The Spectrum: Fursuiting with Autism (Part 3) – Guest post by Enjy
by Dogpatch Press Staff
Guest author Enjy shares a three-part story about the history of Autism research, its place in fandom, and interviews with 3 furries who give their personal insight.
== PLUMA – ADHD ==
Pluma (@Pluma_y_Pelo) is a queer and trans Latina fursuiter who has been diagnosed with Aspergers and ADHD. ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, is a hotly debated neurological develeopment disorder that is not yet on the Autism Spectrum, but a growing number of scientists are publishing reports asking for its addition. This is due to the extreme similiarities between its symptoms and that of Asperger’s Syndrome, to the point where misdiagnosis for one or the other is worryingly common. ADHD is also a commonly accepted precursor for Non Verbal Learning Disorder, which Heathen, who we profiled earlier, has. The case for addition has grown stronger after the American Psychiatric Association changed their stance on ADHD in the year 2013, publishing a paper titled “DSM-5 Changes in Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Autism Spectrum Disorder: Implications for Comorbid Sleep Issues” that rolled back their previous assertation that ADHD and Autism could not coexist in the same person. Pluma loves to perform in her feathered raptor/fox hybrid fursuit, and is an engineer who recently finished grad school. She is very passionate about making sure autistic people are safe and cared for, and her ideas on improving con spaces are worth a read for anyone heading a convention.
Enjy: What does autism mean to you? How would you define it from your personal experience?
Pluma: For me, autism is just another way for brains to be configured. Being autistic means that my brain takes in and processes all sorts of input differently. In some cases it can make things pretty difficult: my brain can get overwhelmed or confused by lots of different modalities.
A big example is that I can’t eat certain types of food. As soon as I take a bite into gristle, which I can’t bite through, that tactile input causes my brain to get overwhelmed and immediately nauseated, which I know doesn’t happen for neurotypicals (or else it wouldn’t be in any cuisines!). Another example is sound: loud sounds can be overwhelming and make me cover my ears, of course, but there are also times where someone will be talking while there’s already background noise, and my brain can’t tell what they just said (either at first or at all), despite them being able to understand me just fine. A third example is an atypical one: my brain gets overwhelmed by vestibular input, and if I were to get on a rollercoaster, I would immediately have a panic attack from the quick and sudden motions.
There’s also the social aspect, which I think tends to dominate neurotypicals’ understanding of autism. Often there are subtleties in conversation and body language that either pass me by, or that I’ve had to learn how to understand rather than it being intuitive. For the former, I can’t tell when someone is flirting with me at all: even though I see them talking to me and I know they’re probably using some body language, my brain just somehow misses that body language entirely and it never occurs to me that there could be that unspoken thing.
And like I mentioned before, I know that my experiences aren’t typical since if they were, the world would be a lot different. Many types of food wouldn’t exist, events would be structured differently to avoid being overstimulating, roller coasters wouldn’t exist, people would be more explicit about some social things, etc.
But it’s not all bad! there’s certainly a lot of things that are more difficult, but there are certain ways that sensory input gets processed that make things more fun. I loooove sour foods and I think I enjoy them way more than just because they taste good — the input is something my brain loves and it adds together and becomes wonderful. 🙂
And there’s lots of other things that come into play, like stimming! I know this answer is already pretty long, though. But overall, my brain just takes in and processes the world differently than most.
Enjy: When it comes to the furry fandom, do you believe it is more accepting and understanding of autism than most subcultures or even society at large?
Pluma: I’d say so! It’s no secret that the fandom is substantially more queer than most, and I feel like it probably has more neurodivergence than most. A big part of that is probably how many trans people there are; it always seems like there’s a disproportionately high number of trans autistics and of autistic trans people, and just that increase by itself means more representation and visibility. That also means that there are more autistics in leadership roles (i.e., con staff, or website moderators), who can use their own experiences to set rules that help all autistics.
