by Nils Valdis Vytautas Skudra
I trust like any neurotypical individual, people on the autism spectrum such as myself are also vulnerable to constant advertising campaigns which urge us to buy new products and services. The word “upgrade” seems to be a rather recent linguistic invention but it is one that appears in virtually every avenue of life and inspires everyone to be a consummate consumer and a “have” rather than a “have not.”
It’s difficult to avoid falling into the trap of impulse buying. Some folks even consider this “shopping therapy” and give it a kind of legitimization all of which fuels an ever-increasing need to “keep up with the Joneses” and buy the latest and the greatest things that are out there. My own family plays into this “upgrade” game: my mother drives a 2002 Toyota Corolla with 110,000 miles on it but she regularly feels the urge to “get something newer and better” – despite the fact that the vehicle is working just fine.
Her anxiety is increased by well-meaning friends’ commentaries that “maybe it is time to buy a new car” and heightened even more when new automobiles start appearing in the driveways of our neighbors. She still has the Toyota but daydreams of a time when a new Subaru appears in her life.
There is something about the logic of all of this (and I like to think that I am an exceedingly logical person) that disturbs me. Perhaps it is the old axiom “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” that has such a positive valence for me. The reality is that upgrading is expensive and as a graduate student struggling to pay for tuition and books, money is simply not plentiful. Let’s face it (for the sake of truth!), it is scarce.
I’ve had to change my focus to what I characterize as “making do” – instead of going out for a Japanese lunch, I opt for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at home (no shortage of these culinary items here). Admittedly, I’d rather have chicken teriyaki and sushi but a necessary budget demands otherwise.
Instead of going to see a film at the theatre, I head over to the library and select a few choice movies. Although I’d love to take a vacation (preferably on the exotic side), I take a bus to the local museum, arboretum or attend a no-cost lecture or concert in town. Every Wednesday in my town there is a community dinner which is free to everyone and I do this as a regular gig. I have made numerous friends at this event, some of whom are neurodiverse, and find my spirit is revitalized and social acumen increased. I take advantage of an opportunity such as this one which does not demand a monetary expenditure and find that there are so many other intrinsic benefits that issue from attending it including sharing camaraderie and the benefits of enjoying a common meal, always gratefully with others.
The idea of “making do” is multi-factorial, or, panoramic, if you will. It can be adapted to all kinds of circumstances. Essentially the idea is to use what one has on hand whether or not there are difficult times, financial or otherwise.
Stated another way, this is the notion of living within your means. No matter how much you want to see the musical “Hamilton”, if you can’t afford to readily let go of the $500.00 necessary to purchase a ticket, you shift your intellectual gears into finding an entertainment that doesn’t exact a costly price – perhaps borrowing a video from a friend (if you’re unable to get to a library).
Since I am an ardent theatre buff, live theatre is an important part of my emotional diet. I can’t afford tickets for a Broadway show or even for local productions in my city, but I have found a way to “make do.” I usher several times a month for Triad Stage in Greensboro (where I live) and occasionally at other shows as well. In exchange for ushering, I have the opportunity to see the show for free and often secure first row seats. I am grateful for the gift of a free show and very happy to help out in any way the theatre company needs, whether it is handing out playbills, escorting theatergoers to their seats, or cleaning up after the show.
My idea of “making do” continually expands and at its heart it includes the idea of minimalism – a theory which has as one of its goals the notion of living with less. I rarely go to shopping malls because I know I might be tempted to indulge in a bout of impulse buying for something I probably don’t desperately need. Instead I borrow or trade items and services as much as possible.
Rather than buy a game of Scrabble, I ask a friend if he or she would lend it to me. When an opportunity to be an extra in a Civil War-themed movie presented itself, I enthusiastically accepted the part – despite the fact that there was no remuneration (but a pizza and Coca-Cola lunch). I “made do” with what opportunities I am presented and give a silent “thank you” to the universe at large. Implicit in the act of “making do” (at least for me) is incorporating a practice of gratitude. I am grateful for what I have even if it isn’t as new or desirable as what someone else may possess and that gratitude seems to make for a happier and more emotionally expansive life. Along with the idea of “making do”, I am working on having a more simple life, free of so many gratuitous items. Do I really need the 1,000 plus books I own or the more than 50 t-shirts I’ve come by one way or another?
Slowly, I am letting go of things that I realize are actually superfluous. It is admittedly a process but still one on which I am gaining ground.
I have a methodology which works for me and gives me intellectual pleasure as well. I re-use and re-cycle. When my clothes are torn, a friend repairs a seam, replaces a button or sews up a small hole. I return the favor by preparing a dinner or some vegan chocolate mousse (which always elicits rave reviews). I cook with what I have in my house. I frequent the food pantry at my university and score many “necessaries” and sometimes engage in bartering a meal for which I exchange a tutoring lesson.
I rely on old appliances, cameras that still work but might not have the “bells and whistles” and cooler new features of new products on the market. In my mind as long as the camera works, the function trumps a newer novelty. I seldom buy new clothes and if I truly require something, I visit my local Goodwill on a “student discount” day. I reign in my spending on a daily basis and have found it possible to save a little bit of money too – what I call “mad money” for when I absolutely have to have a special moment that even “making do” cannot create.
Although I sometimes am tempted to change things up, particularly in my home environment, I satisfy the urge by merely re-arranging furniture, art hangings on the wall. I have inherited a goodly number of blankets and throws from relatives and friends and recently opted to finally place some of those on a living room couch and chairs. The room looks different and the charm of “newness” is a satisfying one. The idea of “making do” is something I urge everyone in my personal universe to adopt. When my mother recently showed me a pair of her newly ripped rainboots and a cell phone holder that was coming undone, I told her “use it ‘til they lose it.” That statement must have had a veritable impact – neither of those items has disappeared and been replaced by new merchandise. She has saved a bit of hard-earned cash (from her job as a substitute public school teacher) which might be utilized for a truly necessary thing.
In summation, I would argue that “making do” does not equate with “doing without.” It is nothing less than a paradigm shift in thinking – that more is not necessarily better and that living more simply has innumerable benefits including lessening the clutter which often drives most of us crazy.
Practicing gratitude for the things I have has made me happier and much less susceptible to the advertising schemes and frenzy that it is otherwise so easy to fall victim too. When I see the next generation of laptops being advertised for sale, I place myself into a framework of intentionality and say “the one I have right now works just fine.” In short, “making do” gets me through and I imagine my carbon footprint on the planet is lighter, too. “Making do” can work for you too.
I am an artist on the autism spectrum. I received an MA specializing in Civil War/Reconstruction history at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and I have been drawing hundreds of Civil War-themed pictures since the age of five and a half. As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, I have a very focused set of interests, and the Civil War is my favorite historical event within that range of interests. It is therefore my fervent desire to become a Civil War historian and have my Civil War artwork published in an art book for children. I am also very involved in the autism community and currently serve as the President/Head Officer of Spectrum at UNCG, an organization I founded for students on the autism spectrum. The goal of the organization is to promote autism awareness and foster an inclusive community for autistic students on the UNCG campus. The group has attracted some local publicity and is steadily gaining new members, and we shall be hosting autism panels for classes on campus in the near future.