On Fortune Cookies, Neurodiversity, and Accessibility

This blog post is a collaboration between Jason Harris and Diane Wiener.

Jason: “The Fortune Cookie that Wasn’t”

I love fortune cookies. Not for the taste, but for the tiny piece of paper inside the cookie. The hope of getting your lucky number. The tiny saying you learn in Chinese that makes you feel like you are learning. It is always interesting the fortunes you get and what they mean for your life. Do they apply, do they not? Are the words you were looking for or something you want to deny? I have always in some ways felt a fortune cookies chooses you like a wand in the Harry Potter universe. That maybe in some magical way, the fortune writes itself specifically for you. You keep what the fortune cookie says for a while, and then move on. Sometimes, I even physically keep the fortune.

There is one fortune cookie I doubt I will ever forget: the fortune cookie that wasn’t a fortune cookie. It was my first semester in graduate school at Syracuse University. I went to a restaurant. As always, at the end of the meal, I looked for the treat of that fortune cookie and the wonder of the tiny piece of paper inside. This time, though, I had something that had never happened to me before. While sometimes you don’t get a cookie, this time, although I got a cookie, nothing was inside it. There was no fortune. I felt deprived in some way, but also felt a bit amused by this turn of events. It was totally unexpected to not have a fortune in that cookie. It also filled me with wonder: what could a fortune cookie with no fortune mean?

Obviously, you could imagine easily that those assembling the cookies just forgot this fortune, or perhaps made a mistake; and, if assembled manually, maybe there was a mechanical error. But, where is the fun in that? A friend told me that no news is good news. For me, maybe it meant I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. Maybe, it was the strongest statement of free will. I am not sure, and, in some ways, that is the beauty of the meaning -- like a great piece of art, it is completely up to you.

Diane: I asked my friend and mentee Jason to share a written narrative of his experience of the fortune cookie-that-wasn’t because we agreed that we find his story to include meaningful metaphors about neurodiversity.

Jason and I think the story highlights perspective, wonder, and deviance (from presumed expectations and norms); its style has the promise to be accessible to an array of folks. We imagine readers have various degrees of familiarity (if any) with the idea that Autism is among a variety of experiences and identities. Dare we say it? Autism exists on a spectrum, yes, but the spectrum to which we are referring is not a spectrum of disorder; rather, we underscore the presence of a spectrum of neurodivergence.

Consistent with many capital-D Disability pride spaces, themselves encompassing vast engagements that are far from monolithic, Jason and I do not believe autism is an illness that needs to be cured. Instead, as many advocates have articulated, capital-A Autism is a culture, an identity, an experience, and an expression of neurodiversity. And, there are many ways to live Autistically (and thus many Autisms), some of which involve not having Autism as one’s primary mode of self-identity, but just a part of one’s entire being.

Jason is an out-and-proud Autistic advocate. I have been asked many times if I am Autistic. I do not currently identify as Autistic. However, with thanks to my Autistic friends for sharing the terms and educating me, I can now identify comfortably as Autslippery and as Autflexible. I am in no way "neurotypical" (although I am "Allistic"), in other words. I am proud of being neurodivergent, which I also tend to experience as complex and as not always easy in an ableist world.

Jason: Fortune cookies work because of how we perceive them. They interact with us. This orientation is much like thinking about the mind. Like a fortune cookie, the mind has a mystical, mysterious quality. The mind is open to interpretation, much like a fortune cookie. What is considered to be a normal, extraordinary, or bad mind is up to interpretation.

Unlike with fortune cookies, though, the labels put on minds to judge and evaluate them have potentially big effects on the people whose minds are being labeled. But, like what happened for me with the fortune cookie-that-wasn’t, the fact is the minds that are divergent are the ones that move us forward.

Much as if every fortune cookie was the same, if all of our minds were the same, life would be so much less exciting and beautiful. Each animal on this planet, on this earth, has a mind that works in wonderfully unique ways. As humans, this is no different, and much like how we must learn to value and appreciate not what a mind cannot do, but what it can, it would be meaningful and welcoming to consider what each mind brings, whether a non-human's, or belonging to a person who is neurodivergent.

For me, I have been able to find pride that my mind works in its own ways, that while it can have its faults -- like all minds do -- it can also bring its own strengths and ways of looking at life. And, like Diane said above, my mind is part of a culture. This culture has always been and will continue to grow. The way we choose to interact with this ongoing culture is up to us. We can choose to keep the world only accessible to the few minds we deem acceptable, or we can open it up to the varied ways many of us think, feel, and live. I choose to accept myself and all the different wonderful ways the mind works as I try to make the world accessible to all.

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