Tangibly, too, there’s some autism-friendly conveniences I’ve seen at furry or furry-adjacent (i.e., a MLP con) that I haven’t seen at other conventions or conferences. Right at registration, I’ve seen furry cons offer ribbons that say “Hugs OK/Ask before hugs/No hugs please”, which is wonderful for those I know for whom touch in general (or by strangers) can be overstimulating or unpleasant. Mainstream society tends to be a bit less considerate about that, with hugs and touching sometimes given before asking or even being expected.
Another convenience I saw at a con was sensory-friendly rooms: dark, quiet rooms where anyone overstimulated could rest in a calm environment before going back out into the convention. It’s perfect for those who love conventions but can’t handle them for a long time, or for those who normally would be able to handle it but are having a rough day (since in my experience, if I feel physically or mentally unwell, it’s much easier to get overstimulated).
I’ve been to other conventions like anime conventions, and didn’t see things like those quite yet. It’d be great if other fandoms (and society as a whole!) got more accepting and understanding about the joys and challenges of being autistic, but so far it seems like the furry fandom is far ahead in that regard.
I got a photo with @SonicFox5000!!! From one queer PoC furry/fursuiter to another: I'm gay!! pic.twitter.com/7kiKEQndLu
— Pluma y Pelo (@Pluma_y_Pelo) January 20, 2019
Enjy: You might be pleased to know that you are correct in that assumption. FurScience’s Anthrocon study showed a whopping 11 percent of the study group had ASD and that means 1 out of 10 attendees were autistic. What brought you to the furry fandom? Did you know about its ASD-friendly nature beforehand, or were you brought in by something else?
Pluma: I found the fandom through the Sonic the Hedgehog fandom! In a sense it was like a version of the furry fandom, with focuses on art (fanart, fanfic, etc) and OCs that mimic the diversity of furry art and fursonas. I honestly just loved the art style and creativity and anthro characters I saw there, and it wasn’t too long from that that I found the wider furry fandom that had those exact things and more!
Back as I got into the fandom I didn’t know that I was autistic, though the fandom did feel like a place where I belonged in a way that I didn’t even with close IRL friends. For lack of better terms, I was the same sort of “weirdo” that I saw interacting and talking in forums, and later at conventions when I started attending them. I’m lucky that I was able to pass as neurotypical IRL since there are dangers to being visibly neurodivergent in public, but in the fandom I feel like I don’t have to be the same sort of guarded that I feel outside of it.
Furry was also how I figured out that I was both queer and trans, and was the perfect environment for that sort of exploration. Fursonas change all the time, so trying on a new sort of character as I was figuring out gender was easy and accessible and definitely helped me get a sense of my own identity. Plus, with queer art and queer people everywhere, it got easier to explore and understand my own queerness.
Enjy: That’s very interesting. It sounds like you see the furry fandom as a way to help people cope with many self-oriented issues, not just autism.
Pluma: For sure, yeah! 🙂
Enjy: I am very happy to hear the fandom has allowed you to grow in such a way. Speaking of, something I have had repeated to me multiple times is that fursuiting is a good way to cope with the symptoms of autism. Fursuit heads help muffle loud noises, and hiding your face allows for more fluent social interactions. Would you agree, is this true for you?
Pluma: 100%! Fursuits definitely muffle sound and block out some light, which means that crowds are not so overwhelming. Even at dances with loud sounds and flashing lights, it takes longer for the sound and flashing to become too much. It’s not perfect, of course, and I usually wear earplugs under the head, but Ii think it’s overall more helpful than earplugs alone. There admittedly is also the downside to muffled sound, where it can be harder to distinguish what people are saying, and I may have to ask people to repeat themselves an extra time or so to be able to discern what they said over the background noise and muffling effect.
I think fursuiting also helps a ton with social anxiety, which I believe is pretty common among autistics (especially when we often find negativity in social situations due to our misunderstandings caused by autism, which can make us wary). Normally I’m much too anxious to dance in public, but at a con with my fursuit, I can dance at the dances no problem! No one can see my face, so I can be silly and goofy and people aren’t seeing me do it as me, which somehow makes it less scary (probably just by the pseudonymity).
