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Shiny, Happy People Banner

When I was in middle school, “Shiny, Happy People Holding Hands” was a song by the band REM. The song featured guest vocals by Kate Pierson of the B-52s. I know, right? Cheesy title. But that was pretty much the idea. It was funny—and fun. And it became a pretty darned big hit.

Truth? I actually really liked the song. Why? Well, first of all, I do like shiny things. Life is short, I say. Use more glitter. And, heaven knows, I’m not alone. Think about it. Diamonds and rubies and cloth of gold. All sparkly. Even champagne! Save the bubbly, effervescent, light-catching goodies to mark happy occasions. Besides, by nature, I seem absolutely bound and determined to find a light in the dark. Not in the “glass is always half-full” unrealistic Pollyanna way. More of a … life doesn’t seem to get any easier, and there were two paths: give up or keep moving. And, the truth is, I had no idea how to “give up” if I’d wanted to.

As to the “happy” part of the song? Well, I guess there hadn’t really been a whole lot of happy in my life. I tried, sure, but I was on the autism spectrum and just couldn’t crack the social codes. So, I kind of went with what I knew— schoolwork. That, I could do really well. I figured, if straight A’s made my teachers smile and made the other kids’ parents smile, surely I’d have the same effect on the other kids, right? Not so much. Ever since second grade, I’d been locked out of playground games, and now, in seventh grade, two classmates of mine had made an afternoon ritual of devising ways to make me cry the following day.

Somewhere along the line, I figured out a definite “social truth.” People use all sorts of tricks to stiff-arm the rest of the world to protect their own hearts. Sometimes they try intimidation by getting a bunch of piercings or dying their hair blue. You know, the “I’ll reject you before you can reject me” thing. Trust me, that’s a costume. Costumes are absolutely fine, except when they’re meant to be armor, because—while it may keep some of the hurt away—it also prevents love from getting in. Other times, when people are insecure, their shyness comes across as snobbery, arrogance, or a complete need to be the center of attention. Those are all methods of trying to control other people, which never, ever turn out well.

After lots of trial and error, I was beginning to notice, back there in the land of middle school, that, in general, the world responds more kindly to a friendly, open demeanor. Sure, you can take it too far. As my daughter said recently, “You can’t fix everything with unicorn stickers and rainbows.” She’s right. It can be hard to find the line between “shiny, happy” and downright annoying. Then again, take a look beneath the smiley-face exterior, and you’ll see a genuine person who simply wants to be liked, a person informed by a kind heart and a whole of loneliness.

Did you ever read those Dick and Jane books? You know. “See Dick run. Look, Jane! It is a ball!” That kind of thing. Well, in ninth grade, I was cast as Sally in our school play, which was a parody of the “shiny, happy” world of Dick, Jane, their little sister (me), Spot the dog and Puff the cat. In a sunshine yellow dress and crinolines, I spouted chipper little lines and clapped and giggled. That’s shiny, happy fakeness. The play was funny because it made a point: one-dimensional, forced cheeriness is not positivity. It’s ridiculous.

But you know what else is ridiculous? It’s assuming that someone who is “positive” never feels sad or angry or lonely. It’s assuming also that smiles and ditziness go hand-in-hand. I can clearly remember crossing my college campus at an Ivy League university to which I had been admitted early AND was maintaining a 4.0 GPA—and the second I put on a sweatshirt with my sorority letters or was seen holding pom-poms on the way to meet my fellow cheerleaders at the football stadium, the rest of the world seemed to assume I’d checked my brain cells at the door. Upbeat. Spirited. Energetic. To many, it was as if I were somehow undermining what it was to be authentic, smart, a modern woman.

During Autism Awareness Month, I often get called upon to be our cheerleader, to tell the world and remind YOU, too, that “typical” and “normal” aren’t goals—because each of you is an on-purpose miracle. And I believe all of that. But if that were the end of my message, I’d be a pretty dang lame spokes-chick.

OK, then, what’s with the whole “Shiny, Happy People” stuff? Simple. It’s easy to dismiss positivity for puff and fluff, totally out-of-touch with the tough stuff of real life. It’s just as easy to get stuck in the mire of “everything-is-too-hard” anger and depression. I get that hurt—the hollowed-out feeling when your soul may as well be an empty shell. Where’s the positivity in that, right?

