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Deep Space Autism

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Julian stared at the picture on his screen. It was a simple design, really - a rainbow-coloured infinity symbol with the words “Actually Autistic” written below. He’d come across it this morning, during the few minutes he had to check Tumblr, and it had been floating around the back of his mind ever since. He was seriously considering buying it, and the fact that he had seen it at all showed just how far he’d come in the past months.

He’d known he was Autistic for several years now, but his parents had known for a decade longer, and they had used that to their advantage. By the time he figured out what his diagnosis was, he’d had it drilled into him to make eye contact and ask people how they are and don’t fidget Jules, it looks weird. He remembered being a child and visiting therapists, not being told for sure why he was there but always feeling like he was doing something wrong.

He hadn’t found out he was Autistic until he was fifteen, and the intervening years between then and now had been a struggle to discover his own identity underneath all the ways other people had tried to change him. He learned how to recognize being overloaded, instead of just waiting until he melted down. He learned how to stim to regulate his senses - the soft rocking back and forth, the twisting fingers, the little container of putty he kept with him.

Most importantly, he learned a whole new way of thinking. Before, everything had been in terms of what made him wrong. He wasn’t smooth enough, bright enough, normal enough, good enough. There had been words for the things that made him different, but all of them were bad. Now, he knew words like stimming, and meltdown, and executive dysfunction. Words like partially nonverbal and sensory processing and special interest.

Words like Autistic.

He looked at the shirt again. Did he really want to do this? He knew he did, but there was still that thrill of anxiety, that feeling that this makes it real and what if they hate you. He pushed the feeling down as best he could, took a deep breath, and pressed “order”.

This was it.

———

Julian bounced slightly and shook his hand a little as he stepped into Deep Dish Nine for his shift. It was a Saturday, so he was working all day, and the dress code was more relaxed. Specifically, the dress code allowed any shirt as long as you still wore your nametag.

“Good morning, Julian,” Jadzia greeted from behind the counter. “How are you today?”

“I’m well, and you?” he replied automatically, but smiling as he did so because it was always nice to see Jadzia.

“Well, it’s finally sunny out,” she replied, “so we’re off to a good start.”

He approached the counter, intending to head to the back room to drop off his bags, when he noticed Jadzia staring a little at his shirt.

Suddenly he realized that he really hadn’t thought this through, and that he had no idea what to say if she didn’t say something first. He resolved to just wait and see what happened.

“What does your shirt mean?” she asked, and he breathed a sigh of relief. Straightforward questions, good.

“It’s the neurodiversity symbol,” he told her. “It’s used as a pride symbol for neurodivergent people.”

“Ah, I see,” she said. There was an awkward beat of silence before she spoke again. “What does that mean?”

“Neurodiversity is the natural diversity of human brains,” he said. “Neurodivergent is the term for someone who has a brain that-” he broke off, unsure of his wording. “That’s not… privileged as normal by society,” he settled on. “It includes conditions such as PTSD, ADHD, and-”

“Autism,” she finished for him, reading from his shirt. “So you’re… you know?”

He fought back laughter - nervous or amused, he couldn’t tell. “Autistic,” he said. “Yes.”

“I see,” she said. “I wouldn’t have guessed. It must be very mild.”

“Actually, no,” Julian told her, glad that he had at least rehearsed this eventuality in his head. “Mild Autism is a myth. There’s no such thing, and that’s not how the spectrum works. People are Autistic in different ways, but none of them are more or less Autistic.” He let some sarcasm slip into his voice. “In fact, there are many different ‘types’ of Autism. Personally, I have Deep Space Autism.” He quirked his mouth a little, so that she knew he was joking, and not angry with her. He’d expected someone to say it, after all.

“Sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to offend you. Is there anything I should know or do differently?”

“If there is, I’ll let you know,” he said. “But if you just want more general information-”

He reached into his pocket and pulled out an index card with a few websites scrawled on it in his most readable handwriting. “These have some good introductory information.”

“Thanks, Julian.” She smiled. “I’ll check them out.”

He nodded and smiled a little in return, then ducked into the back room to drop off his things and begin his shift.