Fursuits also make me bulkier, which makes me feel stronger, as if it were caused by physical strength/muscles. It means I can walk around with more confidence just by wearing the suit, and I know people will love to see this cute, colorful, happy animal walking around, rather than worrying about how people will perceive how I look, or how I talk, or how I act.
Enjy: Wonderful. The evidence is very strong that fursuiting is a positive experience for anyone on the spectrum, especially in the hustle and bustle of something like a convention space. But you did mention a few downsides. What are some things that autistic people who would like to get into fursuiting should watch out for that may inflame their triggers?
Pluma: Part of it is how limiting sensory input can make things harder to discern. Muffled sound means peoples voices can get lost a bit more easily, limited vision means it’s even harder to see body language, etc. These can be compensated for a little bit (like asking people to repeat themselves, which I think people tend to be okay with), but it takes some adjustment. Especially since each suit is different in how much vision and hearing you’ll have, it’ll be an adjustment for each new suit, so getting a new suit can mean figuring out how to adjust from the beginning.
Another part is the sensory input that fursuiting provides on its own. Wearing a fursuit usually means getting very warm and sweaty, and if heat or sweat can be overstimulating, you’ll need to compensate by taking breaks in the headless lounge, or drinking plenty of ice water, or wearing proper under armor, or wearing an ice vest/having fans in the suit, etc. It’s not too much different from adjustments that we make in everyday life, though—I already need to be selective about the food I eat, and I’d say that takes more personally takes more effort, especially compared to how rewarding and fun suiting is once you’re prepared.
A third part is that stimming can be a little more difficult in suit, but not impossible by any means! If you have something you typically chew on, it may be difficult to do in suit (since you’d have to either keep in in your head by your mouth the whole time, or sneak it through the mouth, both of which have their disadvantages. But, if you tend to stim by hand-flapping or jumping, you can make it part of how you perform in suit! My fursona has wings, so flapping makes it look like I’m flapping my dinosaur wings, which looks cute and works well! Not every stim can be incorporated in, but the fact that you’re a big animal means that you can get away with more than you can when perceived as a human.
And a last part is that people (especially neurotypicals outside of the fandom) may make assumptions that you’ll need to prepare for. I’ve had someone grab my arm to say hello/ask for a picture (I couldn’t even see them with my limited peripheral vision), and while I don’t have as much trouble with touch from strangers, it still was pretty unpleasant. You also may draw more attention than you’re used to, which means you may have to be more social than usual (though in a more limited context of just posing for photos rather than getting into conversations). For that case, it’s good to take breaks in the fursuit lounge where those people won’t be coming up to you.
Enjy: I’m sorry that happened to you. To us neurotypicals, it is hard to understand when someone is autistic, and it has even been called the “invisible disorder” for this reason. What do you think are good ways that we can interact with -all- fursuiters, that help maintain a safe space for those on the spectrum? How can we “play it safe,” as it were?
Pluma: The biggest part is just always asking! If you want to hug us, if you want to take our picture, if you want to ask us something, it’s always best to just ask first! May people will say yes, and it allows people who can’t or don’t want to the ability to decline before things get overwhelming. Similarly, asking even when you’ve got consent is good — I may say yes to a hug, but that doesn’t mean you can pet my head; I may say yes to headpats, but don’t want you to touch a fragile part of the suit; etc.
Another part is to understand what it’s like to fursuit. While suiting, we’ve got limited vision, both in terms of how much of our field of vision that isn’t blocked by the head, and in terms our how our vision is less detailed due to the mesh in front of our eyes (basically if you’re seeing the world in 4K, we’re seeing it in 480p). Even my own suit, which has better vision than most suits I’ve seen, I don’t have peripheral vision, and can’t read small text at a distance. We’re also quite warm and need breaks, and so we may need to leave to rest at a headless lounge or in our room (and so will have to cut our interaction short, and will need to decline requests for hugs and pictures so we can keep moving). You may not be able to tell how tired we are without seeing our faces, so asking and giving us a chance to decline lets us feel more comfortable in the interact.
