Updated: Nov 10, 2020
April is Autism Awareness or as I prefer to call it, Autism Acceptance month. It wasn’t until 2006, my senior year in high school that I had any awareness of Autism at all but meeting Gordy changed my life for the better.
My best friend, Gordy, has Autism. When he was diagnosed as a child, the medical community still referred to his diagnosis as Asperger Syndrome. Now, his symptoms fall under the umbrella of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). I think the D should stand for “difference” not “disorder” but no one asked me.
Autism truly is a spectrum and the symptoms and severity vary so drastically between individuals with ASD that I’m not going to talk about all the possible causes and symptoms of Autism. ( Click this link to learn more about symptoms of ASD. ) I’m writing about a dear friend and who he is to me both because of and in spite of this “disorder.”
Truthfully, when I met Gordy, I had no clue he had any “disorder” at all. It was not information he was comfortable disclosing to his peers. I heard him play piano at a school talent show rehearsal and was blown away by his talent. He was writing and performing his own music just like me and my band mates but with a touch of a Ray Charles impersonation… his head thrown back and his sunglasses on. I was so intrigued. I had to know him.
Knowing what I know now, I never would have approached him the way I did. My hyperactive teenage self ran up to him after rehearsal, in the dark, and introduced myself loudly, spilling all my thoughts about possible collaboration. He was overwhelmed. I know that now but at the time, I didn’t really know how to read his lack of eye contact and his hurried “okay.. yeah.” as he handed me a cd of his music and got into his dad’s car. (He ended up winning that talent show, of course.)
Not only was a social interaction like this uncomfortable for him but he had been through some recent bullying by some girls that he initially thought were his friends and his ability to trust was very low. To Gordy, I was a possible threat to be approached with caution. According to www.autismspeaks.com Nearly two-thirds of children with autism between the ages of 6 and 15 have been bullied.
After that first meeting, Gordy and I ran into each other often at school - sometimes of my own volition. I continued to invite him to practice with my band after school and I eventually wore him down.
The first time he came to band practice, he blew us all away. The way he jumped right in on the keys and played even our original songs as if he’d heard them a thousand times adding his own flavor and flair was incredible. We asked him to join the band. He was hesitant but I was persistent.
I, actually, don’t remember how our friendship began to grow past that point but it did. As we got to know and trust each other, Gordy wrestled with sharing his diagnosis with me. By this time, I’d certainly noticed his quirks and had begun to wonder what made him different but never dared approach the subject myself. I found joy in his uniqueness.
Gordy had a few very narrow interests on which he would perseverate. According to Interactive Autism Network, restrictive and repetative interests and activities are one of the key features of Autism. Sweden and Swedish culture was the main one, followed by Florida, Chicago, Hawaiian shirts, and Ray Charles. He had a Swedish flag in his car and was teaching himself the language. He wore a Hawaiian shirt every warm day of the year because he felt it made him “look like a successful Floridian.” In a moment of honesty I told him the shirts made him look like a Floridian retiree and there began an honest friendship like I’d never experienced.
One day, before practice, we stood in front of his car chatting.
I have to tell you something, Jessie.
I don’t let many people call me by me by my childhood nickname but the way he says it is so endearing... he’s one of the few who gets a pass.
But I don’t want you to think less of me when I tell you.
I reassured him that our friendship was solid. He told me about his Asperger's diagnosis and gave a vague explanation of the things that were hard for him including social interaction, sensitivity to loud noises like sirens, and poor hand/eye coordination. I went home and did some research of my own.
He only shared the negatives with me but let me tell you the things I love about Gordy.
~ He is extremely honest and literal which means you can take him at his word and he wants complete honesty from others. That is rare in a friend.
~ He acknowledges his areas of weakness and listens closely to trusted advisers.
~ Gordy is a gifted philosopher. Deep conversations flow easily between us and he’s not afraid to tackle the difficult subjects.
