Melissa Harris-Perry: Before we sat down with our next guest, she sent over a Google Doc titled Autism Language Guide. It starts, "In an effort to help you better understand autism. I've created this handy guide. This will help our interview go smoothly and prevent me from having to gently correct you."
Lauren Ober: My name is Lauren Ober. I am the host of the podcast, The Loudest Girl in the World.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now Lauren is an award-winning radio producer and host of The Big Listen from WAMU and NPR. It's described as the broadcast about podcast. Intelligent and irreverent, Lauren is an investigative journalist and a compelling audio storyteller, but even while enjoying professional success, she'd struggled in surprising ways, both large and small. Then during the pandemic, at the age of 42, Lauren gained insight into why, when she learned she's autistic. The Loudest Girl in the World podcast chronicles her experience. Lauren, thanks for joining us on The Takeaway.
Lauren Ober: Oh, gosh. Sorry. Thank you so much for inviting me. See, I'm already proving that I'm the loudest girl in the world because I just interrupted you during the intro. Sorry.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I step on every person, the back end of their sentences, the front ends of it, but talk to me, who is the loudest girl in the world?
Lauren Ober: Well, I have said that it's me. Although I will say that after putting out this show, I've heard from a lot of other people who said, "I thought I was." Basically, I've always been a loud talker. I've always been very loquacious. I can't stop talking. It's almost like a compulsion, and I always wondered why that was because I was always in trouble. School, jobs, relationships, you name it. My mouth was constantly getting me in trouble and I didn't ever seem to learn my lesson. In the pandemic, I came to find out why that was.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Why was it?
Lauren Ober: Do you like my cliffhanger [unintelligible 00:02:04] there?
Melissa Harris-Perry: Yes. I was like, "Well, and or why." [unintelligible 00:02:06] is like I'm trying to figure out like, is it an is or is it a was.
Lauren Ober: It's a both. I'm making light of it a little bit here, but it was actually a long journey of a lot of struggles in my life that led me to think along with my therapist that I might be autistic and I had thought about it for a while, but as we do, we put things on back burners when they don't seem pressing, and then the pandemic happened and everything that I felt was holding me up my life scaffolding fell apart. My routine, a place to go to work, and I didn't realize how important those things were until they fell away, and obviously, a lot of people have experienced a similar situation in the pandemic where it caused them to reevaluate a lot in their life, and for me, I think it made the background idea of autism really come to the foreground.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I want to take a listen to a clip from the show where you give us a little bit of this in the first episode.
[start of audio playback]
Lauren Ober: I've always had troubles at work and difficulty with bosses telling me what to do. I am famously finicky and the list of foods I won't eat ranging from arugula to zucchini is comically long. I often don't want to be touched, and sometimes I involuntarily recoil when touched, which is a great look on dates. My ears are highly sensitive to all kinds of normal sounds like headphone bleed, and people biting their nails. I can't seem to get a system in place to regularly put away my laundry. I have nuclear-grade meltdowns that make me not want to exist. I don't miss people when they go away, but I want to, I compulsively pull out my hair and have for 30 years.
[end of audio playback]
Melissa Harris-Perry: That inventory is the list that might have been just, oh, you're weird or odd or quirky, or maybe if we had good parents might have said things like, "That's what makes you special dear." For you, when did it occur to you or who introduced you the real possibility that you might be autistic?
Lauren Ober: When you lay it out like that, when you collect the inventory, you're like, "Oh, right, this makes total sense," but take stuff individually, it does just make you think that you're weird. All these collection of eccentric traits or something, but I think as a fairly literate person, as a person interested in media and television and movies. Of course, I've seen autism portrayed and I know about autism.
My partner has an autistic child, and so it was not unfamiliar to me, but I think that it was about collecting all of the pieces and putting them together into some type of abstract vision that made sense kind of, but autism is hard because it is a collection of traits and there's not a pathology. You can't cut somebody open and see their autism, and so it's pretty tough to ascertain if you have a more subtle presentation, which I do.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What difference does it make to have the word to be able to identify yourself, to have the identity, not just the word, but the identity, "Oh, I'm an autistic person."
Lauren Ober: My friends asked me that when I told them that I was thinking about getting a diagnosis because they were like, "What does it matter? Your life is fine," and I'm like, "Well, what do you know about my life?" I'm middle age. I've done okay in my life so far. What does a diagnosis do for me? I think what it does is it quiets a lot of the negative self-talk and even worse, a ingrained badness that I've felt from schools and jobs and places where I've messed up or did something wrong or something like that, and it gives you a word to erase the other words that have been applied to you. Does it have to be a part of my identity as such in an explicit way? No, but it's a way for me to understand how my brain works, and I think that's really of great value.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's take a listen to another piece from the podcast where you talk specifically about the pandemic as a catalyst.
[start of audio playback]
Lauren Ober: But then the pandemic happened and my dog died and I lost my job, and nearly every structure that was propping on my life seemed to fall away. It felt like I had been treading water for so long and then someone took away my floaties. I started to drown and while it was submerged, the atonal chorus inside my head became deafening. Figuring out my life, my brain took on an urgent quality. I just needed to understand and I needed to know that I wasn't bad.
[end of audio playback]
Melissa Harris-Perry: I needed to know that I wasn't bad. Can you say a bit more?
Lauren Ober: Sure. Look, when I was a kid I was always in trouble in school. I wasn't a bad kid, but I talked all the time. My desk was next to the teachers or at the back of the classroom. One time my desk was out in the hall, which I'm not sure how you learn when your desk is out in the hall, but I kept coming back to in my own therapy as an adult, this event where I was not only put in the back of the classroom, my desk was in the back, but there was a cardboard partition put around it like the size of a refrigerator box.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What?
Lauren Ober: I couldn't see my classmates and I couldn't see the teacher and it was very poignant for me, and it stuck in my mind because I had dressed up for Halloween that year as Pippi Longstocking and this partition went up just around the Halloween party. It was like you were hidden from all of your classmates. Your classmates couldn't engage with you, you couldn't engage with them, and it was like, "We need to stow this person away. We need to hide them," and there's a lot of shame in that and I think that a lot of autistic people have been punished in a lot of terrible ways over the years and the shame that they feel from punishment or just the world not understanding.
It's very difficult to move through a neurotypical world that is not built for you socially, sensorially, if that's even a word, and not have some trouble. I just think that I needed a word or a way to tell myself proof, even proof that I wasn't bad. It seems almost embarrassing or or weird to admit when you're middle-aged and from the outside you're doing fine, but it does feel every day when you screw up or you do something weird or you do something that upsets someone and you didn't even know that it would upset them, that like, "Oh, well you're bad."
Melissa Harris-Perry: For those who are listeners to the podcast, what are you hoping they're going to take from it?
Lauren Ober: Well, look, everyone's got a sack of rocks. We've all got something that we're toting around that we're carrying, and that helps us become more empathetic people, and what I would hope is that people who would listen don't think, "Oh, well this is an autistic show and this is what autism is." It's like, no, this is one person's experience understanding themselves better and trying to get the world to understand them.
I have a privilege and a platform to be able to do that, but they're in a million small ways that's happening every day, and we should be supporting people trying to get their needs met and trying to be accommodated and more than accommodated, embraced, and cherished, and that is what I would hope that people would come away from the show understanding is that it doesn't really take a lot to get it, to be that person who gets it.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Lauren Ober is host of The Loudest Girl in the World. It's a podcast. Check it out. Lauren, thanks for joining us.
Lauren Ober: Oh, thank you, Melissa. What a pleasure.
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