BOWDOIN COLLEGE STUDENT and Bowdoin Orient column writer Ben York on campus.

BOWDOIN COLLEGE STUDENT and Bowdoin Orient column writer Ben York on campus.

BRUNSWICK

Ben York, a sophomore mathematics major at Bowdoin College who writes the biweekly column “An Autistic’s Guide to Autism” for the Bowdoin Orient, has a very busy schedule. Waist deep in a heavy course load, math clubs and autism advocacy, York is always on the go. The Mt. Ararat High School graduate did find time to speak to The Times Record about the importance of writing about autism, the difficulties of being an autistic college student and why he is careful not to force his voice onto the entire autistic community.

The Times Record: What’s it like being an autistic college student?

Ben York: Most of the time I just feel like a college student. After having a year to adapt I feel comfortable in this environment. But there are things about my day that are still very different from other people’s days. I have a very limited palette, and my dining hall experience is very scatter shot. I try to avoid crowds. Last year I was in a double (dorm) in West Hall. I liked my roommate just fine, but I felt anxious having someone in my space. Now I’m one of three sophomores in Chamberlain Hall, which is a dorm usually reserved for juniors and seniors.

TR: What are some of the things you focus on in your writing? Do you cover all spectrums of autism?

BY: I find in my articles that it’s a balancing act between trying to give voice to the autistic community without taking away that very voice in the process. I am one person with one set of experiences, and because autism is a spectrum, my difficulties are not the difficulties of other autistic people. I try to keep my articles as first person as I can, giving advice from my own personal experience, but where I find consensus in the autistic community I will try to raise awareness for that consensus. One of the things I talk about is that I view autism as an identity rather than a disability. There are certain organizations who champion autism as something that can be cured. I don’t view it as such, which is one of the reasons I prefer say “autistic person”— which is an identifier — over “person with autism” — which is to say it’s not a thing that I have, but a thing that I am.

TR: How long have you been writing, and what led you to begin “An Autistic’s Guide to Autism”?

BY: I started dabbling in seventh grade, but it didn’t go anywhere. In my junior year of high school I took a creative writing class where we learned to express ourselves personally. I also went to a writer’s conference at Bread Loaf Mountain in Vermont. At the time I was very interested in math and science and thought I would be writing about that.

My senior year of high I started with autism advocacy. I felt that because I have a certain comfort with public speaking and I have things to say and a way to say them, I wanted to go out and speak about autism. For my senior capstone project I chose to speak about autism from a first person perspective. I spoke in front of community members, teachers, parents. It was a very positive experience.

When I got to Bowdoin I approached the Orient and thought, in addition to writing about math and science, I could continue this autism advocacy thing. They were very supportive of that. So with my first articles I sort of switched between autism and non autism, but soon realized I liked one of them way more than the other. And so I have been writing my column “An Autistic’s Guide to Autism” ever since.

TR: What are some of the articles you’ve been writing lately?

BY: I wrote my latest column, “Considering Autism, the Birds and the Bees,” in two hours, but I had been thinking about it for months. Having the ability to mull over that idea and one day realize that I have to write about this, the idea’s time came, makes me very proud of that particular piece. In the article I talk about how autism is very much viewed as a childhood disorder, especially in the media. There aren’t a lot of resources available for autistic adults, one of those resources being sex education. There are no resources for an autistic college student who wants to be sexually active. My personal experiences have been positive, but I’ve been lucky. Other autistic people with different issues might not be so. So, walking the line here, I want to show that yes this is an issue, I’m sure you haven’t thought about it, here is my experience. And that was the article.

TR: What are some ideas you have for future articles?

BY: I want to do a series about the intersection between autism and other identity groups, like autism and race, autism and sexuality, autism and gender. However, I don’t want to speak to an experience I haven’t had, or misrepresent others. I am a straight white male. I don’t have the experience of being disadvantaged. I want to give voice to the autistic community, but I don’t want to rob the voice of these sub communities. I hope to write columns which will bring awareness to these issues without speaking for these people. I am in a position of privilege because people read what I write. But I’m very wary of speaking for everyone. That’s what’s on my mind right now.

Read York’s “An Autistic’s Guide to Autism” columns at bowdoinorient.com.

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