By Eric Zimmerman
Individuals with Autism tend to like sameness and predictability, and I know that all to well!
I very much like my Mountain Dew made by Pepsi, and My Deer Park water by Nestle. I can make do with a few other small substitutes, but I am most comfortable when I have my water and Mountain Dew. I often carry them around in a bag when I go and visit someone, to eat, or go for a long drive. I have not had much of a problem with restaurants and them not liking me brining my own drinks. I had one issue in New Jersey once with a friend when we went to a restaurant. They wanted me to drink the water they sell, and I was very uncomfortable with the idea. I told them to just charge me for one of their water bottles and it would make it okay. I am also a big fan of certain products because of familiarity. I LOVE GM cars, and am very knowledgeable about the different models, especially in the Chevrolet lineup. I am particularly fond of the Hewlett Packard technology company. In the past few years I have become very comfortable with the Samsung Galaxy phones. I did recently get a Google Pixel for a work phone for The Buddy Project, but I think that is as far as it will go with that.
Whenever I go on vacation, I go to the same places, such as Miami, FL and usually go the same time of the year. When I have been doing my speaking engagements, I have gotten to discover new places, and although uncomfortable and testing at times, I have really enjoyed it. On top of my Autism I also deal with really bad anxiety issues and have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which makes me want order, organization, and CLEANESS. Sometimes on these road trips I do not get the latter. I once found myself using the bathroom at a Dollar General during my last cross country journey. That was not fun, but I coped and it helped me grow as a person.
A lot of people with Autism only like to travel to their favorite places, and are uncomfortable with long trips with unpredictability. I have mentioned how I have dealt with some of these feelings but I have found bravery to accomplish and overcome. Nothing in my life will beat my last trip, and that was to South Africa in the fall of 2016.
I am not going to share a lot of details because I do not want to share much about my friend out of respect for her, but we became friends in the USA and stayed in contact and grew our friendship. I wanted to invite her to the USA but when it did not work out that way, I decided to visit her in South Africa. This was a HUGE leap for me because I have never been out of the USA and I would have to go through the process of getting my passport. My friend was very impressed that I would go and visit her even though I had mentioned my fear of traveling out of the country alone and the costs.
The ten days I spent with my friend in South Africa was an experience. Things are so different there. What I take for granted here I did not have over there, such as my favorite water. They did have Mountain Dew, but it was hard to find and it did not taste the same. Of course, when I look at the ingredients, it tells me why. There would be like five ingredients versus the twenty plus that would be in Mountain Dew here. You could actually taste the real sugar instead of the high fructose corn syrup. In short, they make it BETTER in South Africa. Better for your health that is! I also tried Sprite, and even though it was not like at home, I latched onto that as my go to drink along with Coca-Cola Companies Valpre water. One note, Valpre tastes great and it blows Coke’s Dasani out of the water…ha-ha- from the USA. I carried that around with me and stocked up on it whenever I got a chance.
One thing I noticed that when I was there is that they have such tiny trash containers. I think that they do not make as much trash as we do. This is coming from someone who uses liquid soap and paper towels. I took some paper towels with me but I was able to manage with the towels in the bathroom, which is a step out of my comfort zone.
Even though I did not have much of an appetite for the first few days because of my anxiousness, food there was really good. You can also tell that it is fresher and less processed than here. I had an AWESOME pizza at one of the malls over there. My friend says that there is better, so I am hoping that I can find out. I was able to go all but one day without saying “Ketchup”. It is tomato sauce there. In the USA Tomato Sauce is the stuff that we put on pizzas, use in spaghetti, and etc.
I was very brave in my quest to visit my friend in South Africa for someone who is used to predictability and sameness. I felt like a fish out of water at times. I knew it was going to be different, but not that different. It did take a lot of bravery to be able to go, even though the long plane rides were the thing that scared me the most beforehand and of course what the customs experience would be like. I feel it is important to have the courage to get out of your comfort zone and experience new things.
So while I am talking about how brave I was, and how it is important to go out of your comfort zone, I think that most people with autism have the stereotype against them that they do not want or cannot have an interpersonal relationship. Another friend of mine, who is considered by some on the spectrum, but is definitely nuerodiverse, was told that he cannot be autistic by his doctor because “those people are mean and violent.” That is not the first time I heard that from people. An ex-girlfriend of mine was reading a book about dating and autism and they said it is more like being alone if you date someone on the spectrum because they show no feelings and do not want any kind of relationship. So what I am saying is that I sacrificed a lot and traveled across the world, just to see a friend that I think a lot of. I think that proves my desire for growing that friendship and the importance of this person to me. So, someone with autism might very well be uncomfortable with traveling that far alone, and that is given, but someone with autism is thought to not want interpersonal relations, which is not true in my case.
Eric D. Zimmerman is Founder and Chairman of The Buddy Project, and should know about technology’s ability to unlock some of the everyday barriers faced by the special-needs community: The 28-year-old has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism which hinders social interaction. From working with Best Buddies International, he grew to recognize that, unlike him, many of the disabled have little to no access to such commonplace household technologies as even their own email account.
Zimmerman, a graduate of Frederick High School, decided to take action. Officially, since 2007, his technological savviness (certified in computer repair and rehabilitation by the Career Technology Center’s IT program), united with his caring, altruistic drive to help others, has been brightening lives. That’s when, out of his Frederick home, he began The Buddy Project. And, ever since, his not-for-profit organization has acted upon its mission of providing free computers (and/or other technologies) to qualifying IDD candidates. It’s also a mission that the Frederick County Commission on Disabilities has duly honored by bestowing Zimmerman with its Distinguished Service Award. He also serves on the Board of Directors of Service Coordination, Inc. the largest provider in Maryland of targeted case management for people with developmental disabilities.
Zimmerman also has a special interest in Surgical IT and he spends one day a week at St. Agnes Healthcare in Baltimore where he learns about Surgical Equipment and Instruments as well as help the hospital work more efficiently by the adding of his volunteering.