A Q&A with Emily Paige Ballou
Most resources available for parents come from psychologists, educators, and doctors, offering parents a narrow and technical approach to autism. Sincerely, Your Autistic Child, edited by Emily Paige Ballou, Sharon daVanport, and Morénike Giwa Onaiwu, represents an authentic resource for parents written by autistic people themselves. From childhood and education to culture, gender identity, and sexuality, this anthology tackles the everyday joys and challenges of growing up while honestly addressing the emotional needs, sensitivity, and vibrancy of autistic kids, youth, and young adults.
In this blog series, our editorial intern, Evangelyn Beltran, introduces you to each of the editors to talk about the book and about how parents can avoid common mistakes and misconceptions, and make their child feel truly accepted, valued, and celebrated for who they are. For the conclusion of our series during Autism Acceptance Month, here’s Emily Paige Ballou!
Evangelyn Beltran: What was it like to be diagnosed as autistic in your twenties rather than as a child?
Emily Paige Ballou: I think I actually benefited more from being diagnosed as an adult than I would have as a child. It came as a huge vindication and a relief, to have confirmation that I wasn’t just imagining all the ways I was different. Things really were harder for me. I wasn’t making it up. I wasn’t being spoiled or dramatic, and I wasn’t just broken.
Growing up without any knowledge or explanation was not a picnic that I would wish on anyone, but I also think that given the time period in which I was growing up (the early 1980’s-1990’s), nothing better would have happened to me if I’d been correctly diagnosed as a child.
EB: Were your parents supportive of your interests and encourage them growing up?
EPB: My parents definitely weren’t unsupportive, for which I’m thankful, but I think they also didn’t quite know what to do with a kid with interests so intense and so uncommon. (For example, I became intensely obsessed with Buddy Holly when I was eight years old.)
But I think it was also helpful that I was growing up in a time in which kids tended to have far more unstructured, unsupervised time than they seem to have now. We were largely expected to entertain ourselves after school, on the weekends, and in the summertime. That meant we watched a lot of TV, but I also just had a lot of free time to read, work on whatever crafts I was into at the time or walk in the woods. While there were definitely things I wish I’d had more access to, it was important to me to figure things out for myself—both what I was interested in and what I was capable of.
EB: At what point in your life did you become comfortable with your identity?
EPB: I think that’s still a work in progress, and probably will continue to be so.
EB: In what ways have your autistic traits helped you in life?
EPB: For me, anyway, the irony is that a lot of the strengths of autism have to be spent on navigating or compensating for the ways in which our society is still very hostile toward autistic people. And I think a lot about the kinds of things we might be able to create or accomplish if we all had the support that we need or weren’t required to expend a lot of our energy and cognitive bandwidth having to look out for ourselves in ways that non-autistic and non-disabled people don’t, if we didn’t have to leverage our strengths so hard just to survive.
But I love reading and writing, which feel like much more of a native language to me than speaking does, and that was definitely helpful in pursuing the kind of education I wanted. And through having to learn to navigate the world in ways that many people don’t have to, I’ve developed instincts for logistics and planning that are a huge asset in my career field. I have a job where, a lot of the time, I’m responsible for communicating to other people the information they need in order to feel secure in their ability to do their jobs, and I have a really visceral understanding of how important that is because of how important it is to me to be able to know what to expect and what’s expected of me.
EB: Have you dealt with any struggles in the workplace relating to your autism, and how did you handle it?
EPB: Yes, definitely. Because I have sensory issues that most people don’t understand well, combined with the facts that stage managers frequently aren’t thought of as having needs of our own as opposed to just being able to deal with anything and everything, and that most people still don’t think of autistic people as possibly being in the room, and there are risks to making your presence known. The combination of factors can make it hard to even know where or how to start advocating for yourself.
And learning how to handle it is also still a work in progress, partly because employers in my industry usually don’t have the same kinds of HR departments that more conventional employers do. But I think I’m getting better at figuring out who the right person is to talk to about getting what I need or at least starting a conversation about whether there’s a possible solution to whatever challenge or obstacle I’m facing.
This can also just be a physically and mentally exhausting profession to work in whether you’re disabled or not, and I’ve found it increasingly important as I get older to set limits and make sure I’m getting enough rest. Leaning on my affinity for routines and rituals actually helps a lot with this. I made a checklist of exactly what I have to do as soon as I get home from rehearsal every day, before I do anything else, so that my work that has to be done is done and I can rest and take time for myself with the rest of my evening.
About Emily Paige Ballou
Emily Paige Ballou is an old Millennial from the Midwest who currently lives and works in NYC, where she primarily stage manages off-Broadway new plays and new musicals, including works such as the Hello Girls with Prospect Theater Company, Nikola Tesla Drops the Beat at the Adirondack Theatre Festival, and Rose with Nora’s Playhouse. She graduated from the University of Georgia, where she was also a member of the Demosthenian Literary Society. Previous publications include pieces in the Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism, The Real Experts: Readings for Parents of Autistic Children, NeuroQueer, Barking Sycamores, and Fuckit: A Zine.