitating the life and education of her family. She was diagnosed quite late—at age 45—so had to learn to navigate childhood, adulthood, and parenthood without the context of understanding autism. She is grateful for that, however, since she still managed to learn a lot of skills to get by in our society, mostly on her own.
What does a typical work/regular day look like for you (or, if there isn’t a typical day, describe one that is representative of your work/regular life)?
I get up, check my email, Facebook, and other social media, then go take a shower and have breakfast. Then I settle into whatever my “work work” is for the day, be it writing a blog post or reviewing an educational website or scheduling posts at GeekDad and GeekMom. I regularly have to put down my work, though, to facilitate my son’s homeschooling, to help my daughter through yet another college essay, to go with my husband to a doctor appointment, or to settle disputes among our cats. Because of this, I’m often working off and on all day long, every day of the week. I’ve gotten used to this lifestyle where I’m unable to focus on my paying work for too long in one stretch, but it makes me exceptionally inefficient. But my family is my biggest priority, so I make sure I continue to be available to them, since even teenagers (sometimes especially teenagers) need their parent, and I know they’ll be on their own far too soon. There will be plenty of time to focus more on work later. In the meantime, I am treasuring this time together while we have it. We also try to carve out at least one night per week for more focused family time where all four of us do something fun together.
What hobbies or interests do you have outside of your work?
I have so many interests. I love making things in general, so I often sew, crochet, knit, or do needlework, but my husband Rory and I are also learning the craft of old-fashioned letterpress printing. I am also extremely passionate about travel, American history, my own family history and genealogy, and logic puzzles and trivia (I love testing myself). In addition to writing for work, I also write for myself since I have a lot to say on a wide variety of topics, as well as having plenty of fiction ideas. I’ve self-published two books already and have many more in-process. I’ve also rediscovered that I like drawing, especially digitally, so I’ve been trying to do that more. In general, though, I just love to learn.
How does being autistic help or hinder your work or hobbies?
With my hobbies, I think being autistic has only been a help. For example, my autistic traits are completely tied into my love of logic puzzles. The puzzles just make sense, and my brain is able to make intuitive leaps, which makes me very good at them. I love crafts because I’m able to make something by following a set of instructions, which is enjoyable for me. Sometimes I create altogether new things, but even they are usually based on other things. I think my curiosity about where I come from and about the wider world only support my enjoyment of and choice of hobbies.
As for work, my attention to detail and strong sense of responsibility have made me an excellent proofreader and evaluator of privacy policies (another thing I’ve done for work). I notice things that other people don’t, and that’s a real advantage. It’s made me a reliable freelancer in general, as I always abide by deadlines and due dates. And it’s helped with my writing, because writing is just a series of patterns that you mix and match to create new things. I communicate better in writing than by speaking, so being a writer is a great career option for me. On the other hand, being autistic has made it hard for me to work in a 9-5 job in a traditional office setting. I’ve done it many times, but I’ve always been miserable. I’m much more comfortable working at home and being able to set my own schedule. This provides more flexibility, but also a lot more financial uncertainty. So, as with everything, there are tradeoffs.
What kinds of changes or accommodations do you make in your life to allow you to be successful?
If I have a lot to do outside the house in a given week, I try to pack it into as few days as possible. I function best when I have at least 2-3 days per week where I don’t have to leave the house, since this gives me more uninterrupted work time and time to recharge. I may still end up leaving the house on the other days for grocery or library runs, but I can do those whenever it’s convenient since they aren’t scheduled. I prefer to fit obligations around my life rather than my life around my obligations, and I’ve (mostly) set my life up to accommodate that.
I also end up doing a lot of my socializing online. I have countless friends whom I talk with daily, which is easier to take a break from when I need it than when I’m with someone in person.
“I feel I can be myself more online than I can in person, so I’ve actually had deeper connections with friends online than with most people in person.”
Have you experienced discrimination or bullying because of your autism or autistic traits?
In elementary school and junior high, I was bullied relentlessly. Throughout, from 3rd grade through 8th grade, people at school made my life miserable. I looked different from other people, acted differently, got good grades, and all of that made me an easy target for the cruelty of other kids, which made my intense anxiety even worse. Despite going to a science & tech high school with a bunch of fellow nerds (which was GREAT, by the way), there were still some microaggressions even then, such as getting picked last for teams, receiving disparaging looks, hearing insulting comments behind my back, and other things. But at least it wasn’t as bad, and I had some great friends and sufficient dates in high school. As an adult, I’ve come to value and appreciate those who made and make me feel welcome and accepted all the more.
I don’t think I’ve experienced any other types of discrimination because of my autistic traits, though. I’m very good at putting on a temporary mask to get through things like job interviews, meetings, doctor appointments, and the like. I just can’t keep it up for long.
What advice would you give to a young or teenage autistic person to help them live their best life, or what advice would you give an autistic adult to help them feel supported in their continuing journey?
It’s fine to not like what other people like. Just because “everyone” likes something doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you if you don’t like it. You can hate it, even. Choose to revel in what you truly enjoy. For example, I’ve learned that it’s okay to take joy in following precise directions (like with building LEGO kits), and in thriving from routine. I often begin doing things in a certain way to help me not forget steps, but I now realize that I enjoy the process too.