Lastly, I’d say to make sure you have our attention before assuming you do. My fursuit may be making eye contact with you, but I could be looking in the other direction and not even see you. If you assume we see you and are ignoring you, it may feel frustrating while we don’t even know that’s happening. If you start expressing that frustration to us, it will absolutely be overwhelming and confusing. Also if you are designing a space for fursuiters, making sure the headless lounges and rest areas are sensory friendly (e.g., a quiet, darker area away from the loud music and flashing lights of a dance room) will help us feel more comfortable and welcome.
Enjy: Those are amazing ideas and ones that I know will help make cons more inclusive for everyone. One could infer that you have learned quite a lot about ASD and how to effectively maneuver with and around it through fursuiting. Has your time spent as Pluma helped you at all in real life? Has fursuiting helped you overcome any fears or issues related to your disorder, even after you take the costume off?
Pluma: Honestly, fursuiting has become one of my favorite activities, partially due to how it helps! It’s fun in and of itself, and it’s also a nice escape from social anxiety and all the expectations of when people see you as a human. To that effect it can be an occasional way of helping cope, and I am always on the lookout for more opportunities to suit to get back into that fun space.
In terms of overcoming fears, I’d say I’m still working on that, but it’s definitely a clear example of confidence that I’ve had that I could try to tap into to work on my own shyness and anxiety. Of course, it’d be much easier if I could suit all the time instead, since that’d get rid of it right away!
And, among other furry friends, just being able to act as a cute animal with or without the suit brings the same sort of comfort where I don’t have to feel so guarded. It is another way of coping—changing your behavior/life to make things easier and less effort is part of a lot of therapy techniques. Plus, they tend to either be autistic themselves, or at least non-judgmental, meaning it’s easier to talk about sensory difficulties, or to ask for things that I need (such as asking for them to avoid a certain sound that my brain really doesn’t like).
Enjy: Very well put, Pluma. I want to thank you for speaking with us at DogPatch Press and helping those of us who are neurotypical and even those on different spectrums to understand you better. Is there anything else you would like to say to the fandom at large, as a message from someone with Aspergers/ADHD?
Pluma: I’d say to know that while we have our difficulties, we’re people who are here to enjoy the fandom and anthros and suiting as much as those not on the spectrum! Helping us with our difficulties keeps the fandom as a warm, welcoming place with its wonderful diversity, and keeps the fandom lively and thriving.
I’d also say to keep in mind that autistics have a wide range of experiences and their own difficulties, and one person’s words aren’t necessarily generalizable to all of us. The same sensory input can be amazing to one person and completely unbearable to another; one person may not have much trouble understanding subtle cues, another may have learned to understand them over time, and a third may still have trouble seeing them at all; one person may not be bothered if there’s no sensory-friendly space, and another may not go to an event that lacks them; etc. The best bet is it learn and understand more about all the different ways it means to be autistic, and to ask for consent for touching/interacting (which in turn helps those that aren’t autistic, as well!) to make sure we can all feel comfortable and understood in this wonderful fandom.
== The Takeaway ==
Through these fursuiters, although each of them had varying conditions and each of them had different views on certain subjects, we have learned a few things that they all agree are important for us to consider when interacting and socializing with our autistic furry friends.
1: Fursuiting Alleviates Autism Symptoms, But Does Not Take Them Away
All three of our interviewees gave positive responses when asked about the physical and mental effects of their fursuit relating to their autism. Especially in a loud and busy space like a convention floor, the sensory overload risk that many autistic people suffer from is severely lessened by the quieting of noises and the perceived snug space that a fursuit provides. I also learned that the act of covering up your face and assuming a character is very therapeutic when it comes to social symptoms, because it allows autistic people to emulate, one of the favored coping methods, without the added pressure of fitting in. However, I also noted that the combination of temperature and textile sensations can be a little much for autistic folks, so if you decide to try fursuiting, use Doc’s advice and try it with friends first, or Pluma’s advice about giving yourself a dark, quiet room to cool down in. If you are neurotypical, it is also important that you note what our interviewees have said triggers their symptoms, and how to avoid those things. Assume that everyone in a fursuit is autistic when interacting with them, conduct yourself thusly, and we can have safer and more fun convention spaces for everyone.
