I Found My People in Tennessee

This past weekend I attended the Southeastern Conference for Adults with Autism in Chattanooga, Tennessee. My parents attended a few years ago when I was in the hospital. I was excited about the community and the learning I would experience. I left Friday after work and drove two hours to Ocoee, Tennessee. I drove past Talking Rock Creek in Chatsworth. The scenery was beautiful, and I passed some really cute donkeys. When I arrived at the hotel, it was dusk and the birds were swooping down to eat insects over the field behind the hotel. It’s been a while since I traveled by myself, and I have to say it was nice. After my stay at the hotel, I got up before seven to drive to Chattanooga. I hadn’t been in that city for a long time. I had forgotten it was in the mountains and along the Tennessee river. Mountains and water together are my favorite environment. I did wish I had someone to share the drive with so I could enjoy the scenery. Upon arriving for the conference, I found the parking deck mentioned in the email and then tried to figure out which building on the University of Tennessee campus near the parking deck it was being held. It didn’t take long to see people unloading supplies for a table display. The person unloading the car was my Georgia Vocational Rehab social skills mentor. It’s always wonderful to see her. 

It was nice to see old friends and the seminars were really helpful. I was surprised how many of the presenters were autistic adults. There were a few adults who were there with their parents. My own mom seems to have an endless amount of anxiety about how I interact with the world and how the world has treated me or will treat me. She’s worried in the past that I wouldn’t have a support system. My parents were also torn over my original career choice and pushed me towards something more technical and less focused on soft skills. I met parents who had the same concerns my own parents did. While I definitely believe we need to support autistic adults more than we currently do as a society, I hadn’t realized until this conference how lacking the support for parents of those on the spectrum is. The way the world treats those on the spectrum and those with disabilities must hurt a parent’s soul. I know it was traumatic for my mother to watch me go through my mental health crises and to worry that I wouldn’t survive. I can only imagine what it must be like for parents who are trying to advocate for their child the best they can and how the world tells them that their children aren’t capable or aren’t worth the effort a neurotypical child is. 

I loved meeting new friends and attending the seminars. All the seminars I attended were led by autistic adults. The session that made the biggest impact on me was led by a former palliative care chaplain. He explained how he believed there needs to be a holistic approach to supporting adults on the spectrum, just like in palliative care. He told the story of growing up in the south as a black boy and how he used his career to compensate for his lack of social life. I loved how he explained that spending time in nature was tremendously healing for him. One of my favorite things to do is to spend time in nature. It makes me feel whole, and I know the natural world doesn’t expect anything of me. I love being in the mountains, especially in the fall. It’s my favorite time of year and my favorite place. I wish we had this conference more often, but I’ll take communing with kindred spirits once a year. 


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