———

The morning shift was him, Jadzia, Sisko, and Kira. Sisko already knew he was Autistic, since he’d told him when he requested permission to take short breaks when he felt overloaded. He was already in the back room when Julian entered, and must have overheard his conversation with Jadzia, but didn’t mention it.

“Good morning, Julian,” he greeted. “I have you working back here until midmorning, then up front until lunch, back here until mid-afternoon, and up front until the end of your shift. Got it?” At Julian’s nod he continued. “There’s some restocking to do with the vegetables, so I’d like you to chop up enough to replace what we’re low on.”

“Okay, sir,” he said, heading over to the counter. They worked in silence for a few minutes until Kira arrived in a rush, greeting Jadzia hurriedly on her way to the back.

“Good morning,” she said. “I’m sorry I’m late, but Constable Odo wanted to talk to me about that theft we reported last week.”

“It’s fine, Nerys” Sisko said. “You’re working up front with Jadzia this morning.”

“Sounds good,” she said, and left as quickly as she’d come.

———

By midmorning Julian had finished with the vegetables and was ready to take Jadzia’s place up front while she rolled out crusts. There was nobody eating in the restaurant when he went up front, which was not overly surprising given that it was a weekend morning, but he had heard a few people enter and leave while he was in the back.

He nodded to Kira as he took his place behind the counter, and she nodded back. The first waves of customers would start arriving soon, but they still had a good half-hour until then, and not much to do. Casting around for something to occupy his mind, Julian started tapping his fingers in random patterns on the counter - first skipping every finger, then going in the opposite direction, then double-tapping every other finger, and so on. He was soon pretty engrossed in his little game, but knew to keep an ear out for customers, so he wasn’t too badly startled when Kira asked him what he was doing.

He looked up, hand moving from the counter to his side, where his first three fingers pulled his pinky towards his thumb. “Oh, sorry,” he said. “I was just killing time until people start arriving, I suppose.”

“We used to play rhythm games like that when I was younger,” she said. “They help keep the mind busy when there’s nothing else to do.”

“It’s something to do,” he agreed. “And it helps me calm down sometimes, too.”

“You mean like when you leave sometimes?” she asked. “I noticed that you do that sometimes, but couldn’t figure out why.”

“Yeah,” he said. “I have permission from Sisko to leave for a few minute when I start feeling overwhelmed.” He tried not to do it too much, because he didn’t want to take advantage of the accommodation, but he knew a lot of that was internalized issues from his childhood, and from society in general. Either way, sometimes he still had to leave and he wasn’t surprised Kira had noticed, though he was pleased that apparently he seemed fairly calm on the outside when he was leaving.

“Why would you need to leave when nobody else does?” He couldn’t tell if her tone was accusatory or not, and tried to keep calm and assume the best.

“I’m Autistic,” he said. “I get overwhelmed more easily by some things.”

“What does that mean?” she asked. “Autistic?”

He paused for a moment, surprised. It hadn’t occurred to him that she might not have heard of Autism at all, though he supposed it wasn’t really that surprising. Still, it caught him off guard and he had to take a moment to consider his next words.

“Autism is a developmental disorder,” he began. Possibly not the best way to start the explanation but it was too late now. “It’s part of the natural diversity of human brains.” Better. “Often, Autistic people are more sensitive to certain types of sensory input, though some people are less sensitive or have other experiences. There are other traits too, involving social interaction and other elements of behaviour, but usually when I have to leave it’s because I’m overwhelmed by sensory issues or sudden and unexpected occurrences, or those things have weakened my ability to handle emotional disturbances.”

Kira took a moment to process this information. “I’d never heard of that before,” she said, “but learning about that sort of thing wasn’t much of a priority when I was growing up.” She paused for a moment, then asked, “is that what your shirt means, then?”

He smiled. “Yeah, the rainbow infinity symbol is often used by the neurodivergent community, which includes Autistic people and others with-” he broke off for a moment. “Sorry, I don’t want to bore you.”

She looked around the empty room. “It’s not like there’s anything more pressing to do,” she said. “I suppose we might as well keep talking. What does neurodivergent mean?”

