Come As You Are, Part Three
On Valentine’s Day, Roxanne showed up late to group. It didn’t matter, because nobody except me and her had shown up since early December.
“I have to tell you something, and I haven’t told anyone else yet,” she said. “After today, I’m quitting.”
“I want your job,” I said.
“God, I’m so glad to hear that!” she said. “I thought I’d screwed everything up. I thought I’d broken S.A.S.A.”
We had a long conversation about where each of us thought things had gone wrong. She admitted to having given up a few months beforehand, and to having little knowledge of the autistic spectrum. She talked about how hard it had been to do her job without sufficient training or guidance.
“I don’t think Nathan is very happy with me,” said Roxanne. “But it’s hard to tell with him. He just kind of assumes you’ll figure things out for yourself.”
I remembered Nathan telling me about his first job with disabled kids, at a summer camp in northern Ontario. He was still a teenager, and had no experience with disability. I don’t know how much training he received, but I know about the camp, and I know that no amount of preparation could prepare someone for working there.
He was thrown in the deep end, and he learned how to swim fast and swim well.
“Maybe I should be the one to e-mail Nathan about this decision,” I said.
“That’s a good idea,” said Roxanne.
God, I can only imagine what Nathan’s reaction was when he got that e-mail. I don’t even remember what the e-mail said. What could it have said?
“Hey- I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The bad news is, you’ve lost a facilitator. The good news is, you’ve already found a willing replacement.”
In any case, he met with me, and we talked about it, and he decided to hire me.
“But I think it’s a good idea to wait until the fall and then start fresh. And that depends, of course, on whether we can get funded next year,” he said. “I’ll keep you updated.”
A few months went by and Nathan called me in for another meeting.
“The second group is definitely happening in the fall. Also, you’ve been hired to assist with the week-long orientation program for incoming disabled students. For both jobs you’ll be working with another facilitator- I’m not sure if you know him- Timothy Finnegan.”
Of course I knew Finnegan. Everyone in disability studies knew him. He had a towering mohawk, the voice of Seth Rogen, and was so goddamn built he could throw a truck.
He was also very much not autistic.
I pointed this out to Nathan.
“That’s not your decision to make,” he said. He paused, and collected himself. “I’ve given a lot of thought to this, and I know Timothy is the best person for the job.”
I had doubts.
Who could know autistic people better than other autistic people? Could S.A.S.A. be adequately led by a team where two out of three leaders were neurotypical?
Well, at least Finnegan’s in disability studies, I thought. Roxanne was an English major.
He and I met the morning of the first day of the orientation. While our co-worker Leah led the students through an opening exercise, Finnegan and I stood out in the hallway together.
“Do you have any idea what we’re supposed to be doing?” I asked.
“Nah, but they know where we are,” said Finnegan. “If they need us for something, they’ll ask.”
We spent about an hour and a half talking in the hall- about what, I don’t remember.
I usually can’t talk with other people that easily for that long, but Finnegan was different. He had a coal black sense of humour, a defiant, cynical, yet cautiously optimistic world view, and was thoroughly charismatic.
All the students liked Finnegan, and were drawn to him, asking him for advice and input. He interacted with them effortlessly. For me, it was harder. I wanted to take them by the shoulders and say, “I have no idea what I’m doing! You need to find a real adult!”
This dynamic carried over to the new S.A.S.A. group.
We only had about four or five students- half the number that Roxanne had started with. Most of the students were first years who had been at orientation with us. They glommed on to Finnegan right away. I wasn’t sure whether to feel relieved or not. I didn’t feel entirely effective, but at the same time, I didn’t know what to say to them. I watched and listened, and after each meeting, Finnegan and I talked about the students and how we thought things had gone. I had insights about autism and autistic people which Finnegan didn’t have, and he was appreciative and receptive to my input. He knew things about social dynamics I didn’t know, and pointed out things I hadn’t noticed. I was appreciative and receptive of this.
Both Finnegan and I are a little full of ourselves, and I suspect at the beginning both of us wondered why we weren’t facilitating alone.
But we quickly came to understand each other’s value, and bonded together as equal partners.
Finnegan could be a little scattered, whereas I was finicky. I was painfully shy, whereas he was gregarious. I knew about autism, he knew how to work the system.
Nathan’s management style didn’t change; he was as uninvolved with us as he had been with Roxanne. But this time, it paid off. Finnegan and I developed an attitude of comradery. We were the only people we could rely on to provide input about our group. This was great in the beginning, but over time I think we became too hermetically sealed. While we admired individuals in the Accessibility Services department- especially Nathan, whom we idolized- we were skeptical of the system as a whole. We were both radical activists working within a deeply conservative system, and as a result, we developed an “us against them” attitude which wasn’t entirely productive.
We were left to our own devices to such an extent that on the rare occasions we were given instructions, we viewed them as interference.
Our group operated smoothly and our students valued us, but our group also stopped operating in relation to anything else in the university, including the other S.A.S.A. group.
It was just Finnegan and I, working according to our own rules and ideals, protecting and nurturing our students in our own way.
We didn’t have a lot of students during the first year, but we gave everything we had to the ones who did show up. This approach paid off during the second year, and by the end of that year, we had five or six students who could be counted on to show up every week. That was the same number of regulars that Nathan’s group had.
Then Finnegan and I were shitcanned.
I’m afraid this is going to be anti-climactic, because we were never given an official reason. It was probably budgetary. Why have two S.A.S.A. groups with three facilitators when you could have one? The fact that two groups and three facilitators were more effective was seen as irrelevant.
I’d like to think that the university was so large that nobody even realized Finnegan and I were employees for two years, and when the higher-ups noticed, we were immediately let go.
In any case, S.A.S.A. continues to this day, as far as I know. It’s just one group, and Nathan is the only facilitator, and maybe centralizing it that way really is for the best.
But there’s something about a roomful of autistics meeting together once a week and doing whatever however which I find intensely appealing. I think that idea deserves to be explored and expanded.
It’s only a question of figuring out how.