I was put in the wrong class for about an hour in high school. I knew there was a mistake because everyone was younger than me, and I hadn’t registered for an art class. Art didn’t interest me until I got older, but I soaked in what I could and went on to my next class. The teacher, Ms. Marlene, was a quirky older woman who didn’t seem to notice me or really take any particular interest in me. She wasn’t rude; instead, she was busy taking care of her class on the first day.
Little did I know, Ms. Marlene would meet my mom just a week later at a teacher’s seminar in my hometown. My mom was a kindergarten teacher at a public school, and she was required to attend, as were all the teachers in the Parish.
My mom and Ms. Marlene happened to be sitting at the same table and began a conversation. My mom bragged about my sister and me, as moms often do, and she mentioned that the school mistakenly put me in an art class on the first day of school. Ms. Marlene joked about a student who attended her class for about an hour before moving to the correct class. They put two and two together and realized that I had been the one in Ms. Marlene’s class. Ms. Marlene began gushing about how there is something “special about me” and that she has met other “special” people like me.
My mom told me the story the same night, and we celebrated that Ms. Marlene saw the same “special” thing in me that many others had mentioned in the past. Anyone who spent more than a few minutes with me realized something was different about me. I knew there was something different about me too, but neither my mom nor I (nor anyone else) could identify what that thing was.
My name is Chris Howard. I am the co-founder and manager of The House of Music Therapy.
My wife, Ana-Alicia, and I started The House of Music Therapy (or THMT as we call it) in August of 2019. We set out to start a business that would help children in need, and much of that clientele happens to be autistic. We pride ourselves on being neurodivergent accepting, and recognizing neurological differences as normal, natural human variations. We don’t aspire to change autistic people but instead help them realize their potential. Autists are not fragile, broken, or damaged but rather full of unique strengths.
Since I started with THMT, I have been keeping a secret, mostly from myself but our clients as well. I am neurodivergent, and to be specific, I am an autistic person. I’ve always felt like I was somehow different from everyone else, but that description doesn’t justify the feeling. It was almost like I was a different species, and everyone knew it but me. I felt isolated from my peers, and at times, I felt ostracized by my community.
I learned that I am an autistic person only in the past few years, and it has been a confusing revelation. I find myself mentally reviewing my life to understand why certain things happened the way they did, and if I put a little “autism spin” on it, then frequently mysterious stuff from my past makes sense. I’ve thought back about how Ms. Marlene identified something “special” in me after only loosely observing me among two dozen other students. I also think back on the difficult stuff like bullies and frequent sensory overload.
I went to a small private school in South Louisiana that was very strict. By strict, I mean that they firmly believed that children should be threatened and forced to behave a certain way. I often struggled in that environment because my sensory needs were not being met. My mom identified it as “bored.” While boredom was a factor, I now know that my autistic mind was neither getting the stimulation I needed, nor did I have the autonomy to self-regulate.
During lunch (a moment of semi-autonomy in what was at times a stimulation desert) I would often mix unusual foods together. We likely wouldn’t think of these things as odd today, like putting French fries on a hamburger, but it grossed out my peers and teachers. Kids would verbally assault me, and my teacher would often take away all my delicious food, forcing me to idly watch the other kids eat. I don’t remember how many times this happened to me, but it happened enough that I remember it being painful. I now aggressively divide my food like an army going to battle. I think this is what folks mean when they say they aren’t sure if their behavior is autistic behavior or a reaction to trauma.
Caregivers often ask my opinion about their child’s therapy, and my response is usually “I am not a clinician, but my opinion is.” Instead, I will tell families, “I am not a clinician, but I am neurodivergent, and my opinion is.”
There is value in neurotypical folks speaking to neurodivergent people about the support needs of neurodivergent people. It sounds obvious to me now, but I didn’t connect the dots until a caregiver mentioned that she was seeking the opinion of neurodivergent people to better understand how to support her autistic son. I realized that because I wasn’t open about being an autist, I couldn’t help as much as I wanted to.
Going forward, I will commit to talking more about being an autistic person with our clients. I did not receive therapy or any kind of treatment as a child, and as a result, my childhood had some unique challenges. I struggled to make friends because my peers couldn’t understand me, and teachers would often try to bully me into acting “normal.” Having that experience, I feel my calling is to help others on their journey, particularly kids who feel alone for reasons they can’t easily identify.
-Chris Howard, MBA
*Some names have been changed to protect identities*