Seeking Autistic Archipelagos

by Fern Wexler

Every year, Red Knots, a small shorebird in the Calidris genus, fly over 9,000 miles during the first leg of their migration. (They’ll repeat the trip on the way back, sometimes going days over the endless Atlantic Ocean without stopping to rest or feed.) When they arrive at the very tip of South America, they gorge themselves on a buffet of mollusks and other invertebrates. Imagine flying for hundreds of hours on wings no more than 22 inches across. Menaced by predators, threatened by global warming, and intimidated by humans encroaching on all of your favorite stopping points. Nowhere feels safe. Food gets more and more scarce as the ocean gets more acidic. Exhaustion bombards you and overloads your senses. Maybe it would be easier to let sleep take you as you fly. You’d drop soundlessly into the waves and never be seen again. But you keep going. Something tells you that this is worth it. All the pain and weariness will mean something if you just get to where your instincts are telling you to go. You just have to keep moving.

Red Knot by the shore.
Red Knot, photo by Ann Marie Morrison

That’s what it was like for me growing up as an autistic person. Replace migration with the navigation of day-to-day life, and predators and global warming with the other kids in my school, and you have an idea of how difficult it was for me to make it through each day. Not that I knew why it was so hard. I wasn’t diagnosed at the time, even though one of my teachers brought it up to my parents separately. If you asked the kids who bullied me back then if they were doing it because I was autistic, they likely would have said no—a good percentage of the bullying of autistic kids doesn’t happen because other kids hear the word and decide to lash out at an easy target; it happens because of everything that makes autistic people, well, autistic. I was targeted for my interests, my self-soothing behavior, and my lack of understanding of social cues. It felt like I was surrounded by people who were out to get me. I was bullied by my peers, picked on by my teachers, and because I tried to hide everything from my family, I was misunderstood by them, too. There weren’t very many places where I felt safe and happy and completely at home—but one of the few spaces where I did was Bird Alliance of Oregon.

I’ve always loved animals, and I do mean always; I was talking about them by the time I was 15 months old. As I grew up, that fascination and adoration expanded to nature in general before zeroing in on birds when I was about seven years old. When you’re autistic, you have extremely intense interests that are part of the building blocks of who you are. Ornithology became mine. While I’ve had others, most of them for forms of media like TV shows and comics, my love of birds will always (literally) make me who I am. Birds made—and still make—more sense to me than other people. Especially as it became obvious to my younger self that whatever was “wrong” with my brain wasn’t something animals could pick up on. Only humans could do that. Ravens, jays, and juncos didn’t care that I functioned differently from everyone else. To them, we’re all just humans.

Fern Wexler

So, like any northwest Oregon kid who was interested in nature (especially birds), my family sent me up the hill to Bird Alliance of Oregon every summer. Until I aged out at the start of high school, I went to every single camp I could squeeze into—Herpetology, Berry Berry Fun, Junior Wildlife Vet (that one was my favorite). I did just about all of them at least once. Some of my favorite memories come from the week-long overnight trip I did to Yellowstone National Park the summer before seventh grade. While I wasn’t exactly cured of my social anxiety just because I was in a place where I felt safe expressing my interests, I felt free in a way I didn’t when I was at school. I could express myself and indulge in the neurological stimulation of getting to gush about the things I was passionate about without being victimized for it.

The social validation I got from knowing the things I only knew because of my autism was validating in a way that, at the time, I didn’t know how to put into words. It’s still difficult now. As you may have gathered from the opening paragraph, I struggle to describe my experiences without seeing them through the lens of the emotions birds stir in me—receiving compliments feels like the song of a Western Meadowlark, disappointment is the sickening pain of watching a cat kill a fledgling, excitement is best compared to the rush I get when I see a rare bird, and so on. My autism and my interest in the natural world are deeply linked, and they’re a central part of who I am. It was because of how this interest was fostered in me by Bird Alliance of Oregon that I was able to become the person I am today.

That’s a part of why volunteering for Bird Alliance of Oregon, especially being a camp counselor, means so much to me. I have no idea if any of the people I was taught by at camps were autistic. But simply by being there for me and curating an environment where it felt safe to be a true version of myself, they quite literally allowed me to make myself who I am. If I can do that for someone else, for anyone else…then that’s worth just about anything to me.

As a Red Knot, you continue to fly, knowing that soon you’ll have to do this journey all over again, this time in reverse, just to make it back to your breeding grounds. You’re weaker by the second from resisting death, flying until your feathers are ragged. This is what instinct tells you to do. This is what Red Knots have always done and will do until there are no more left. Brave the constant danger and trust that there is something that will make the pain bearable. And finally, finally, after days on end, you crash into the archipelago of Tierra del Fuego. And for the very first time in your life…you feel like you have a place where you truly belong.