Autism at work and not

Christian Firefighter picture
With engine as a structure firefighter, 2008. Notice the typically autistic hand position

By Christian Espicha

I’m writing this to supplement my resume, where I do not discuss either autism nor my activities related to it. This is because I am hesitant to let most potential employers know I’m autistic. The discrimination is very real, though I challenge you to get any to admit to it. I can’t count how many times I’ve allowed myself to trust people enough to tell them of my diagnosis. Although, admittedly, most often I’ve been forced to tell after something in my demeanor or actions have revealed it for me. The result was rejection and/or dismissal, all the while I heard excuses and denials.

“Is there anything you’d like to tell me? You can tell me anything…”

B.S. They definitely treat me differently after I unwisely trust them and confess.

“Um…I have autism…”

Boom! It’s like a switch is flipped. I can actually see their demeanor change. They start to speak to me as if I am either slow or too delicate to even address. They will leave me out of activities and decision making, as if I can’t be trusted or relied upon.

I will never forget my experience at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center.

In 2013 I applied for and was accepted as a monk working as a kitchen apprentice. I had already worked in the kitchen since 2010 as a volunteer at San Francisco Zen Center, Tassajara’s parent organization, where I did well and made a lasting friend, Clare.

Working in the kitchen at Tassajara was different though. Not only was it daily for hours at a stretch, it was also loud, hectic, crowded and HOT. All sensations I have extreme difficulty with. Now there is even a term for it, sensory processing disorder, which can be an issue unto itself or part of autism. I hated working in the kitchen. I HAD to tell the head monk in charge I was autistic after blowing it and running out to frantically stim in my room one day shortly after starting.

I make art out of pictures of my beloved stim toys, my “squishies” (This is also a link describing my first panel discussion) Google Autistry and Me for more personal autism stories.

And thus began my exclusion.

I was relegated to drying and putting away dishes, never allowed to actually cook, and I noticed  being passed over as others received opportunities I was denied. I REALLY noticed it and became very unhappy, refusing to even try. Nevertheless, I stuck it out for 3 months until finally one day I had had enough. I quit after having an epic breakdown in the kitchen.

They didn’t know what to d with me then as I was not suited for any of the other positions at the resort like housekeeping or dealing with the public. The most suitable spot for me, the library, was taken. So for a few days I blissfully languished, refusing to attend any activities and reading about Tibetan Buddhism in solitude (Tassajara is Soto Zen). I also worked on my rakasu in preparation for my lay ordination, which I successfully completed and took my jukai, or lay ordination vows, later after returning to San Francisco.

I am now qualified to help teach in certain Zen situations. Such as my friend Anlor Davin’s Autsit meditation group, meditation especially ASD individuals which meets in Marin County, California.

Christian Espicha collage
Collage of me wearing the rakasu I sewed over the course of six months at Tassajara

Tassajara finally assigned me to my own crew clearing the grounds of brush an assisting to train the fire crew they had formed since the fire danger there is so extreme.

Christian with other monks
Training with other monks at Tassajara

Except for 5 years as a firefighter/EMT where they just didn’t care as long as I could physically and mentally perform the tasks – which I could. Something about wearing all that heavy gear and being completely subsumed with emergencies really suited me. There was no time for the actions of autism – fiddling with my hands or squishy toy, twisting my hair, flapping those hands, rocking, etc. I also performed well at firefighting academy and EMT school. The academic aspects of both were not especially challenging for me, geek that I am. As heard around the Academy, “Firefighters are not the brightest bulbs,” which is a bit of a  slight but meant humorously. What it also meant is I didn’t have to struggle with intellectual  issues while also navigating the social and physical, something I have difficulty with. It also taught me teamwork which also was mostly highly regimented and defined. Chain of command and all that…

And this from a person who had been told my entire life I couldn’t get along with others. Firefighting was instrumental in building my self esteem and confidence.

Christian Firefighter picture
With engine as a structure firefighter, 2008. Notice the typically autistic hand position

Heavy physical activity and the arts – writing, drawing and digital arts were and are my lifelines.

Rejection occurs soon after starting a job and for this reason I usually don’t reveal the autism issue – however, I am usually forced to as my behavior gives it away.

I have remained active and am currently a member of an outdoor group where I hike, ski and attend other outdoor activities weekly. We hike an average of 10 miles each time with elevation gains of over 1,000 feet.

skiing picture
Cross-country skiing with outdoor sports group, 2019

Here are some autism outreach activities I have performed in the past few years:

I attended as a writer/photographer with the referral of Sallie Bernard, founder of Asendigo Autism Services and got both a great story, and pictures. I had no trouble working the crowd and also made some lasting contacts.

Autism At Work Congress 2017
Collage of SAP’s Autism at Work Congress, 2017
autism panel
Participating in autism panel for Marin County Board of Education, 2017. I am holding my centipede squishy in left hand.

In 2017 I trained for and traveled to Aspen as part of Paul Nussbaum’s Expedition Autism Greenland to raise awareness for autism at Ascendigo Autism Services there.

Through these and other activities I hope to educate people about autism while raising my own sense of self worth as a member of society, something many ASD people have difficulty with, but can do if given the opportunity.

***

I am Christian Espicha, an adult woman with autism. Though diagnosed with autism as a young child, I didn’t receive appropriate services until recently when I became a client at Autistry Studios in San Rafael, CA. The reason I didn’t receive services is partly because I possess a genius IQ. At age 45, I was the oldest member to graduate from the Humboldt County Structure Firefighting Academy. I completed EMT training and worked as a firefighter/EMT in Trinity County, California. I performed with my fellow firefighters montain resues and recoveries, assisted the Forest Service with fires in the Trinity National Forest and assisted with water rescues/recoveries on the Trinity River. I’m also a writer and an artist. See my website at www.autistryandme.wordpress.com my art and writing can be seen on Krishnachameleon.  Follow me on Twitter @KrishtianDamian

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