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Robbing a museum is bad, but being Autistic isn't

Updated: Apr 5, 2023

If you were to rob a museum, what do you think you'd take? Probably something priceless, made of gold and jewels. Or maybe a painting by one of the great masters, cut right out of its frame.

How about... a bunch of dead birds?

Not your first choice? Well, it was for Edwin Rist, but that's only half the story.

I call them like I see them

Podcasts are an integral part of my and my partner's nightly routine. It's our very favorite part of the day: me on the couch with a video game, him cooking in the kitchen, and his phone placed strategically between us with the volume on full blast.

As Autists are wont to do, I have noticed a pattern within our nightly pattern. Every night, we listen to dramatic readings of Reddit stories. During probably 25% of them, something alerts my internal radar and I holler from the couch, "That dude is Autistic!"

(Autistics are not commonly found in nets, but I wouldn't put it past us.)

Am I projecting? Do I just think everybody's Autistic? Does working for APC mean I've got autism on the brain and I'm seeing it everywhere, even where it doesn't exist? I highly doubt it, and here's why: so many of the stories we listen to revolve around people who are unfortunately described as "annoying," "weird," or "entitled." Last night's episode, in summary, went something like this:

Podcast: My roommate claims to get grossed out and nauseated when I cook really flavorful foods. I told her too bad, it's my house too! Am I the bad guy?
Me: "Aww man, that's sensory issues. That roommate's Autistic."

I usually end up disheartened and frustrated by stories like these, but they serve as a nice jumping-off point for conversation. I'm incredibly grateful for my partner and his continual openness to my Autistic point of view. If anything, discussing the internet's failure to recognize neurodiverse needs has brought us closer as a couple. He understands that autism's a mixed bag: plenty of tough situations, but plenty of wonderful ones, too.

Last night, after running out of Reddit stories, we opted to switch to This American Life. This week's edition was a re-run of episode 654: The Feather Heist, first aired in August of 2018. The episode's prologue described how one young man, Edwin Rist, had successfully stolen several rare bird specimens from British Museum of Natural History. He had done so in order to sell the feathers to guys on the internet… who share his passion for tying historically-accurate fly-fishing lures… so he could buy himself a fancy new flute. Obviously, it didn't take long for this one to trigger my autism radar!

Something extraordinary

The podcast goes on to explain Edwin's first exposure to the incredible art of fly tying. One line really got me paying attention:

"And for whatever reason, 10-year-old Edwin's brain was just frozen by [the first video he saw about fly tying]. Seeing something so ordinary transform into something extraordinary like that was amazing to him."

A beautiful, intricate fly-fishing lure made from feathers of rare tropical birds.
"Extraordinary" is right. Okay, Edwin, I get it!

That right there is the feeling of a special interest coming to life! Thankfully, Edwin's parents did the right thing and strongly encouraged his newest passion. To make a long podcast short, the dyed chicken feathers used in modern day tying just weren't up to Edwin's standards. If he wanted to be the best of the best, he needed a supply of the tropical rarities recklessly exploited during the Victorian era. The podcast's host goes on to make a telling observation:

"Edwin has this specific way of talking, perhaps cultivated from living in Europe for many years. And on the topic of using substitute feathers instead of the real thing, he told Kirk, the knowledge of its falsity eats at you."

Pedantic speech and expansive vocabulary, anyone? I had a good laugh at the host's speculation that maybe it's a European thing. Sorry, Sean Cole, but the only country of origin for phrases like "knowledge of its falsity" is Autismland. (You should visit sometime, our conversations are very clear and specific!)

So Edwin, caught up in the pursuit of historical accuracy, is driven to get his hands on the kinds of stunning feathers that just can't be replicated. That's where the museum comes in. Edwin of course made thorough preparations for the heist, including, I kid you not, a Microsoft Word document titled "PlanforMuseumInvasion.doc." Incredible.

A bright turquoise bird with a magenta throat, sitting on a tropical plant.
This is a spangled cotinga--good luck trying to get a chicken feather to look like that!

