Coming of Age Contemporary Creative Nonfiction

This story contains themes or mentions of mental health issues.



When I got lost, all I had to do was look for the men with banana horns attached to their hats. It's what our team was known for. When we were walking around the stadium or in the pits, we always got questions about where the 3D printed horns came from. It was a symbol of our team's identity. An integral part of our image. It represented who we were, our unity and community.

And yet, I didn’t wear them.

Instead, I had chunky black headphones perched on my ears as I sat and rocked back and forth on a tiny stool in the middle of my team’s pit. I felt like everyone was staring at my head.

“Robot!” Jack shouted as he pushed our 110 pound machine through the crowd, a buzz of chaos and bright lights. He was followed by the rest of drive team, including his sidekick, Elijah. In between the tightly scheduled matches, they came back to our pit to fix any pulled wires or the inevitable broken arm. 

Jack was undoubtedly, undeniably, very important to the team. He was the Design team lead and the drive team captain. Not only did he know how he wanted the robot to act, he also knew how to make the robot be like that. Whether it was fixing the wiring or setting up new motors, Jack knew it all. Well, almost all.

He was like Superman.

The heave of bodies made their way into our tiny section of workspace and began pulling apart neon wires as a miniature crowd formed around us, hoping to ask questions in order to determine if they wanted to forge an alliance. I was happy to answer them, because I love talking about robots. I love talking about robots so much that I hate talking about anything else. It's what psychologists call a restricted interest.

“Decrepit piece of sh*t.” Jack barked at the pit crew and Elijah. Jack didn’t care at all what anyone thinks, which is why it never mattered if he was a jerk. Nothing they could possibly say back would matter. 

He turned to me and opened his mouth,

“Hey, can you fix the autonomous? I have to manually reset the gyro once teleop starts, so it would be cool if you could fix that.”

“Ok-ie. I will. Fix the autonomous.” I pushed the words out of my mouth, like caramel through a funnel. I waddled over to the computer and took a look. Jack…Jack had absolutely no idea how to program. I guess you could say that’s his kryptonite, and I’m the only one who knew how to stop it.

I found the folder it would be in, then I found the file, then I searched through each of the lines to find the issue. Then I fixed the issue. Then I said, “I fixed the issue.”

Then he said, “You program too quickly.” He said this a lot, but I had to tell myself that he didn’t actually mean, “You program too quickly.”

This is called “sarcasm.” What he actually means is, “I don’t want to compliment you because that would make me appear weak to others, but I am enamored by your amazing ability to turn a seemingly sentient beast into a writhing creature full of fire and wrath, and then tame said beast to be controlled by a Nintendo joystick we picked up from Walmart.”

At least, that’s what I think he means. Either way, I finished with the code and sat down on a stool and rocked back and forth while I waited. 

Jack and Elijah and the members of build team talked and decided what to do for lunch. One of the builders said, “I would…but we can’t ‘cause of…you know…special needs.” And he thought I couldn’t hear him but I could.

A little while later, they began to pack up and leave to do more practice matches. But before he left, Jack pulled something out of his pocket and threw it over at me. It was a little orange cube he had 3D printed. A fidget.

I walked over to the outside of our pit, and instead of flapping my hands, I used the cube. “Hello. Do you have any questions about our robot?”

“Actually, I have more of a question about your team.” I tried to look nice and not look at the other things in the area like the floor or the wall or the ceiling because that would not give her a good impression. So I looked at her mouth. 

“I have this quirky little thing I do where when I go to competitions, instead of hanging out with my own team, I go and find another team and hang out with them the whole time in their pit, so I am just kinda checking out the area to see.” 

The girl's teeth were very unaligned. I focused very much on them as she talked.

“Okie,” I said, because I had never, ever, in all my history of scouting heard this question asked, which means it was not in my database of questions that I knew the answer to. I could answer what our autonomous did and the weight of the robot and the drivetrain and vision tracking, but I could not answer this question. 

I bobbed my head up and down trying to figure out what an acceptable response would be. Then she said the words.

“Can I ask you a somewhat personal question?” I knew the question she was about to ask before they left her mouth.


“Are you autistic?” She said.