Get rid of the phrases “supposed to” and “should.” Once you start ignoring what society thinks you’re supposed to do or how you’re supposed to act or be, you can start living your own life by your own rules. Revel in the things that make you in particular happy, with no regard to societal norms.
Try to arrange your life around your strengths and interests. Sometimes you DO have to do things you don’t want to do, jumping through hoops that were not designed for you, and it’s important to know how to do that. But the sooner you can learn how your mind operates and cultivate those interests of yours, the better. One of your passions may turn into a career, or may just make your life outside of work richer. Remember: Learning for the sake of learning is not just okay, it’s what life’s all about.
What advice would you give parents of autistic kids about the best ways to support their kids in becoming their best selves? What advice from the “experts” do you think parents should ignore?
Help your kids find “their people.” Help them find friends who share their interests, who are patient, compassionate, and open to meeting new people. These people may not be their school classmates. They may not even be in your local homeschool group. They may be people older or younger than your kids. I grew up in the days before the internet, so it was hard to find people who were like me. But when I started going to a nerdy high school, I found more people who were “my people.” I also spent the vast majority of my teenage social life on BBSes, which was the pre-internet equivalent to forums, email, and chat rooms. This introduced me to many of “my people” and gave me the skills for finding more of them as my life went on.
“Also: You don’t need to “fix” your child’s autism. Your child is not broken. There isn’t a different child hiding inside, behind the autism. Your child is who you see, and their needs are completely valid, even if those needs seem odd or unimportant to you.”
Respect their needs when they communicate them (with or without words) and help them learn skills to work with or around their challenges. Be the safe place for your children. Also, study them closely for glimpses into their special interests and talents. Then encourage them in those areas, as that can help their confidence and help lay the groundwork for their future. Focus on their strengths, not what you might perceive as deficiencies.
What was one piece of advice you received that helped you be comfortable with who you are?
There hasn’t really been one single piece of advice. Mostly it’s been my own self-study combined with surrounding myself with people who care about me and accept (and often celebrate) me for who I am, especially my mom, my husband, and my children. I inhabit an environment where I learn about, understand, and value all the parts of myself that have been at various times called weird, annoying, or even broken. I am not broken; I am whole. I live my life on my own terms now.
How did learning you were autistic so late at the age of 45 affect you?
Once it became clear that I was autistic, I started reevaluating my entire life up until then, studying it all through an autistic lens. Everything finally made sense, and I’m still coming to eye-opening realizations about my past actions, experiences, relationships, and interactions with others. I’m still reprocessing my life, two years later. It’s been a wholly positive experience.
Because I wasn’t diagnosed young (in fact, I’d never even heard of autism until I was an adult), I had to learn to navigate school, college, adulthood, relationships, parenting, work, and more without a full understanding of myself and how my brain worked. I’m actually grateful to not have been diagnosed earlier, though, since it’s only been recently that the autistic community has worked to support each other and to educate the so-called “autism experts,” and I feel that any “intervention” when I was younger would have done more harm than good.
I’m grateful to have the words to express myself about it now, and to help any autistic people around me who struggle to understand themselves. Seeing that look of recognition, or those words of epiphany, is so rewarding.
My patterns of living and my interests and what my needs are and were is so much clearer in hindsight, with decades of patterns to look back on. I wish I had understood myself better earlier, but overall I like the way this all unfolded for me.
What do you see as some of your strengths that you can attribute to being autistic?
The ability to notice patterns, both literal patterns and patterns of behavior, in myself and others. This ability has helped me look back on my own life and figure myself out more, which is how I figured out I might be autistic in the first place. It also helps me relate to others, matching what I observe in others’ behavior with what I’ve experienced or witnessed or heard about in the past. This helps me give wise counsel.
My feeling of personal responsibility and living up to my commitments. My punctuality and reliability. These make me a valuable friend and employee/contractor and have opened doors and provided opportunities for me.
My incredibly strong empathy. This helps me be a better partner to my husband, a better mom to my kids, and a better friend to my friends. It also means that I need to keep a protective bubble around myself, though, to keep myself from becoming too overwhelmed by all the hate and pain in the world.
Is there anything else you’d like to share regarding your life as an autistic person?
I have a slightly different point of view from many autistic people about masking. Once I learned how to create them for myself, I figured out how to put on and take off my masks at will, using them as my own toolbox for successfully navigating life situations. Keeping them on too long is exhausting, though, which is part of why I prefer to work from home and can only work part time. But for job interviews, meetings, interactions at the bank, making phone calls… For all those, I put on my designated mask and just get through it. Putting on the proper mask at the right time makes my life easier and gets me through situations with fewer problems and inconveniences. But then I take it off as soon as I can. Sometimes I enjoy putting on a mask, since it’s kind of like taking a break from your usual self—and when you’re someone with a lot of anxiety like me, it can help you break out of anxious cycles of thinking. I just can’t do it all day, every day.
What are the best ways for people to connect with you?
- Website: http://www.jennybristol.com
- Twitter: @jennywbristol
- Instagram: @jennywrenbristol
- Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/jennywbristol/.
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