Whenever I’m in a training class or a conference or really any situation where I am in a room of people who are mostly unknown to me, I always cringe inside whenever the facilitator begins the session with the word ‘icebreaker’. The anxiety of doing an unknown activity that is designed to force me to interact with other people is not really how I like to start a day or training session. Any activity that is designed to force me to meet and interact and communicate and socialize with some other ‘learning’ goal is always something difficult to initiate. But, that is one of the many experiences that a person with a neuro-social deficit, such as someone on the autism spectrum, must always find a way to navigate.
So it was during a recent training, on the second day of an otherwise excellent training on Community Engagement and after spending time the prior day in discussions about recognizing the many identities each of us posses using our diversity and inclusion lens, this second day, we were each given two playing cards, face down as the beginning of another ‘icebreaker’.
We were instructed to not look at the cards and file in to the the conference room next door to the one we were in so that we could move around.
Once we were in the room, we were given the instructions.
- We were not supposed to look at our own cards.
- We were supposed to show the red card to everyone else in the room.
- We were supposed to respond to others as we moved around the room according to the ‘value’ of the card they were showing: Cards with numbers 1 through 4 were ‘low value’, 5 – 10 were ‘middle value’, and Jack through Ace were ‘high value’ — we were supposed to interpret what that meant.
So, we begin walking around the room. I’m holding my card, acknowledging others ‘according to the value of their card’ as I walk around the room.
The first person I encounter looks at my card and says, “I don’t know how I’m supposed to respond to that one”.
Well, OK, I reluctantly continue to walk around the room. The next comment was also mysterious, “I wasn’t told how to respond to that one”.
Other comments I received were similar.
OK, so I really do not like this activity.
After doing this for a few minutes, we are told to put that card away (without looking at it) and now display the other card.
And the activity continues now with the other card.
Immediately, I new that I must have had a face card, as all the comments I received were very nice, like everyone wanted to be my best friend.
After doing this for a few minutes, we were then told to now bring out the first card again and then display both cards as we walked around the room.
At this point, I really just want this activity to be finished so we could go back into our training room and back to my ‘safe space’. But anyway, I walked around the room now receiving mostly positive feedback with only a little confusion.
As we walked back to our training room, it occurred to me that this is how I navigate through my life. I am a middle class, professional, middle aged white male, so I am very much aware that even as a gay male, I walk through the world with a good bit of privilege. That would be the second card.
But, at the same time, I often receive comments or reactions similar to the ‘I don’t know what to do with that’, as people might discover this underlying identity I try to hide, as a person on the autism spectrum.
This duality of identities, the visible and seen combined with this unknown identity does catch a lot of people off guard as they try to get to know me.
I do understand that many other people who may have any combination of ‘hidden’ identity might have similar responses from others as they reveal themselves. But for me, I am even more aware of the need to talk about my reality living as a person on the autism spectrum.
Oh, and that first card, it was the joker.