I’m not about to sugarcoat what reality is. It’s hard to be different. It’s hard when your normal isn’t the typical. It’s hard to be lonely. It’s hard to have to figure out what’s easy to other people. It’s hard to want things that seem so basic to other people. I get it. I really, really get it. Do NOT for one minute mistake me: being different is hard. It’s also the only thing in the world that makes a difference—that inspires creativity, dreams, change, beauty, bravery. Yep. It’s hard, but we can do hard things.

So I’m telling you all this in the article that’s supposed to be about the wonderfulness of being on the autism spectrum?

When it comes down to it, each of us has a choice. Well, not a choice. Lots of choices, but they all come down to an over and over again choice to be relentlessly positive. Relentless positivity isn’t unicorn stickers and rainbows. It’s the courage to keep moving when you can’t see yet the creativity or beauty or change that you’re bringing. It means digging down deep when you have absolutely nothing left and choosing not to let the dark take you. And, sometimes, it means simply loving someone else enough to hold on one more day.

To say anything less about being on the autism spectrum would and should eliminate all credibility that I may have in your heart. There are, for me, too, a lot of moments when I think I literally cannot take one more breath. But, then, I remember that word “relentless.” It would be very easy to quit. To stop. To get angry and give up or hide in a corner and cry. I’m no hero. I’m just … me. I think “heroic” means a person who chooses to be brave over and over, to feel afraid but do it anyway, to take the most broken vulnerable moments of his or her life and say to the world, “Go ahead. Try to use it against me if you want to. But I already know more about the hurt than you ever will, and I’m going to choose, in ways big and small, to turn my vulnerability into something that matters.”

So here’s what I want to tell you about positivity. It doesn’t mean shiny, happy people holding hands (although I still do like the song!) Sometimes it means crying yourself to sleep. Sometimes it means waking up and wishing you could just close your eyes again and hide. Or sometimes it means going out to the world with an overly bright smile because that costume might be the one that will earn the approval or welcome you’re seeking. And sometimes it means looking in the mirror and recognizing that you’re doing it purposely because you’re putting one foot in front of the other. You’re being relentless.

Here’s my message to you, my friends. It’s going to be hard sometimes. If it weren’t, everybody would be brave. It wouldn’t even be a quality that anyone would care about, because it would be so run-of-the-mill. You don’t have to be a shiny happy person, and you don’t have to be the one who stiff arms everyone else just to keep them at distance. You don’t. Neither one of those offers the world any kind of legitimate look at who you are. Don’t get me wrong. There are a lot of people who want to see who you are—just like they’ve seen who I am, which can be uncomfortable or scary because you might not really know what to do. And so they may not always be kind. They may not always stay around. And that will hurt. But there will also be a fine, small handful of legitimately beautiful human beings who will see you for exactly who you are. So, even when your heart despairs the most, even when you think the world might be better without you, know this: you’re wrong. You are amazing, chaotic wondrous, confusing, absolutely a real miracle. You’re here on purpose. No, I don’t know what that purpose is. Heck, I’m still discovering my own!

Just remember this. Before being on the autism spectrum, you are on the human spectrum. And, believe it or not, most people out there aren’t actually paying attention to what it is that you’re saying you’re doing. They’re paying attention to themselves and wondering if anybody else wants to include them, just like you’re doing right now.

The positive thing about being on the spectrum is that you are precisely the kind of mind and heart that changes everything in this world. Literally, everything. It’s not going to be easy. It won’t be sunshine and roses every day, and you may wonder if, in fact, you were just a mistake. So I’ll answer your question now. You weren’t. You aren’t. It may just take more time to discover what your gift is to this world. That’s the “relentless positivity.”

I still like the song “Shiny Happy People Holding Hands.” Not because I think that’s the way the world works or even that it’s the way I need to work. Nope. I like the music, the tune, the fun. And there are days when I am absolutely, legitimately a geeky, silly, laughing, shiny, happy person. Only now, I know I’m allowed to be much more. So are you. You’re more than one layer. You’re layers of light and dark and color. You are, after all, part of the spectrum, woven through with colors. You were born to it, after all, so don’t try to fight it.

You were meant to shine.

Jennifer Cook O’Toole, winner of the 2012 Temple Grandin Award, is an Aspie (married to an Aspie) with three Asperkids of her own! Jennifer is the author of the internationally bestselling Asperkids book series and a prolific public speaker. http://asperkids.com/



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