“Nhyyyyes.” I said, pushing the words out.

“Yeah, I could tell. You have all these weird little mannerisms you do that I noticed because my brother is autistic.”

“Ok-ay,” I said, but I was annoyed for two reasons. 

Reason number 1: If she could tell I was autistic, then why on God’s green earth did she feel the need to ask me?

Reason number 2: She is not special. She is not a superhero with x-ray vision to see the autism juices inside of me. Everyone knows I’m autistic.

Maybe she could decode my face and tell I was confused, because she said, “No, no it’s not a bad thing! Don’t feel bad! I mean I have ADHD and there are really good things about it. You guys can have so many cool abilities like hyperfocus! It’s really kind of a superpower!”

Autism isn’t a superpower. But being invincible is.

I craned my neck to see the match from the big screen up above but my headphones kept slipping off. Elijah was the secondary driver, and no one would ever watch the screen and think he was weird. He was invincible. No one walked up to him and asked him if he was autistic, and he never wore headphones. But that doesn’t change that he was still, in fact, an autist just like me.

Sometimes I imagine what it would be like to swing through the air and fly and do loop-de-loops and save the city, but then I remember. Spiderman doesn’t wear noise-canceling headphones. If he did, they would fall off and he would die.


I headed up to my hotel room at the end of the day, waiting for the team to get supper. I decided to tell my roommate Naomi of the encounter in the wild with the autism sister™.

(surprise, I’m a girl! I’ve always been in male-dominated spaces, like rubik’s cubes, insects, fantasy card games, computers, even my own mental disorder!)

“I mean, my brother is on the spectrum and I knew you were autistic when I met you, but I didn’t say anything like that! You seemed so surprised that I just waited until you brought it up.”

Which is funny, because my parents did the exact same thing for 16 years.

When it was about time to leave, she wanted to get all fancy and not wear the hat she always had on her head.

Naomi has a disorder that means she picks off the hair on the top of her head, so she took this giant thing of hairspray that made the room spell metallic and plastered the minuscule follicles smooth atop her scalp. 

And she said, “Don’t stare at my head, I am really insecure about not wearing a hat.” And I think there’s something there to that, how I am insecure about putting something on my head and she is insecure about taking it off.

Once we got to the pizza restaurant, we walked through a whole section of normal people before we got to our seats in the back. Someone asked why Jack had bananas on his hat. I wanted really badly to be asked why I had bananas on. I wished that was what people first noticed when they met me.

I ended up sitting with the adults instead of the teenagers because those seats were all filled up. So I sat by Jack’s dad Jake and Mr. P, the lead mentor in all of robotics. We always nominate him for awards because he is really nice and he had stomach cancer.

My mom says, “An autism diagnosis is not a cancer diagnosis,” which, honestly, I feel should be pretty obvious at this point. I mean, you go to a psychiatrist for one and an oncologist for the other. It would be pretty hard to mix them up.

And I am always confused why Jake would name his child Jack because that is so similar, so it is hard to remember. But I don’t have a hard time remembering their other son’s name, Jeffery. I told Jake that is because I just think of Jeffery Dahmer.

But Jeff is not at all like Jeffery Dahmer because Jeffery Dahmer was a serial killer from Milwaukee who did really bad things, but I won’t explain what he did because then I would have to decide what is a trigger warning and what isn’t. Which is really hard for me to do because everything triggers me. 

But Jeff is not a serial killer. He has crippling anxiety and can’t leave the house or get a job, and he never went to college and instead spends his time “working on himself.”

I also sat next to Andrew, who is Liam’s dad. But most of the student leads didn’t like Liam even if the mentors did, because Liam does this thing where he acts differently around people so that they will like him, but that makes some people dislike him so I don’t see the point.

“Have you heard of the YouTube channel Dave’s Garage?” Andrew asked. He explains why he is a great resource for learning how to use an Arduino. 

“And also, he was diagnosed with autism when he was a lot older.” This makes me happy to hear.

“That is very cool. I was also diagnosed with autism when I was 16.”

“No…I mean really late. Like in his 40s or 50s.”

“I suppose that is true. My parents suspected I was autistic even before I brought it up but they didn’t say anything.” Jake started talking.

