Dear Friends of Full Access,
This was my third year attending the Autism Rocks friends and family camp (aka: The Retreat). For the people who attend, this event is anticipated as a much needed break from the “neurotypical” demands of mainstream society. The retreat is located on a small peninsula in the Siltcoos Lake, near Florence. There are giant trees, wildlife, safe people, and divine densities of stars. There are also activities to choose from day and night: karaoke, canoeing, art, nature walks, live performances, and disco dancing. In this place, people are given the space to truly be themselves without judgment or expectation. One simply shows up as they are in this moment and is loved.
For Some, it Takes Time to Acclimate
My first year attending the retreat, I was nervous. I had been hearing about it for years and wanted to attend, but spending a weekend camping in an unfamiliar environment was intimidating. Finally, after too many excuses, I made it. I parked my car and walked through the camp full of dozens of unfamiliar faces to register. When I wasn’t working my kitchen shifts, I spent a lot of time alone walking through the forest, reading in my tent, napping…I felt awkward. I didn’t know how to connect. I wasn’t sure I would be back again.
The next year I was employed by Ryan to help with his career as a Dean Martin impersonator. I worked with him and Jed, a Frank Sinatra impersonator, to prepare a stage show for last year’s retreat. At their request, we got a few ladies together and choreographed a showgirl routine for their finale. Dancing in a feather boa to a shouting crowd, on a peninsula in the forest was a blast. I felt more connected than the previous year; I thought I might be back.
But Then We Make Friends
To quote the KindTree website: “The retreat is a time for rejuvenation and solidarity. Autists are accepted and enjoyed for themselves, not forced into a procrustean neuro-normal mold.” There is a beautiful empowerment that comes from this experience. Many of us take feeling relatively “normal” for granted. At the retreat there is no template for normal. We are all normal. We all belong and are invited to join in each moment with love and acceptance. Campers make friendships that last year after year. Every year I see faces light up as friends arrive from afar and tears as they have to say good-bye.
This year, arriving through massive pines and stillness felt like sinking into a warm bath, like an easing of my aching bones. I got there late and it was getting dark, so I hurriedly set up my tent. I could hear The Raventones playing music down at the Chapel stage. I decided I’d get the rest of my stuff later and rushed over roots and through bramble toward the sounds of TR and Randy playing “One Size Fits All”. Friends greeted me from the shadows, silhouettes of happy autists decorated the dance floor, and I felt like I had arrived home.
Over the years, as I released my attachment to fitting in, I began to glimpse what this event means to the autists who attend. I accepted that I am an introvert. I need to spend time by myself and it is socially acceptable to do so, even in the midst of a very socially interactive community. I never expected to find myself experiencing this type of relief. I expected to support others as they found their comfort zones but there I sat, alone, light filtering through branches with softly striped brilliance and I felt more comfortable than I had in a long time.
And Then We Feel Loved
I have seen this blossoming happen for both campers and their families. The feeling of being accepted as we are, with no demands to fit in, is a feeling many of these people do not often get the privilege of enjoying. But for these few days we can flap, stim, talk to ourselves, follow others around talking endlessly, rock back and forth, stare, avoid eye contact, shout, laugh, and sing to our heart’s content. We are free to flow and free to allow our loved ones to flow without ridicule or judgment.
And Then…It’s Like Buttah
I cannot speak for other attendees, but for me, the feeling of interconnectedness increases as I let go of expectations and just enjoy each moment as it comes. I did not expect to be floating on the dock at midnight, staring at the Milky Way with new friends. I also didn’t expect to be quoting Saturday Night Live while making crowns out of old telephone cables, but have you seen Barbara Streisand in the Prince of Tides?!?! It was like buttah. Mindfulness comes naturally in this environment. We arrive ready to be present in each moment without reservation. It is this presence of mind that allows each individual to shine and blossom in their own unique way. We do not fly off to some exotic retreat to study mindfulness. We retreat to the forest near Florence, Oregon. We get dirt on our shoes and eat s’mores. We smile and sing and scream, right here, right now.