“Thanks,” he said. “So, as I was saying, neurodivergent is a term that describes people whose brains differ from the ‘norm’, and people whose brains are the ‘norm’ are called neurotypical. That’s not a very good way of explaining it, I’m afraid, but the term was created to be able to describe things without referring to a norm, so defining it without referencing that norm is a bit tough.”

“I see,” she said. “And what- oh, hello. Welcome to Deep Dish Nine, how can I help you?”

The customers had started arriving for lunch, and soon he and Kira were busy taking orders. She didn’t work Saturday afternoons, so they didn’t have any time to really talk, but as she was leaving he found a few moments.

“Thanks,” he said. “For listening.”

“You’re welcome,” she replied. “But really, you don’t need to thank me. We were just talking.” She smiled and looked at the clock on her phone. “Oh, I have to go now or I’ll be late. Have a good day, Julian.”

“You too!” he called, as she headed out the door. Worf and Jadzia were working the front now, and Sisko wouldn’t need him in the back with Miles for another twenty minutes, so he was on lunch break for now. He grabbed his bag and went to meet Garak.

———

“Ah, Julian,” Garak said as Julian sat down across from him at the table. “How are you doing today?”

“I’m well, and you?” he said, smiling. He was, in fact, doing well so far. It had been a quiet morning, so there hadn’t been much to overwhelm him or tire him out.

“Well, it’s finally getting to a reasonable temperature out, so I can’t complain,” Garak said. “I don’t know how I get by in this frozen tundra of a country.”

“Well, it’s summer now,” Julian reasoned. “So that makes it closer to… spring in Cardassia?”

“Something like that,” Garak said. “But enough about the weather. The sartorial choices today are most intriguing,” he said, casting a glance over to the counter, where Worf was wearing a T-shirt with writing on it that Julian couldn’t read - probably a quote from one of Worf’s favourite operas.

“Ah, people can wear whatever shirts they want on Saturdays,” Julian explained, then frowned. “But you know that. You’ve been here on Saturdays before.”

“Indeed I have,” Garak agreed. “But you yourself usually continue to wear the uniform despite the more relaxed dress code - a pity, really, given the uniforms you wear.”

“So I do,” he said. Garak would be the only person so far to pick up on that. Or at least, the only person to mention it. Garak was at once both more and less forthright than other people; that was probably part of why they got along so well.

“Well, I must say I approve of any deviation from the normal attire of this workplace,” Garak said, “but I confess I am unfamiliar with the meaning of your shirt. Unless it is merely an attractive pattern, with some words added on?”

“No, no,” Julian said, gesturing a little with his hands. “It’s the neurodiversity symbol,” he explained, summarizing the concept.

“I see,” Garak said. “And you are one of these ‘neurodivergent’ people?”

“Yes,” he said. “I’m Autistic.” He pulled out an index card similar to the one he had given Jadzia and handed it to Garak. “There’s more information there, if you wanted to learn more.”

“Thank you, my dear,” he said. “Perhaps we should find a book relevant to the subject for our next reading.”

“Perhaps,” Julian agreed, smiling a little. “I can recommend a few, if you want. But-” he added, pointing a finger at Garak, “only if you agree to debate normal things like characters and philosophy, not things like if I deserve to exist or if I’m inferior to other people, that sort of thing.”

“Are… those topics people often debate with you?” Garak asked, and Julian thought he seemed surprised. “That seems a little… How should I put this. The appeal of a debate is the ability to discuss things with no correct answer, passionately defend your side, and improve your conversational skills in the process. Debating for the obviously wrong side can have its merits, but not if your conversational partner does not find equal worth in defending their side of the debate. To do otherwise is simply rude.”

“Most of the time it doesn’t come up in a debate like the ones we have,” he said, idly tapping on the table. “It’s something I’ve seen people say - or more often, imply, since most of them wouldn’t say it outright - and I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t have to put up with anything like that if we read a book on the subject of neurodiversity.”

“Julian,” Garak said, “I promise you I can keep our discussion to such areas as cultural differences and development of the book itself. Conversations are less than satisfactory if only one participant is enjoying themselves.”

