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World Autism Awareness Month Interview

World Autism Awareness Month Interview

with Calyssa Erb and Michael McCreary

In anticipation of Autism Awareness Month, we had the opportunity to engage in a conversation with authors Calyssa Erb (Maya Plays the Part) and Michael McCreary, author of (Funny, You Don't Look Autistic). Their shared experiences shed light on important themes. We encourage you to utilize this insightful interview in educational settings such as classrooms and libraries, or simply embrace it personally to promote understanding and celebrate neurodiversity.


Michael McCreary: It's a pleasure to be talking to you guys today. I'm Michael McCreary. I wrote Funny You Don't Look Autistic for Annick Press And I have a new book in the works called Mattie and Me.

Calyssa Erb: Hello, I am Calyssa! I am really excited to be doing this. I wrote Maya Plays the Part for Annick Press and I also sell children's books.

Question: What is your autism origin story/how were you first diagnosed? 

Michael McCreary:  I was diagnosed with autism at the age of five.  This is around the late 90s early 2000’s, so a lot of people were getting assessed more frequently, but still there was a pretty narrow conception of what autism was at that time. So my brother, despite being younger, was diagnosed well before me because he started losing speech around the time that he was about one and a half or close to two years old.So my folks took stock of the fact that it was a strange behavior they should look into. But mine was a lot more subtle. I would have stereotypically just been considered like a nuisance [laughs]. But now we can look back and say, “No, this is a neurodivergent kid, this is someone who is idiosyncratic and just needs accommodation.” So I was really lucky that my folks sort of looked into autism more as a spectrum rather than what they understood stereotypically from the media and applied themselves and got me basically sorted out so that's my backstory.

Calyssa Erb: Yeah, and I feel like I am the stereotypical “‘girl who got a late diagnosis” story. It wasn't until actually the pandemic lockdowns where I was at home all by myself, I wasn't having to mask all day and I was like, “This is weird. Everybody else is really stressed out about not seeing people all the time and I'm  thriving, things are great! I don't feel tired”. I started doing those psych online quizzes and they kept saying, “autism is likely.” I just kept racking up all these quizzes until it got to the point where I went to my doctor and I was like, hey is there an official thing that I could do and she gave me that and it also pointed to autism so I did pursue a psychiatric evaluation [Up until age 28] I just of identified as that shy kid who had a lot to say when she was talking about stuff she really liked but wasn't gonna say a whole bunch otherwise. It really opened up a whole new perspective on who I was as a kid and also a whole new community of people that I really resonate with.

Michael McCreary: That's awesome. Other than the community, do you find that the diagnosis has been beneficial just for you? Seeking out services, help, stuff like that? Has the diagnosis been good for you in that way?

Calyssa Erb: Yeah, it's interesting because I feel like there's been some really beneficial parts to it. I can advocate for myself more clearly, especially when I'm at work. But at the same time I feel like things that I used to do, like really high masking stuff, I have a hard time with now. Because it's almost as if I realize I don't actually have to do this and so my brain is not letting me do it anymore.

Michael McCreary: Sure.

Calyssa Erb: But yeah, it's been really great to have the vocabulary to tell people I'm autistic and that's why this is really challenging for me or I'm having a hard time with this or I don't quite understand what you're saying here and not feeling stressed out about just not getting it.

Michael McCreary: Yeah, it kind of sets the terms of the conversation, which is really nice. The funny thing about getting diagnosed, is that I find it's less of an issue with young people, but there are people of a certain vintage who are very well to do but I do kind of notice a pivot when you tell them. Not because they're skeptical about it. It's because I think they're trying to suddenly make concessions in a way that they wouldn't have done for you if they had just assumed you were neurotypical and that leads to some really bizarre interactions. I remember I was doing a show in Calgary years ago and right before the show,  I think it was made clear to one of the people there whose job during the day was a first responder, and when they found out the headliner was autistic,  I think they took that as a cue to say “Okay, I'm gonna do my job.” I was out in the hallway just kind of pacing before my show. I have an alarm set for me for two minutes [before showtime] so I can get to the stage and just out of nowhere this lady just walks up to me and grabs me by the arm and just goes [Michael puts on a slow voice] “We go to the stage now.” And she soldier-marched me to it, because I think she felt it necessary to do so based on what she knew about autism. I was really mad because on the one hand that is humiliating but on the other hand, I would have had to say yes anyways because I didn't remember where the stage was [Calyssa and Michael laugh]. That's what we call an ableist Catch-22 when  you're going [sarcastic] “Thanks, I guess.” 

Calyssa Erb: [Laughs] Yeah, that is so frustrating.

Michael McCreary: Exactly. So I know what you mean where it's kind of like the way you conduct yourself around people. It’s good to kind of come in with a battle plan because sometimes you have to acclimate yourself to people who just don’t know. I remember I was talking to someone that was in town for a psychiatric conference or something along those lines. I was in a pub getting a sandwich and somehow we got talking and at one point the guy asked me what I was doing there and I had to explain what I do and told him I was autistic and he just said “that doesn't define you” and I just said “Man, I don't have the time” which is a line from The Killers. I'm not usually that mean but I was thinking ”Look dude. I know that you think that that is helping me, but I don't need you to say that, I’m good.”

Calyssa Erb: Yeah, no, I really relate to that because I feel like after telling some of my family members that I had gotten this evaluation, I got so many interesting responses like “Oh, but you do so well and you look like you're functioning fine” and I'm like, “Yeah because you don't see the six-hour naps I take on the weekends so that I can do my job.”

Michael McCreary: Sure.

