The Spectrum: Fursuiting with Autism (Part 2) – Guest post by Enjy
by Patch O'Furr
== DOC FOX – ASPERGER’S SYNDROME ==
Doc Fox (@Doctor_Red_Fox), real name Ted, is a 27 year old man born in Chicago, now living in Utah and attending college at the University of Utah. He is studying information systems. Doc Fox has the Autism Spectrum disorder known as “Asperger’s Syndrome,” sometimes referred to as “High Functioning Autism”. This can manifest as lack of social awareness, inability to infer the thoughts of others, sensitivity to noises or touch, and/or over-adherence to routines. He was diagnosed as a freshman in high school in the year 2006, but became a furry in the year 2004. However, his fear of being judged due to people’s negative perception of Autism, mostly people using it as a slur or insult, made him afraid to visit any furry meets until he tried his first one in 2012, at a local Illinois bowling alley. Having purchased his fursuit in 2014, Doc is very proud of his life now, and hopes that his story here can make Autism more visible, because he thinks that being public about your diagnosis can be scary.
Enjy: What does Autism mean to you, personally? How would you describe it, from your own point of view?
Doc Fox: For me, like, I’m aware I’m human. But I kinda feel like I’m always a stranger or an alien. I struggle to read other people, and sometimes, to understand other’s emotions. I’ll miss social cues that other people just take for granted. I really care a lot about if my actions hurt other people though, and I’m always afraid that people just tolerate me because I’m “weird.” It’s really hard sometimes to even talk to other people about these things too. Things people just understand like “folkways” aren’t always apparent to me and others often assume you’re acting out or in bad faith because they just take understandings of these concepts for granted.
Enjy: That was a very well thought out answer. Do you think the furry fandom has been better at coexisting with and understanding your condition than the rest of the populace?
Doc Fox: No. I’d say it’s about even. Being autistic is an invisible disability. So people always assume you’re neurotypical.
Enjy: Interesting. So what brought you to the furry fandom then, what kept you so invested that you decided to start fursuiting?
Doc Fox: The art is what brought me in and hooked me. I also made a lot of friends being a furry. Almost all my really good friends know about my Aspergers and they are understanding. I enjoy the furry community a lot. But fursuiting really let me become my character and not be Ted while I fursuit. If I was weird or quirky, that behavior is now considered cute because you’re in a costume. And that is incredibly liberating. People who never would talk to me before started talking to me and it often became a chance to become better friends. I find once you have your foot in the door with friendship people don’t judge you as much anymore too. I really believe that my fursuit got me in a door with a lot of friendships I have developed over the years that I wouldn’t have been able to make otherwise. But all the same I’ve had furries say nasty stuff to me because of my Aspergers. One quote was, “is Ted an asshole or autistic?”
Enjy: I’m sorry that happened to you. One would think we could be a better fandom than that, but you always have outliers. So from what you said, would it be safe to say that fursuiting helps alleviate some of the social symptoms of Aspergers?
Doc Fox: Absolutely. My anxiety is gone when I’m in costume. I feel more normal in a fursuit than a normal suit.
Enjy: So would you recommend that other autistic people give fursuiting a try? You make it seem quite therapeutic.
Doc Fox: I would reccomend it to everybody, autistic or not! It’s so liberating. That being said, if you have sensitivities to different fabrics or temperatures that might cause sensory overload I reccomend trying it at home with a friend first.
Enjy: That is actually a good thing to think about. Fursuiting is mostly positive for autistic folks, but what would you say are some things you should be wary of, like that?
Doc Fox: So I have some sensitivities to things like temperature and humidity, It was hard for me at first with a fursuit because you get hot and sweaty. Choosing the right underarmor helped me a lot. I also generally bring a desiccant to dry my fursuit head because I still can’t really handle my suit head when it’s really wet and cool from being on the “drying trees” they have in con spaces. Since wearing the suit the temp and humidity changes over time it’s not too bad for me, but once I start I can’t take a short break like others can without a really stressful sensory overloading situation. I have to stop for a prolonged period of time.
It’s important to try out different layers to wear under the suit, cooling vests, or even getting a fan in your head. Partialing is also totally valid if a full suit is too much for you. You can generally make it more accessible for yourself if you have sensory issues in these ways. If you have a friend who is autistic and wants to try suiting, you can totally be supportive and let them try on your stuff too so we know we are comfortable. Also, respecting folks who say they might not like hugging or snuggling and such is really important to making the fursuiting experience accessible for everybody. To add to that, telling people how they have to fursuit like saying they have to hug, or do parades, or that they can’t show skin is basically gatekeeping people with sensory issues and it needs to stop.