“Thank you,” Julian said. “I appreciate that. I’ll do some research and let you know what book we should read the next time it’s my turn to pick. In the meantime, I’ve been thinking about what you said about Prelor’s decision to subdue the rebels, and although you have a point that it was for the best in the long-term, you’re still utterly wrong that it was the right decision.”

“And how, may I ask, could that possibly be the case?” Garak inquired. “Surely the correct action is the one with the best long-term results,”

“In many cases, it is,” Julian said. “But there are exceptions, and this is one of them. It clearly stated back in the early chapters that…”

They debated for another ten minutes, neither of them winning or losing, but both enjoying themselves. After his lunch break was over, Julian reflected on what Garak had said about debates, and smiled to himself. It was good to know that even Cardassian tailors (or spies, as the case may be) had some common decency.

———

“Oh, good, you’re back from break,” Miles said, waving Julian over to where he was putting toppings on the pizzas. “We need more vegetables cut. Start with the onion, then red pepper.”

Julian nodded and went to cut the vegetables. Onions were a pain to cut, because they had such a strong smell and stung a little, but he usually only had to cut one or two at a time, because they were pretty big. He’d looked into things that would neutralize onion when cutting it, but nothing was both effective and practical for the workplace. He grabbed an onion from the pile and started cutting it, and was about halfway done when Miles asked, “That a new shirt?”

He looked down, having been distracted enough by the onion that he’d momentarily forgotten which shirt he was wearing. “Oh, yes,” he said. “It is.”

They worked in silence for a while - well, relative silence, given that Julian could still hear the music playing in the front. It was good music, so it was okay for now. After a minute or so, Miles asked, “so you’re… you know?” Julian laughed. “You know, Jadzia said the exact same thing,” he said. “You can say ‘Autistic’. It’s not a bad word. If it were, I probably wouldn’t be allowed to wear this shirt at work.”

“Good point,” Miles said, as Julian switched from onion to red pepper. “Is there… anything I should know, or do, or anything? To help you with… stuff?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’ll let you know if anything comes to me.” He knew there were probably things his friends could do that would be helpful, but it was hard to think of them unless they were currently problems, and he was okay at the moment. Getting a bit worn down, granted, but okay. He knew that all the questions probably should have annoyed him, but Autism had been one of his special interests as of late, and it was sort of nice to get to talk about it to people he trusted.

“Okay,” Miles said, and they worked again for a while.

“You know, I think I saw a show with an Autistic character in it once,” he said. Julian tried not to wince, thinking of any number of shows with cringe-worthy “representation”.

“Oh?” he said, because actually cringing and butting in would be rude, probably.

“Yeah,” he said. “Some science fiction show, I forget the name. He could manipulate technology or something? But they called it Aspergers, not autism. That’s still on the spectrum though, right?”

“Sort of,” he said. “Asperger’s is in the DSM-IV and the - the other one that starts with an ‘I’ - but not the DSM-V. There weren’t many differences between the diagnoses, and most of it came down to if there was a language delay, which doesn’t have much impact on how you are as an adult. Even that wasn’t consistently implemented when people were actually being diagnosed. Some people prefer one term, and some prefer the other, but they both mean roughly the same thing.”

“I didn’t know that,” Miles said. “What’s the DMS?”

“DSM,” Julian corrected. “It’s a handbook people use for diagnosis of mental health conditions, developmental disorders, and that sort of thing.”

“Ah,” he said. “Start on the green pepper now, would you?”

“Sure,” he said, moving to get some of the green pepper.

“We’re still on for gaming Friday, right?” he asked. “What time should I be there?”

“Yeah, we’re still on,” Miles said. “How about you arrive at six?”

“Okay,” he said. “Six it is.”

They kept talking for a while, chatting about games and the like. The conversation moved on, and it was only then that Julian realized just how nervous he had been. He trusted Miles, but their friendship was really important to him, and despite his best efforts he’d been afraid of how he’d react. Thankfully, he hadn’t sensed any of the mild condescension he’d been fearing. Miles seemed to be treating him the same as ever, though he was sure that if he needed Miles to change anything to accommodate him, he’d try his best.