Calyssa Erb: And deal with all of the stimuli that I didn't realize was because of how my brain processes. Or the one that I thought was really funny after doing all of those Psych online quizzes, going to my doctor seeing an actual professional to get diagnosed and spending boatloads of money, a family member asked me if I thought I should get a second opinion and I was like,  there's no more second opinions, the second opinion was the professional, the first opinion was mine.

Calyssa Erb: I'm curious because you were diagnosed as a kid. Do you feel like that was helpful for you going through school?

Michael McCreary: I was super lucky. My dad's incredibly literate when it comes to looking at paperwork and stuff like that, so for him, he just went “Okay, we are going to secure an independent education plan, we're gonna find a way to tailor a curriculum around his particular skill set.” My folks, they put the work in. They found all sorts of extracurricular activities for me that were built around programs specifically offered to young autistic people. They were awesome. I was just incredibly lucky because I had parents that had the means to look into this type of stuff and not everyone's parents do. I was also lucky because I got diagnosed so early, so I basically came into school and kids were gonna bully me no matter what but actually as weird as this was, I was kind of in a window because there was a word for it. There was stigma around it. There was kind of a deterrent from kids to be overtly cruel to me. Mainly because I put a bit of the work in myself to kind of learn about what the diagnosis entails and what all the things are. So I was kind of like yeah, I don't have friends, but I don't really want to be around people anyways, and I was an extrovert but I didn't connect with a lot of kids. 

Calyssa Erb: I had an IEP because I was identified as gifted rather than autistic as a kid, but I found that with the spikiness of the autism profile that there's just such an expectation that if you're gifted you're good at everything which is not necessarily the case.

Michael McCreary: Yeah.

Calyssa Erb: So yeah, it sounds like it would have been really beneficial to have that full IEP profile and to be able to do education on your own terms or being able to work on your own terms. That's such a benefit to being able to have those terms and get to talk about them to other people. That's awesome. And I really related to what you were saying about not wanting to be around other people. I also read your book Funny, You Don't Look Autistic and I related when you were talking about how people would seem friendly to you and so be like “Oh yeah, we're pals,” but actually they were being really mean. I didn't have the term autism as a kid, but people would like suss out and they know when you're a little bit different. So I'd always just think “What's going on here, why aren't we clicking?” It seems like we're supposed to be friends but there's just that disconnect of trying to figure out who is your squad but not really knowing why you can't find them or when you think you found them, they're actually being really mean to you.

Michael McCreary: Yeah . . . by the way, I wish I didn't go before you so I wouldn't have put my foot in my mouth going like “I don't know about you Calyssa, but my childhood was awesome! [Laughs] I got all these benefits.”

Calyssa Erb: No, I'm super happy to hear it. I'm glad that it exists. I think that it shows that there is the potential to support autistic people but when you get to adulthood it's like we’ll have all these supports for if you're 10 years old, but I guess you're fine now!

Michael McCreary: Yeah!

Calyssa Erb: I would love to see that kind of expanded out. I think it'd be so helpful.

Michael McCreary: Absolutely! This isn't my thought and its not a novel idea that I'm throwing out here, but I really relate to people saying that it is one of the great ills of the 21st century, obviously it is not the most severe, but I think it is the most universal is loneliness and just feeling socially dislocated from most people. Even if you are extroverted no one really has that sense of connection or comfort with other people. So, as you were saying Calyssa, it would be great if there were more social groups in place for autistic people.

Question: What do you hope kids take away from your books?

Michael McCreary: Yeah, totally. I've probably circled this subject earlier without properly coming on saying it but what I will say that I want kids to take away from my book is that there are no downsides to having a diagnosis for the reasons I outlined earlier in this discussion. If you’re uncomfortable disclosing that you have ASD because of whatever cultural misconceptions around it, that's fine. That's your prerogative. You don't have to be out and about. But it is not just about peace of mind it is about getting invaluable resources that can help you. Hopefully, as things progress socially you will have access to things well into adulthood that will help you out. 

Calyssa Erb: What I hope kids learn from my book kind of folds into one of the myths around autistic people that really strikes a chord with me and that we're unfeeling or that we're not empathetic people that we kind of exist outside of these community connections, and I really wanted to show with Maya Plays the Part that we can be over-feeling to the point where it's like you can't even tell what emotion you're having at the time, you're so empathetic that it's hard to parse through to say something that you feel like is gonna really resonate with that person because you're trying to sort through what's actually going on in your brain. And I hope that they will just take away to be compassionate and curious about other people and all of the ways that we are different and all of the ways that make us unique. Yeah, and to see that autistic kids can be heroes in their own right.

Michael McCreary: Awesome! This was fun and Calyssa. I can't wait to read your book and more importantly best of luck with your village man. Are you playing New Horizons right now or which Animal Crossing is it?

Calyssa Erb: Definitely New Horizons, always checking in on my little pals!

Michael McCreary: Yeah, sweet. Who's your favorite villager?

Calyssa Erb: Peanut She's been my OG since day one since the very first GameCube Animal Crossing that I played [Laughs].

Michael McCreary: That's great. I've always been in the pocket for Blathers, who I guess is a business more a proprietor than anything else, but I love owls. When I went to Japan years ago I was at an owl cafe and a barn owl just kind of sat on me. It was awesome. It was a religious experience. Anywho, it was a pleasure talking to you

Calyssa Erb: Thank you so much.

Michael McCreary: I can't wait to see what you do next. It's gonna be great. Have a good one.

Calyssa Erb: It was amazing talking to you as well, thank you so much.