Lemurs mean Hope

I’ve had people ask me a number of times: “what’s with the lemurs?” It’s a good question, and one I didn’t really have a good answer for at the moment. A question I’ve been thinking about over the last few months, and one that I think I finally have an answer for.

How did a group of lemurs end up becoming a symbol of hope?

It all started with a story. A story of heroes and mentors, adversities and triumphs, and a batch of lemur stickers.

You see, I’m on the Autism Spectrum (ASD). I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at the age of 19, and this is my story.

Meet Red the Lemur

Red is a lemur, and one of my first to really see the outside world. You may have seen him wandering about already at Southeast Ruby, or will see him soon at RubyConf in the talk Reducing Enumerable:

I’d mentioned on Twitter and various other social media sites that I’d decided to have a bit of fun and print stickers of our dear Red to spread the fun.

There were even a number of them sent back home to my family as a memento.

Nothing I could have done would have prepared me for what happened next.

Sharing the Story

My mother is a Special Education teacher, and does a lot of work with early childhood education. To her, knowing my story, it was a symbol of hard work paying off.

To the kids in her classroom? It was the thing, and they wanted some lemurs of their own. When I heard about this, I decided to send more stickers back home to share. They became prizes, incentives, and a bit of a game to play.

After a while, those stickers started to spread, and eventually parents started to ask a question, the same one many of you asked me: “What’s with the lemurs?”

What started as an amusing game had turned into a catalyst. For many on the spectrum and in special education, ASD can be seen as a hopeless situation. Will my child ever succeed? Will they make it in the real world?

There are so many questions that come up around ASD, and a lot of uncertainty along with it.

Introduction

When I was growing up I had no idea what was going on with any of this. Perhaps I was just horrid with social protocol, after all I was a bit of a geek and that was certainly the trope.

No one really knew what was up with me, but the general agreement was that I was odd. As I went through school this became a constant challenge, but there were some teachers that made a difference, the heroes of this tale.

The Heroes of this Tale

Fourth Grade — Rebuilding

We’ll start around the beginning of fourth grade. I had just moved schools due to negative experiences at my previous school and my mother taking a job in another school district.

At my previous school, I was constantly berated and made to feel incompetent to the point where I fully believed it. As a result I had very little confidence in myself.

My fourth grade teacher was the one who helped to give me confidence in myself again. She helped me to develop good habits, keep myself organized, and focused on my work. A lot of the habits she instilled in me I still use to this day. To a kid that thought he was an idiot it was worth the world.

One of the habits that helped me was sketching in the margins of my assignments, one that I continued for years afterwards.

Cross Country — A Second Family

I fancied myself an athletic star. I thought I’d be a football star or something of that sort. Considering I’m a tall thin man, you can imagine how this went. I had no real coordination for sports, and it never quite worked out.

One day I’d managed into another sport, cross country. All I had to do was run and follow a line, easy! Ah, not so much. Lessons were learned about the effort it took to be a distance runner, but improvements were certainly made.

What started in seventh grade lasted all throughout high school, and gave me something very dear: a second family. When you spend hours a day running with a group of guys, you eventually have to talk about something.

This was the start of me learning how to talk and socialize. We were all a bit awkward, so another awkward guy certainly wasn’t amiss there. Up until this point I really didn’t know how to just chat with other people, and it was a constant fear of mine.

In cross country I found a group of guys I’d eventually call my second family that really helped me come into my own, and a coach that would push me to do what he knew I could.

Eighth Grade — Science and Artistry

In eighth grade I had a science teacher, and one of our assignments was to create a book of animals. Now the requirement was that these pictures had to be in color, and we didn’t have a colored printer. Not wanting to ask my parents to purchase one, I’d asked my teacher if I could use something else.

Now this teacher had seen me doodling in class quite frequently, as I was in the habit of doing. I’d suggested that I could perhaps draw the animals instead. She was an artist, and she decided to throw me a bit of a challenge.

She allowed it, but they had to be up to her standard, so she pushed me to work on my art and refine it. After a while I started to get a bit of a knack for it, and she praised that work. Before that I thought I wasn’t really any good at it. To hear someone appreciate my art meant a lot.

Do you know what animal it was in that book? Lemurs — ringtailed lemurs to be precise.

That one assignment likely kicked off the entire lemur show, because after I was done I couldn’t stop sketching them.

Ninth Grade — Writing

In ninth grade I had a teacher who decided that I was a gifted student, and wouldn’t allow me to think of myself as anything else. What started as a series of writing assignments started to turn into short stories, and eventually the starts of a few novels.

She took the time to read through my ideas and drafts, giving me feedback and encouraging me to keep writing. She’d always hold me to a higher standard, and tell me when I could do better.

She really started me into writing, and gave me the confidence to keep going.

Tenth Grade — Tech

Now I’d dabbled in some programming before through PHP, but lost interest fairly quickly afterwards. In tenth grade I started tech classes in computer repair, networking, hardware, and eventually programming.

My teacher encouraged us to go into competitions, to keep learning and exploring, and really instilled in us a sense of wonder for the field and what was out there.