~ He is a talented musician and songwriter. When it comes to music, he can hear a song once and play his own rendition on the piano as if he’d seen the sheet music. It’s incredible. He has a knack for adding jazzy or bluesy chords where one wouldn't expect and changing the whole feel of a song. And don’t get me started on his songwriting skills. Listen to some of his work on Gordon Sill's YouTube Channel.
~ Gordy can be impulsive and hyperactive like me. #ThanksADHD
According to Yael Leitner the Author of the article "The Co-Occurrence of Autism and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in Children – What Do We Know?" found here. Symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) often co-occur.
This could be seen as a negative but in our friendship it means that we have SO MUCH FUN together. Some days, we would hop in his car (he likes to drive) and drive around Michigan looking for random lakes to swim in. Others were spent goofing around, listening to new music, and talking about his current love interests (an area in which I have always carefully advised him.) He lives in the moment, appreciating the beauty around him. He looks at the world with a child-like wonder... A trait of which I’m very envious.
We’ve both seen each other through heartbreak and joy and big life decisions.
~ Gordy is a loyal friend. He is non-judgmental. He has been there for me through even my worst decisions without a hurtful word - only honest questions about why I made the choices I did.
~ He is passionate about his interests and the people he loves.
I’m so grateful for my friend.
I couldn’t write this without his input or approval. When I asked his perspective on our friendship, he said,
You opened a new world to me that I never really had anybody explain between the lines - the everyday modern world of my peers. I can vent to you. I can analyze with you. I can get advice from somebody who's not judgmental and has proven time and again their intentions are pure. The friendship has evolved immensely and back again. It used to be hanging out. It, then, became a shoulder to cry on, then a confidant. At this point it's looking at each other's lives, celebrating each day, and mourning the hard times as well. Relationship discussions, future ideals, and making you jealous of where I live and you making me jealous of how you live.
I vowed to myself, after learning of his diagnosis, that I would always be honest with Gordy. He isn’t always able to recognize the nuances of some social interactions. I’ve always striven to help him navigate those areas and as time has passed he needs my input less and less. He surpassed me in college education and has gone on travel adventures that I could only dream of. He had dreams of an adult life on the gulf coast of Florida and after working for years on a cruise ship, diligently saving his money, he picked up his life and moved to his dream location. He continues to beat the odds.
Autism Speaks reports that nearly half of 25-year-olds with autism have never held a paying job.
I can’t write this piece without mentioning the incredibly important role Gordy’s Dad has played in his life especially as it comes to encouraging independence. It must have been so hard to let go of the reigns and let Gordy learn some tough life lessons, remaining supportive while not micromanaging his life. Shout out to parents raising kids with different needs and abilities. You are rock stars!
There are more dreams Gordy has yet to achieve and he sets the bar for himself very high, higher than many neurotypical people. He has a stable job that pays a livable wage but, of course, he wants more. He wants a career that he’s passionate about like music and/or Florida real estate. Either field would be lucky to have him. He wants to be married and build a family one day. Again, they’d be lucky to have him. I know he will be an incredible parent someday. Watching him love my kids has been one of the great joys of my life. They think he’s the bee's knees too. Gordy will like that I used that phrase. #thebeesknees
Even though we live 1,000 miles from each other now, Gordy and I talk several times a week. He is still one of my very best friends and I’m one of his. He has several close trusted friendships now including my husband, a close friend he made in college, and a beautiful girlfriend (inside and out) who gets him and loves him for who he is.
Maybe you are the parent of a child with ASD and you’re wondering if your child will ever develop close and lasting relationships. You could be a person with Autism wondering if you will ever have a deep connection with another person. I hope in reading about my dear friend, you find hope. If you are a neurotypical person and you haven’t taken the time to get to know a person who is neurologically different from yourself, I hope this encourages you to step out of your comfort zone. There is a whole beautiful world that you are missing.
April is Autism Awareness month or as I prefer to call it, Autism Acceptance month. I dream of a future where Autism Spectrum Differences are accepted and even appreciated in social, educational, and professional circles. I dream of a world where our friends with Autism can thrive without judgment or fear but with love and accommodation.
Go in love and acceptance!