Making a case

So why am I listing all the awesomely Autistic things that Edwin did? No, I'm not playing a one-person game of bingo where five in a row means "autism" (though that's a really cool way to alleviate worrying). I'm pointing out these tell-tale signs because that's exactly what happened during Edwin's trial:

"[D]uring the sentencing process, Edwin's lawyers brought in a psychologist who diagnosed him with Asperger's syndrome [an outdated term for what we would now call high-masking autism]."

My partner and I both whooped with delight at this line--I was right! For the first time, my peanut-gallery autism speculation had an official confirmation. But the triumph of being right didn't last long. Suddenly, there's a whole lot of backpedaling:

"Edwin just didn't seem like someone with Asperger's. And after six of their eight hours together, [the interviewer] told him so. Edwin responded that he hadn't exhibited any obvious symptoms of the disorder until he was in the evaluation room, not long before sentencing. He said, I became exactly what I was supposed to be."

Are you kidding me?

It was at this point that I asked my partner to turn off the podcast. It takes a lot of batteries to face this kind of thing, and I wasn't in the right mindset to hear it. It seemed like the episode was gearing up to paint Edwin as some kind of "faking it" mastermind, playing a role to get a lighter sentence. Thanks to internalized ableism, that just so happens to be a very common fear among late-identified Autistics. I myself spent decades in the "I'm probably just faking it" valley, desperately wishing someone would notice while I dissociated through life.

Hearing Edwin's assertion that he "became exactly what he was supposed to be" was what hit me the hardest. Here is a neurodivergent person whose life is so clearly enriched and driven by Autistic joy, yet so strongly pressured into rejecting that aspect of his identity. The interviewer tells him he doesn't seem Autistic… after half an hour describing all the ways he definitely does.

(Me getting ready to strongly disagree with this podcast episode.)

Granted, I have no formal psychological training, and I certainly have no place making any sort of armchair diagnosis. But when I see someone who's laser-focused on a niche interest, talks in a pedantic or overly-formal fashion, and makes a tidy Word doc about their upcoming foray into criminal activity, I can't help but see someone whose brain works like mine does. And he's formally diagnosed, too!

On the one hand, I get it. It's hard out here being neurodivergent. When your perception of autism is negative, it makes sense for you to be resistant to claim the label for yourself. But what those outside the neurodivergent community don't understand is that there is so much to be positive about, too. Little does Edwin realize, he is experiencing Autistic joy. He describes it so perfectly in this next quote. While the origin of his joy may be unknown to him, he does recognize its rarity:

"For a fly tyer, for someone who understands the feathers, and sees the potential in them, and who really has a passion--I guess you could call it an obsession. I don't like to use it, because it sounds like a negative term--but that overwhelming, 'wow, what have I just seen?' feeling was all that I had. And I remember it to this point, because it was just so extraordinary. And the sad thing is that many, many, many--well, most people have no idea what that feels like."

You're right, Edwin. Most people do have no idea what that feels like--because they're not lucky enough to to experience Autistic joy. But I'm glad I experience it, and I'm glad Edwin does, too.

Ableism, inside and out

So why does it bother me that Edwin's autism is so discounted? Because it's a glaring example of how ableist perceptions block Autistics from getting the information and support we so desperately need.

Perhaps Edwin is doing just fine in life (he pulled off the heist, after all) and isn't looking for support. Maybe he has a handle on executive dysfunction, no trouble accommodating his sensory needs, and has figured out enough of the social stuff that it's all working out. I sincerely hope that's the case. But for every one person like Edwin who's doing okay, there are so, so many who are not.

So many people wonder, "why don't I fit in?" and, "why can't I just go to the store?" while everyone tells them they "don't seem Autistic." A lot of them have probably wondered if they're Autistic at some point, only to turn away from the notion thanks to the ableism they've internalized. "No, I don't want to be like that," they think. They don't find the answers they need, and their lives remain difficult. People complain about them on Reddit and dramatically read those stories on podcasts.

Embracing my autism gave me my life back. There are certainly a fair share of challenges that I have to address, but I wouldn't change my neurotype for anything. I only hope that, if more people knew this, they'd be less afraid to feel the same way about themselves. I'm so grateful that I get to experience Autistic joy and be motivated by the things I love--just not quite motivated enough to rob a museum.

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