Advocacy and presuming competence

I dislike self-righteous do-gooders, and I know service isn’t something one’s supposed to talk about, because it lacks humility, or is easily pretentious, or something. But I can, even if I’m doing it wrong. I can. So here we go.

As a child, I wanted to do good and help others. In grade school, we had catechism classes, where we learned about Jesus, and how he was kind, and helped people, and asked them to be kind to one another, forgive, and accept everyone. I really liked the guy. He made sense to me. I’m not a religious person, but these precepts stuck.

When I first heard about poor children in the Third World as a kid, I thought we should do something to help them. But my family didn’t want to get involved. I insisted, and was told to shut up, already.

Later as a young teenager, I wanted to start working as a babysitter. I spoke to my parents about it. The idea was swept aside as preposterous.

Basically, I was told I couldn’t do these things, which is too bad, because helping others made sense to me.

I speak a lot about presuming competence. My family presumed my intelligence, but not my kindness or sense of responsibility. I suppose they thought my desire to help others was a childhood folly. Yes, it was a childhood thing; but it was also me. I wish I’d been supported in this.

Instead, I was encouraged to pursue the sciences, and such. As I was finishing high school, I talked about becoming a massage therapist. That, too, was swept aside as unthinkable, and I went on to study engineering, and then industrial design, though I never worked in that field in any meaningful way. It was all about fancy-shmanzy consumerism, and that didn’t appeal to me at all.

A few years later, in my mid-twenties, I applied to work as a volunteer and was then hired by UNICEF Québec as a paid employee, doing volunteer coordination on a contract basis. It was wonderful work, and I was good at it. My organizational skills were top-notch, and I did well with volunteers. I understood when my boss explained – thank you, Louise – that volunteer work was real work, and that volunteers should be treated kindly, but with all the expectations of responsibility of paid employment. So, that’s what I did, adapting to their needs and trusting them to do the job. Now that I think about it, I was presuming the volunteers’ competence, all 40 of them. I could do that. It made sense.

I later worked for UNICEF British Columbia, and Save the Children BC, and a couple of other charities in Vancouver. When I came back to Montreal a few years later, I worked again for UNICEF Québec as a volunteer. And then something happened.

I was volunteering in the store during the Christmas season, selling cards and toys and books and more cards. We had a big day on a Saturday, and at closing, the employee who managed the store that day – a former volunteer I had worked with – misplaced the day’s cash sales, a total of around $3,000.

The manager called me at home, seemingly in a panic. She told me about the problem. I was as worried as she was. She then proceeded to ask me if I had hidden the money, perhaps in order to safe-keep it. I was a little shocked, but thought about it all the same, and answered; no, I didn’t do anything with the envelope. Her attitude was strange; she asked me if I was sure, a few times. I got a little impatient. She seemed to want to put the blame on me, or to think that I was responsible, at the very least, because she said, I had been a leader before, and maybe I had “taken an initiative…”

Later, the director of UNICEF Québec asked me to come in for a chat. She took a similar approach. I was sad and disappointed that the money had been stolen, and couldn’t understand why these women wanted to put the blame on me. I told her this. Nothing more came of it, and to this day, I don’t know if they found the money. But one thing’s for sure, they lost me that day.

The reason for that was not only in wrongfully giving me the responsibility for the loss. After all, mistakes happens all the time. Rather, it was because I believed myself to be untrustworthy, as well. I was made to believe as a child that I was unkind and incapable of responsibility. So the first misguided pointing of fingers was enough for me to walk away. I wish I’d stuck with it, I really do.

By then I had started a university degree in translation, and pursued that career. I did well, working in-house for a couple of companies, and then as a freelancer. After a few years when my business stabilized, I started to do volunteer translation work here and there, for Greenpeace Canada, Oxfam, and others.

I now do cut-rate translations for a few non-profit organizations, whose leaders would rather have a steady, very cheap professional translator than rely on volunteers. It works out well. I still volunteer here and there on occasion.

Last year when I found out I was probably autistic, and after learning much about neurodivergence, my first instinct was to reach out to others. I had compensated and passed my whole life, without knowing it, and had suffered from it. I thought the least I could do was to help inform people, NT and autistics alike, that presuming competence is essential. To know that autistic people are moral, kind and willing to help as much as anyone. Mostly, I wanted others like me to break free of that cognitive dissonance: to know that they can trust *who* they are, and leave behind the guilt and shame that comes from others blaming them for *how* they are.

Because you see, when your interface is strange, people tend to project bad intentions onto you. And unless someone comes along to tell you you’re all right, it’s all too easy to start believing these people, instead of what you know in your heart.

So I started to do information sharing, translation, and education. I organized informal friendship meets between autistics, which are still going strong a year later, with the idea being picked up by others, here and in other regions.

My years working as a coordinator and tour guide (yes, that too) made me a good communicator to groups. I know how to keep people interested and translate knowledge in an informative and accessible way, and to rally people. I forged ahead, even though I was getting very little feedback. After all, in the general culture here in Quebec, the idea is still very new that autistics are full-on human beings and not pity-porn fodder or people to be managed, but never truly encouraged as competent and worthy members of society.

So it takes time for these ideas to start catching on. Now, little by little, and with much common work with neurodivergent peers, these ideas of competence and dignity are bearing fruit, and I am part of it. Positive feedback from autistics and allies makes me cry almost on a daily basis. Finally, someone is hearing me, hearing us. I am helping. It’s all I ever wanted.

And when I cry, it’s not because somehow my ego is flattered, or that I thrive on the attention. Quite the opposite, I loathe flattery and all this communication and organizing I’m doing regularly make me want to go hide under a rock somewhere, and I often do. The reason I cry is because I’m coming into my own, and really helping, and it’s hard to do, but beautiful. The feeling of being a fraud, that I cannot do this, the shame of it, is coming out as relief, and being replaced by good feelings of self-realization, satisfaction, and harmony.

This is who I am: I like to help. It makes sense to me. I wish this feeling on everyone – to be able to do what they love, what makes their heart beat stronger. For me it’s spreading knowledge and positive ideas about social justice. For others it may be statistics, or crochet, or designing cars. Flower arranging, television production, neurological research. Mechanics, video game design, or cooking. Having kids, traveling or learning languages.

It doesn’t matter what field it is, or even if it’s a field at all. If you’re passionate about something, you should be encouraged to find a way to pursue it in a way that you are able, and get support, not be side-swept as being unrealistic.

And about success… Aside from the illusion of success in our societies, isn’t real success about being happy, following your heart and knowing you are true to yourself? There’s always a way. It takes patience and perseverance. Sure, paying for groceries and rent has to come first – when doing what you love doesn’t bring in money.

Then value it as a hobby, as a dream, but please value it, because it means valuing who you are. And there’s no argument that can compare with that. When someone – anyone – is given space to define for themselves what they can and cannot do, and decide for themselves what they want to do with it or not, they can self-actualize, and it’s a beautiful feeling.


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