2: Fursuiting Helps With Personal Growth
Doc Fox and Heathen noted something very peculiar to me, and that was the profound effect that fursuiting had on their perceptions of themselves and the way they conduct themselves in every day life. Pluma stated that fursuiting was the beginning of her journey to overcome her fears, as well. What we can infer from this is that fursuiting at a convention is an effective and safe way for autistic folks to experiment with socializing and existing within large groups. The central focus on furry media is a jumping off point for the conversations that people with ASD love to engage in, and the fandom is a great and understanding space for people with autism to be themselves without fear of being cast out or excluded. As neurotypicals, we can do our part to help this by giving everyone we see a simple compliment. Someone who is self conscious or scared will have their stress lessened if you ask them to take a picture or tell them how cool their fursuit looks. You can feel good for having brightened someone’s day, and they can have their confidence bolstered and continue down their path to self-improvement. It’s a win-win for everyone!
3: What -Not- To Do
Although the triggers for each Autism Spectrum Disorder are different, there are a few things that they all share that neurotypicals need to watch out for. The consensus between our interviewees, despite their differing diagnosis, was that things like un-asked for touching, loud and sudden noises, and crowding around somebody are a bad idea. In the bigger picture of things, these are social missteps for everyone, not just neurodivergent people, and so you can safely be conscious about cutting these out of your con experience without it being impacted in a negative way. If you see a group of people around a fursuiter, try to stay back and wait your turn to interact with them. Don’t run up to anybody, don’t scare anyone, and don’t touch anybody without making sure they clearly see you first, and even then only after they give consent. If we apply these standards to every fursuiter we see, we are all doing our part in making sure we are more inclusive for the autistic people around us without making them feel singled out or focused on. This brings me to the last point I would like to make.
4: Autistic Furries Are Just Furries
Although it is very important to make sure autistic people are cared for and accommodated, it can be offensive or rude to ask if someone is autistic before interacting with them. They may think they did something wrong, or that you will make fun of them. Autistic people do not outwardly show their symptoms for one reason or another, and it is not right for us as neurotypical people to treat them any other way than how they prefer to be treated. If they wear a ribbon or a sign that says they are autistic, that is valid and good. However, many will not. So when interacting with people at a convention or a meet, and especially fursuiters, use common sense and inclusive social rules to make sure that everyone is safe and comfortable. Many thing you can do to keep from trigger autistic people are ways that you should be conducting yourself anyway, which is hard to remember in the hectic party atmosphere of a convention. If we are all just a bit more thoughtful, we can greatly improve the quality of life for our autistic friends while making them feel like what they are: an important part of our community.
(Patch:) Thanks to Enjy for the hard work of writing, Doc Fox, Heathen and Pluma for interviews, @Deotasdevil for supporting Enjy, and Patreon supporters for helping to be able to pay Enjy with thank-you tips. Writing is very low paid but I can say it’s on par with what furry fiction publishers pay.
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As someone on the spectrum, the sensation of having something on my skin, especially scratchy faux fur or tooth curling spandex, is the biggest deterrent to going all in to Fursuiting.
I'm sure my fellow neuro-atypicals can relate. https://t.co/vlQYLNYqBf
— Shipping Ditt Nickles. (@thygrrr) June 18, 2019
I'm on the spectrum, and for me, I love nothing more than to hide my face and body. be it by wearing gas masks, or other kind of masks, or a fursuit, doesn't matter that much, but as I happen to be a furry as well, a fursuit is nice for the purpose
— Deputy Rasponov (@Rasponov) June 18, 2019
Another article in Alphaville, the Journal of Film and Screen Media — The Taming of the Bronies: Animals, Autism and Fandom as Therapeutic Performance (2015), by Maria Pramaggiore, Professor and Head of Media Studies at Maynooth University in Kildare, Ireland.