We, the Autistic People, and We, the Homeless People, Have Dreams Just Like Everyone Else

Hailed by local musicians as a “genius,” Alissa Johnson is an accomplished cellist and an activist for the human rights of autistic people. She is also homeless. In this piece she argues that her dual experiences as an autistic, and being without shelter, have repeatedly exposed her to interwoven stigma. Supportive systems are needed, she says, not to “fix” people but to partner with them as unique human beings with vibrant dreams.

I’ve been playing cello since I was 11, composing since I was 12, and free-flowing improv on cello since I was 18. Now at 34, I’ve played electric and acoustic cello at City Hall, community events and on the radio. 

I have a 5-string custom carbon fiber tank of a cello from Germany. At night, my acoustic cello rests on a cot while I sleep on a folding mattress on the floor of my tent. 

I live a double life: by day a cellist and by night a homeless person. They call me a musical genius, but I still can’t think my way out of my position in life. I’m strong enough to live this life for now, but I worry I’ll be stuck out here in my tent forever.

People need to understand that affordable housing doesn’t exist outside of video games anymore. After I was featured in a front page article in the Record-Searchlight, I received an emergency HUD voucher. I was so upset when I realized I still couldn’t afford rent.  The voucher came and went, and I found nothing I could afford. Maybe I just don’t know how, but having a case manager for that would have been nice.

I am an autistic woman but those who see me outside would rather assume I am an addict. People don’t say openly that they hate autistic people, instead they condemn me for being naturally and eternally weird. When I get hired as a cellist, eventually they see my weirdness. Then they use the word eccentric because they think it makes weird sound more positive. I like being weird. 

“Normal” is not real. It’s a subjective concept people convince themselves of. But like superstition, “normal” has power; the power to change culture and the power to endanger the lives of those of us who don’t quite fit. 

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 The condemnation I felt as a young person because I am autistic was traumatizing. That builds on the challenges I face. I had to be unprogrammed from self hatred from a young age, by people in the early days of the Autistic Union (Âû). Since normal isn’t real we need to be loved and love ourselves, in a world that makes us hate ourselves by default. It’s the same kind of stigma we also feel as homeless residents. 

Childhood trauma and disability, which are often connected, are two of the most common denominators to homelessness. Studies show that a significant number of homeless people are autistic. But many local government services don’t understand how to work with autistic people. 

For me personally, I often don’t appear to be disabled and as a result, my needs are ignored. I cannot access disability accommodations like case management and other services.

I am autistic and proud. When a child gets an autism diagnosis, society says, “I’m sorry.” But the majority of activist-type autistics say “Congratulations!” instead. Before I became homeless in 2017, I was a well known “autistic autism advocate.” We, the autistic people, have grown to become organized, with educational groups for parents who are raising the next generation of autistics. We guide parents to work “with” autistics, not against them and against their wellness. Between all of us, we have a mass of information built by autistics, for autistics. There are many intersections.

We, the homeless people, need a similar approach to community support. We need systems and communities that recognize us as individuals with unique needs, challenges and goals. Most people think homeless people spend life sitting around waiting for free stuff. But nobody wants to be homeless. I’ve never seen a child, when asked what they want to do in life, say, “I want to be a homeless person”. 

We are just as human, from a diverse pool of backgrounds. Many of us are good neighbors to each other. When I was in the encampments, there were a couple people who’d cook for as many as they could. They’d keep a vegetarian portion to the side, just for me. But we face isolation and discrimination. Out here, people don’t even say hello anymore. They just pretend we’re not there, and avoid us. Some start complaining because they don’t like us to be visible. Think of the isolation people experienced during COVID and how difficult it was. That’s what we experience constantly, and worse.

At night, we get attacked by people and bored teenagers. Another homeless woman told me about how a couple adults taught their little girl to get out of the car, and soak homeless people with water. Stoning, which many people think of as an archaic, Biblical punishment, is a modern horror homeless people still experience. When everyone’s asleep, people throw fist-sized rock projectiles, along with objects made of glass, eggs, urine, and hard pellets, leaving many of us covered in welts.  It’s beyond ridiculous that the homeless community, the majority of whom are disabled, face such endangerment and threats to our safety.  

But as hard as this intersection of a life is, I like being me. I am not the problem. The problem is agencies that claim to be designed to help us and still find every way possible not to adapt. They seem intent on helping as few of us as possible, while the funding of disability agencies is repeatedly cut down further.

My heart’s goals are steep. I want to rise high enough to create protections around my people, however I can. Eventually I want to become a self-sufficient musician that studios hire when they need a cellist. I can see myself playing with renowned musicians and working as an advocate for the marginalized in the corridors of power. But how will I get the support I need to get there? That is harder to see. Unless my cello has better plans. 

I might be homeless but as long I have my cello, my tangible life goals live on inside its case.

Resources about the human rights of autistic people, recommended by Johnson:

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Alissa Johnson is originally from Fargo, North Dakota, and has lived in Redding for about six years. She describes herself as the “chillest cellist of the North in the West.” She writes for Shasta Scout as part of our new Community Voices series, which illuminate lived experiences, identities, issues or perspectives that are often misunderstood. Community Voices is supported by a grant from the North State Equity Fund. Want to share your thoughts and opinions with our readers? You can submit your writing here.

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