We were encouraged to help teach and mentor younger students, and share knowledge where possible. This started what would be one of my first tech communities, and inspired me to start teaching some programming on the side.

She was the one who set me on the path to tech, and really built the foundational skills I’m still using today.

Eleventh Grade — Realization

By this point I knew I was different, and I was ok with that. It was at this time that I met a teacher arguably as unusual as I was.

Known for her antics and uncanny ability to see right through anyone, she was pivotal in helping me accept myself for who I was.

Through cross country and track I tried to pass myself off as an athlete. Really I just wanted to be normal and just be one of the guys. She saw right through that with a smile, and set to getting me to admit that to myself.

She gave assignments that would purposely draw us out and fostered discussions that would show us who we really were.

She encouraged my continued writing and art, and through a lot of conversation got me to finally admit to myself that it was ok to be who I was. It was really thanks to her and my tech teacher that I embraced who I was, despite none of us quite knowing what that meant yet.

Twelfth Grade — Growth

In my last year of High School I’d managed to stumble into the art classroom for a pottery class, as I was looking for a final credit to fill in my last year. While I was there the art teacher and her assistant had seen some of my digital works, and as a result I ended up in AP art.

That meant that I had an entire block to work on whatever project I could imagine, and get constant encouragement to keep working on new and imaginative pieces.

My digital art flourished, and my skills in web design really started to grow.

Combined with competitions my technical teacher had me enter for web design, this was the start of a lot of my future career in development. It showed me that I could combine my love of art with technology and make a job of it.

My Mentor

Through this all, I had a mentor, someone who had been with me since I was a kid and that had gone off to California to tech. He would constantly challenge me, and give me advice on what to pursue next.

Both of us felt incredibly out of place in our small corner of Missouri, and he was a kind of beacon for me. A symbol that I could make it out there too and do something out in the wide world.

By his continued teaching and advice, I managed to start landing tech jobs, found Ruby, and eventually ended up here writing this article.

Therapy and Acceptance

Now I cannot say it was all sunshine and rainbows, there were indeed dark days. At some points I’d even gotten to considering suicide, which led me to therapy and counseling.

It needs to be said that there’s no shame in asking for help, far be it, it’s bravery. Bravery to admit that you’re ready to get better and heal. If you’re ever feeling hopeless, there’s help out there.

For me, that happened through a local counseling center. After some time, there was mention of ADHD at 16, and eventually a discovery of a lesser known Asperger’s Syndrome that’s now classified under the Autism Spectrum at 19.

Through their help I finally knew who I was, and why I was the way I was. They helped me finally come to terms with it, and fully accept who I was and what I needed to do to be a better person.

I won’t say I’m perfect, no, not by a long shot. What I am is better, and that’s all one can ask, to grow and improve every day.

The Heroes of Another Story

Sufficient to say, there were a lot of people who helped me get here today, and I would not be the same person without them. I owe a lot to the people who helped raise me and make me.

After some time in the world, I came to find other people going through some of the same things. I’d realized that I’d become the mentor, and then it clicked.

We’re the heroes of the next generation.

Your Story Matters

Your experiences, your heartaches, your triumphs, all of them can be used as an inspiration to the next generation. No matter what your story, there’s someone in the world who could use a hero.

Those lemur stickers from earlier? Parents are learning to accept their children, and have hope in a future they couldn’t see yet, just because of a story and a cartoon lemur sticker.

When I first heard this was happening, it really shook me up. I didn’t know what to say, and quite honestly I still don’t. All I know is that if I can give even one kid hope, that’s more than enough for me.

Our Duty

It is my sincerest belief that we have a duty and an obligation to the next generation to help them become who they were meant to be. Just as we’ve been lifted up, so too should we lift up others.

Teachers Need Help

Teachers are some of the greatest among us, but they’re constantly underfunded and trying to make ends meet. Find out from your local school districts and home towns how you can get involved to make sure they have what they need to help kids.

That can be through donations, scholarships, speaking, or other means. Every dollar counts, and is a dollar invested in our future.

Mentors Don’t Just Happen

Very rarely will people seek you out, but chances are they could still use a helping hand. Ask around your colleges, schools, bootcamps, and other areas what you can do to help.

You don’t have to teach an entire class, but being willing to invest in even one person can make a huge long-term difference in their lives.

On Privilege

Despite all of this, I was raised in a good family in the middle-class as a straight white male. In a lot of ways things could have been substantially worse, and my heart aches for those who have to struggle through the same things with considerably less means or in more marginalized groups.

What was bad for me could be near insurmountable for others, which is why it’s so important to lend a hand where we can.

Closing

A Measure of Thanks

I owe a lot of thanks to the people who helped me get here, some who were mentioned here and others throughout my life. I wouldn’t be here without them, nor would I be who I am today.

I’m also thankful for my friends and colleagues who have encouraged me to share my story. It wasn’t easy to write, and it’s something I very rarely talk about, but my hope is that someone out there will be able to use it to keep going.

What’s with the Lemurs?

So what’s with the lemurs? What do they mean?

They mean hope.

Be the hero you needed as a kid, because chances are there’s a kid out there right now who could sure use one.