The first things one notices about Iris Gray is her affinity for purple and her aversion to eye contact.
She attributes her purple obsession, from eye glasses frames to iPad cover to backpack to watch strap to clothing – as well as an encyclopedic knowledge of cats – to her autism, though she wasn’t diagnosed until well into her 30s.
“Sometimes I describe autism as being on another planet,” says Gray, sitting inside QV Cafe on Government Street, where she organizes a Victoria Autism-Asperger meet up group.
“Say you’re in Battlestar Gallactica and they send you to another planet and everybody looks like you and you speak the same language, but you can’t read their body language, you can’t read their facial expressions … and the only way you can understand them is to take everything completely literally.”
Autism affects one in 88 children in Canada, though a new U.S. study pegs that number at closer to one in 68 children.
About 200,000 Canadians live with some diagnosis on the autism spectrum, according to the Autism Society of Canada. The array of behavioural challenges range from minor social discomfort, such as difficultly making eye contact with strangers, to repetitive, ritualistic routines like rocking or hitting movements.
While many people have come to better understand autism in recent years, Gray says comprehension of the autism spectrum is lacking.
“People tend to lump us into groups without realizing there’s a whole range of people within that spectrum,” Gray says. “There are people who need help with everyday tasks, but then there are people classified as low functioning who can make brilliant art or write fantastic books.”
Gray spends her days transcribing for Hansard Services at the B.C. legislature, and does the same for deaf students taking online classes through Royal Roads University.
Charities shouldn’t aim to “fix” the disorder, she says, but should instead celebrate the differences in the behaviour it creates.
“We don’t need to be cured, we just think different,” says Dev Percey, settling into her seat. “This group is more about what’s going on in my world. I couldn’t find that for years.”
The twice-monthly meet up group isn’t affiliated with any organization, but fills a niche for autistic adults who want to socialize in a non-clinical and non-judgmental environment.
Gray shares her struggle with anxiety, but stressed she doesn’t believe that problem is related to her autism.
“If a person who is non-autistic has anxiety, we don’t say, ‘We need to fix your neuro-typical disorder,” she quips.
Gray and Percey begin listing some of historical figures who purportedly dealt with autism or Asperger’s without the formal diagnosis: Albert Einstein (“He didn’t speak until he was about three years old,” Gray says), Mozart, Glenn Gould and even Dan Ackroyd.
“A lot of people think Bill Gates has Asberger’s,” Gray adds.
The camaraderie, the collective bond of the group, is what pulls Gray and her friends back for each social event, where the “neuro-typicals” become the oddballs, and reporters are left out of the inside jokes.
Gray tries another analogy to make sense of it all: “If you’re a Canadian and you go to France, you might be able to speak French, but you’re not part of their culture. But if you run into another Canadian, you’re automatically going to have something in common. You come from the same culture,” she says. “We seem to just share that connection in our group.”
April is Autism Awareness Month, while April 2 is Autism Awareness Day.
Autism Awareness Walk takes place April 6 at the University of Victoria. Registration ($10) begins at 9 a.m. at parking lot 10. The walk begins at 10:30 a.m.