Enjy: Those are very important lessons and I am glad you’ve shared them with us. I think this helps people understand how to interact in an inclusive way for everyone. Speaking of lessons, has fursuiting helped you cope better with autism outside of your suit? Has dressing up as Doc helped you as Ted, at all?
Doc Fox: Actually yes! I kinda learned that if people could like me as Doc then they could like me as Ted too. It boosted my confidence a lot! I worry less about what people think of me because of it. I kinda learned that sometimes people will just not like you and there is nothing you can do about it. It’s important to be able to be Doc in a costume but, it’s just as important to be Ted outside of it. People who like me for me are my people. And like I said my good friends know about my aspergers so if I don’t understand something they take the time to help me. I’d have never found those people without my fursuit, I don’t think. And for that I’m so thankful. Simply put, the fursuit in this fandom lowered the social barrier to entry and let me learn about people on my own.
Enjy: Beautifully put. I am so glad this fandom has helped you in such a way. I want to thank you for speaking with us at DogPatch Press and helping those of us who are neurotypical understand more about our fellow furries who live with Autism. Is there anything else you would like to say to the fandom at large, as someone with Aspergers?
Doc Fox: I think the obvious thing is be kind to one another. Try not to assume that everybody is neurotypical. I know I’ve said some really boneheaded things in the past but I’ve never really meant things to cause harm. If you learn that somebody is autistic don’t treat them different like they are dumb because that sucks so much. Instead if something bad comes up or if somebody is acting weird take them aside and talk to them like you would anybody else. Finally don’t assume that somebody rocking or watching from a corner is a creeper or a weirdo sometimes we are overwhelmed and don’t know what to do, but desperately want to be involved. Do these things and not only will you have a new friend for life, but you will also make the community safer for autistic people.
== HEATHEN (FURSONA: MANIK) – NON VERBAL LEARNING DISORDER ==
Heathen (https://www.heathenish.net/) is a multi-talented fursuit maker, cosplayer, artist, and author who has been diagnosed with the Autism Spectrum disorder referred to as “Non Verbal Learning Disorder.” It can manifest as poor fine motor skills, difficulty making generalizations or seeing the “big picture”, trouble recognizing nonverbal cues like body language, and a tendency to use their abnormally high intelligence to mask their condition through emulation or superb oration. Heathen has been a furry for 5 years now, although they have been drawing and cosplaying for many years before that. They became a furry through the webcomic TwoKinds, which captured their imagination instantly. One of their Autistic special interests was cats, and they had dozens of cat plushes, books like Warriors, and they would even draw paw prints on the bottom of their shoes. Heathen distanced themself from the furry fandom in late high school and college, because of their fear of being teased for being both Autistic and furry. Their special interests have changed over the years, like many Autistic folks, but the furry fandom keeps them coming back as a welcoming community.
Enjy: So, what does Autism mean to you? How would you describe it from your point of view?
Heathen: To me, slapping the label of autistic on someone is basically saying “this person’s brain functions in a different way, and that differs from social norms so its a ‘disorder'”. I was diagnosed with Nonverbal Learning Disorder when i was about 14, and when my psychiatrist explained what it was I just thought, “oh. That’s why I do that.” It was nice to have an explanation for my behaviors, but also confusing since my high grades and “gifted” status at school defied the normal societal assumption that because someone is autistic, they’re stupid too. Once I did some research, I found out that almost all the symptoms lined up with my social behaviors. Such as visual/spatial awareness: I was chronically clumsy, and bad at sports because for the life of me I could not figure out how a bat can hit a ball, or a leg can hit a soccer ball without missing. One of the most condemming things as an elementary school girl was my inability to learn those hand-clapping game things- many of my peers tried to teach me, but I couldn’t figure it out. Another is higher-order comprehension, the ability to figure out the “main idea”, or sort things in order of importance. So when I’d take notes, I’d just write everything the teacher said. Social communication, expecially body language and facial cues are my biggest downfalls. I have somehting called “low empathy”, so I have difficulty empathizing with people and I generally don’t, even with friends. And I absolutely crashed in high school, once I started taking higher level math courses, just memorizing data was no use when faced with “conceptual” math. And I also experience the general autistic traits of taking things literally, stimming, and avoiding eye contact. All these symptoms bundle together in a way that makes me feel like…I missed out. I was so caught up in trying to behave like every other student, that I didn’t learn how I could’ve expressed myself in my own way.
Enjy: Do you think the furry fandom is better at coexisting with and understanding autistic people than the regular populace? If so, did it influence your interest in the fandom in any way?