He smiled to himself a little, thinking of how far their friendship had come. It was only a short time ago that Miles couldn’t stand Julian at all, but somehow they were friends. He wasn’t sure how it had happened, but he was glad it had.

———

He worked with Miles in the back room for a while longer, cutting vegetables and preparing sauce and other such things. It wasn’t until about mid-afternoon that he was called back to the front to work with Worf. Working the counter near the end of his shift wasn’t his favourite of activities, but it was usually manageable, and Worf wasn’t bad company. They weren’t the best of friends, but they got along well enough.

“Hello, Worf,” Julian said, taking his place at the counter. Worf nodded in reply, finishing with a customer.

They were both occupied with customers for the next hour or so, until it was about an hour until Julian got off for the day, and they had a bit of a lull. Julian took a deep breath, relishing the relative silence. He’d slipped away during a brief break a while earlier to put in earplugs, so he wasn’t doing too badly, but the earplugs hurt and he slipped them out for a few minutes.

Worf was taking advantage of the lull to listen to what Julian assumed was Klingon opera playing through one earbud, the other left out so he could hear anyone approaching. He turned to look when Julian took out the earplugs, attention caught by the movement, and it was only then that he seemed to notice the shirt.

“I like your shirt,” he said, nodding in approval.

“Thanks,” Julian replied, before doing a double-take. “Wait, you already know what it means? That makes you the first of the day.”

“I do,” Worf said, raising a hand to reveal what appeared to be a spinner ring. Julian had never noticed it before because it was black instead of the more common (and more flashy) silver, but it was definitely a spinner ring, and had little infinity signs engraved on it.

“Are you autistic too?” Julian asked. “Wait, that was probably rude. You don’t have to say.”

“I am,” Worf said. “I did not realize you were.”

“I am,” Julian said, though it was a bit obvious, given that his shirt literally said “autistic” on it. “I tried to pretend I wasn’t for a while, but I’m trying to stop doing that. It’s easier and harder than I thought it would be.”

“I understand,” Worf said. “It is not easy, to be oneself.”

“If you don’t mind my asking,” Julian said, “do the others know? When they found out I was autistic, they didn’t seem to know much about autism.”

“It has not come up,” Worf told him. “Though I am not intentionally hiding myself.”

Julian nodded. He knew what that was like - he’d been in pretty much the same boat before deciding to wear that shirt today.

“I’ll try to remember to not say anything,” he said. “I don’t want to accidentally reveal anything you don’t want shared.”

“Thank you,” Worf said. “But I do not mind people knowing, if there is something at stake. Some battles are important.”

“You mean fighting against people who support Autism Speaks, and that sort of thing?” Julian asked.

Worf growled a little. “They are cowards who do not deserve their fame,” he hissed.

“I am in complete agreement,” Julian said. “Actually, I think there’s a protest against them sometime next month. I was thinking of going.”

“I am aware of this protest,” Worf said. “You should come.”

“I think I will,” Julian said. “Do you know where-”

They cut off as the door opened and a tall, irritating figure entered.

“Is Nerys here?” Dukat asked, making his way to the counter. “I’d like to see her.”

———

Julian groaned and took a deep breath to calm himself so he didn’t say something inappropriately rude. “No, she’s not here right now,” he said. “But if you wanted to order something, we’re open until five.”

“No, I don’t think so,” Dukat said, leaning over the counter until he was uncomfortably far into Julian’s space. “If she’s really not here, then I’ll come back later.” He paused for a moment, as though waiting for one of them to break and admit that Kira was hiding in the storage room just waiting for Dukat to be creepy enough to lure her out. Julian and Worf sent him matching unimpressed looks while Julian dug his fingernails slightly into the skin of his wrist until Dukat moved back a little and out of his space.

Dukat seemed like he was about to go, but then his eyes focused on Julian’s shirt and Julian felt his heart sink. “You know,” Dukat said, “You really shouldn’t glorify a serious medical condition like that. You have to think of all those poor children out there with severe autism who need organizations like Autism Speaks to help fix them.”