Heathen: As soon as I got re-involved with the fandom last year and really started to socialize both online and IRL, I met a multitude of other autistic people near my point on the spectrum. I spent 30 minutes with another fur who has Asperger’s, comparing our stims. Autistic people aren’t set apart like in other fandoms. Like in an anime fandom, an autistic member would be shoved aside since their different behavior would be deemed obnoxious and someone to avoid. In the furry fandom, there’s so many of us that we fit right in with everyone else. I think because the furry fandom consists of so many former social outcasts that definitvely there’s no way to tell if that person in your Furry Con group chat is autistic or not. Almost every other person in the fandom is LGBT or diagnosed with mental illness, so they already have the experience of not being understood by the general public. Knowing that autistic people are welcomed and supported in the fandom certainly led me deeper into it.
Enjy: Did that realization help you decide to start fursuiting?
Heathen: No, actually. I made my first suit a little after my diagnosis, but as soon as I suited up for the first time, I was overcome with realization. My stims and physical behaviors that would normally be prominent can easilly be hidden by performing as a character. My odd facial expressions and aversion to eye contact can be hidden under a fursuit head, and when it’s a cartoon animal looking back at you, my brain doesn’t have a problem with it. I immediately wanted more, and I would go on to develop more characters to turn into suits. At FWA19, I was able to endure raves and concerts because my fursuit head was like a dampener to the lights, sound, and smells around me. I could close my eyes and flap my hands and no one would think anything of it.
Enjy: So fursuiting definitely helps to lessen the symptoms of your autism, then. Is it an important tool for interacting in such a big and busy space as a convention?
Heathen: Yeah, I feel like I can’t go to any high-energy event without one. I feel better knowing pictures of my suit exist intstead of pictures of me out of suit. For the dealers den and artist alleys, I have to go without it, but I have to take breaks because all the colors and noise are overstimulating. And in a space where fursuits are so encouraged, i feel naked without it so whenever im out of suit I at least go with a tail and maybe feet paws.
Enjy: Thank you for sharing that, I know it will give other autistic people ideas on how to help with interacting as well. Has your positive experience fursuiting helped with the symptoms of your autism outside of your suit? Have you learned anything in your time spent dressed as Manik (Heathen’s fursuit) that transfers over to your everyday life?
Heathen: Manik is a nonverbal character that makes dragon noises and is here to dance and make people happy, while acting in a sporadic way. For example one of my other characters is named Mair, and she’s a very feminine raccoon who emphasizes my rebellious nature and my feminine interests. Fursuiting is a postive experience overall, it makes me happy and it makes other people happy. Dancing in Manik has given me the confidence to dance without hiding my face, as well as approaching people I admire. While these are symptoms of my anxiety, it still has helped. My autistic traits won’t just “go away” once im out of suit, but it’s nice to have a small escape from societal pressure.
Enjy: Of course, of course, they can never just disappear. Let me rephrase. Has your time spent suiting had a positive impact in how you cope with your symptoms during normal life? For instance, has the courage given to you by dancing as Manik helped you interact better with others in any way when you are not wearing it? Does creating characters to represent different parts of yourself like them and Mair help you express yourself better?
Heathen: I definitely enjoy creating characters based off of different aspects of me, I find comfort in it. It allows me to display the traits I want other people to see, without the negative ones. I feel like my time in the furry fandom has helped me cope with my symptoms in a unique way, and suiting is just a part of that. Being around members of the furry fandom makes me feel safe in expressing myself the way I do, and I don’t fear exhibiting my autistic traits as much.
Enjy: I am very glad to hear you found solace in our fandom. Would you reccommend it as a sort of therapy for other people on the spectrum, then?
Heathen: Not therapy, no. But something to enjoy and feel comfortable doing, yes.
Enjy: I see. And what would you say are some pitfalls to look out for? Earlier you made a good point about how you cannot tell who is autistic and who is not. What are some good, safe and inclusive ways to interact with all fursuiters that would keep from triggering any symptoms autistic people live with?
Heathen: No sudden loud noises or touching without asking permission. And avoid mobbing a fursuiter, i.e. a lot of people at once. Also, avoid “pranking” a fursuiter? I’ve seen this happen where people tried to do something funny and it either really irked me or I just didn’t get it.
Enjy: Thank you for those tips, they will help us neurotypical folks understand how to be inclusive. Thank you for talking with us at DogPatch Press. Is there anything you would like to say to the fandom at large, speaking as someone with Non Verbal Learning Disorder?
Heathen: If there’s someone at a con, or online in your local fur chat, or someone that comments on your content, and they seem weird to you, please don’t make fun of them. If someone doesn’t understand a joke or reference, take the time to explain it to them. If someone is exhibiting autistic traits like stimming, please don’t stare! And for the love of all that is holy stop using “retarded” to describe everything you don’t like. Doing little things like this will make autistic furs feel more at home in the fandom.
Coming next — In Part 3: Pluma (ADHD).