Julian tried and failed to not roll his eyes. He turned to share an exasperated look with Worf, and caught a glimpse of Sisko and Miles watching from the back room. He knew that if things got too far, they’d be more than happy to escort Dukat from the premises. Kira was actually trying to get him permanently banned from the building, but even though Odo was on her side there wasn’t much they could do - apparently “he’s a creepy asshole who won’t stop hitting on me” wasn’t sufficient reason to ban him. For now, the all settled for telling him, with varying degrees of politeness, to leave the building.

“Dukat,” Julian started, knowing discussion with him was futile but apparently unable to help himself. He’d try this the polite way first, though he doubted anything would come of it. “Actually, Autism Speaks doesn’t help autistic people at all,” he said. “And most autistic people don’t want a cure. Even if there was one found, it would be forced on people and would be used to destroy neurodiversity. You might not be familiar with that term - neurodiversity is the-”

“You can’t speak for them,” Dukat said, cutting him off. Julian found himself clenching his jaw and tried to relax it, instead tapping his fingers on the counter. “Even if you do have autism, it’s mild at best. You can’t speak for those poor, low-functioning people with severe autism.”

This was not going to work, he decided. There was really no way to convince Dukat to be anything even remotely approaching reasonable and open-minded, so there wasn’t much point in continuing to try. He knew he should probably just tell him to leave, maybe get Sisko to talk to him and escort him out. But Dukat was so annoying, and Julian was nearly at his wit’s end but he found that the prospect of pissing Dukat off gave him an extra spoon to use for just that purpose, and managed to put on a polite and hopefully-condescending smile for the task.

“Actually,” he said, “There’s no such thing as ‘mild’ or ‘severe’ autism - a common mistake! - but there are other categories. I, for example, have Deep Space Autism, which is a subvariant of Spicy Autism. I can understand the confusion, of course - it’s only natural that someone afflicted with allism wouldn’t be able to properly appreciate the nuances.”

He only realized after he’d finished speaking that he’d adopted a few of Garak’s speech patterns accidentally, and although usually doing that only led to awkward situations, in this case he though it was just as well, given the extent of Dukat’s hatred for Garak.

Dukat didn’t verbally respond to Julian’s words, but even Julian could tell he was irritated. He probably had no idea what Julian was talking about, but he knew he was being made fun of, and didn’t appreciate it. After a few moments of glaring at Julian and the rest of the staff, he finally responded. “I have better things to do than listen to the likes of you,” he said, turning to leave. “There’s no point in staying here anyway.” With that, he glared at them one last time and left the building.

There was a brief moment of silence after the door swung shut, during which Julian realised that he was pretty much done for the day and it was a good thing his shift was now officially over. The moment was broken by the sound of clapping, and Julian looked the see the other staff members applauding (quietly, thank goodness) and smiling at him.

“Did you see his face?” Miles asked. “I thought he was going to burst a blood vessel!”

“I hope he doesn’t find a way to make us regret it,” Julian said, suddenly worried. “I probably should have kept my mouth shut.”

“He is a coward,” Worf proclaimed. “He will not hurt us.”

“We can handle him,” Sisko told him. “It’s not like he didn’t hate us already anyway. Besides, I think Odo might have found a way we can ban him for good. Some loophole somewhere.”

“Good,” Julian said, somewhat pacified. He smiled a little. “It was… gratifying.” He gathered his things from the back room and headed for the door. “I’ll see you Monday,” he said.

They waved and said goodbye and he slipped out the door and into the city to make his way home. He foresaw an evening of sitting on the couch and watching science fiction shows, instead of getting his laundry put away like he’d intended, but it had been worth it to see that look on Dukat’s face. He wondered if it would be too against the rules to get hold of the security tapes to show it to Garak. Either way, he knew his friend would be nearly as amused by the incident as Julian himself was.

The incident with Dukat had been the highlight of his day, but it wasn’t the whole of it. He’d told most of the people he worked with, and none of them had been… problematic about it. There were a few things he’d had to correct or clarify, sure, but nothing like he’d been fearing. Everyone had been accepting and willing to accommodate him without being suddenly condescending or disbelieving him. He hadn’t really expected that good a response, and that meant a lot. Getting to sarcastically insult Dukat was fun, but the knowledge that his friends were always there for him meant so much more.

It had been a good day.