“Yeah, I think Jeffery is on the spectrum. I mean he’s never been tested or anything, but I’m pretty sure.” I set down the fidget toy and flapped my hands. I am not sure what is more noticeable: my happy flapping or perpetual fidgeting.

“I think my grandpa is autistic. He thinks he has ADD but I think he also has ASD at the same time. Some people are better at hiding it.”

The pizza came out and we got some pieces. “Andrew, you hire people for your job. How much do you care about degrees versus other things,” I asked.

“So I’m a leader of an innovation team at my job, right? And it’s not so much as to what degree someone has that sets them apart, but what soft skills they show”

“Does a person have to talk really well in the interviews?”

“I think there is some leeway in tech jobs, as people expect that you are not going to have the best social skills. I always ask three questions when I do my interviews to get a feel for the person.”

“What questions?”

“If all of your work was destroyed tonight, what would you do?” I thought about this for a minute.

“I like writing fantasy short stories. People always ask if their idea is good, but the answer is that there are no new ideas, just good executions of them. I want to be a writer who can tell many good stories, not just one.” 

“If you woke up and you found out your toaster was broken, what would you do?”

“I think I would be sad. I am usually sad in the mornings and usually people make toast in the morning. So that would probably make me even sadder. But I guess I would watch a YouTube video to fix it.”

“I had a guy come in–brilliant guy, he was doing his PhD in electrical engineering–and I asked him that question. He said, ‘Easy. I would turn it into an alarm clock.” Andrew looked at me, and I smiled. 

I tried to think of the most creative possible answer I could think of, something no one else could give, but nothing came close.

I am good at taking things already made and making them better, but it is hard to come up with something completely new. I guess that's why I am writing about real life right now, what I actually experience. 

“That is a really good answer.” I said.

“The final question is, what if you had this great idea and you bring it up to someone, and they tell you the idea is stupid. What would you do?”

“I think it depends on who tells me that…if one of the freshmen told me my idea was dumb I wouldn’t care. But if Jack told me my idea was dumb, I would think it is actually dumb because he is really smart.”

“But why do you think he is automatically right?” Mr. P asked.

“Cause Jack knows all sorts of stuff, like electrical and building and designing. And he tells people to do stuff and they listen so he also knows how to be a leader, and he can drive the robot. And all I know is programming.”

“But you are really good at programming, and Jack doesn’t know that at all. We need all sorts of roles on the team. Not everyone can be the same.”

“Jack wouldn’t care at all if someone told him his idea is stupid. He doesn’t care what people think at all and I want to be more like that,” I said.

“You know, that’s not as true as you might think it is.” Jake said. “You would never know this, but Jack was so scared yesterday that he was almost crying. He thinks he is going to let down the entire team, that it all rests on his shoulders.”

My jaw dropped (not actually, this is a metaphor but stay with me). Jack–the most apathetic person in the entire world–cares what we think? And if even he cares, what about everyone else?

I’ve always wished I could wear in-the-ear headphones, but the same sensory problems that mean I need to wear headphones in the first place mean I hate putting tiny little things in my ears. Spiderman doesn’t look like he wears noise-canceling headphones, but maybe he has them in, and his mask is hiding them. 

But you would never know unless he took it off.


Right before the final matches started, I made my way to the stands. Our section was a sea of blue and red, the cheering surrounding me, pulling me under like a wave that just kept coming back. Two bananas perched on the head of every student, teacher, and mentor.

And me.

Mr. P printed them up and velcroed them to my headphones. I didn’t even have to ask to be included, he just thought up the idea because he knew it would be cool. I got so many compliments.

One of the robots in our alliance broke in the final match, but that didn’t really matter, at least not so much as we thought it did at the time. As the robots zipped across the field and picked up the cones, chanting echoing through the stadium, I was reminded of how this is so much more than robots. FRC is about friends and coaches and a whole team of people who care about you and who you care about.

Spiderman doesn’t wear noise-canceling headphones. I knew that as I wore my velcroed horns on my head. I’ve always liked the animated movie because I know that, if Spiderman can be a pig, an anime girl, or a detective from an old black-and-white film, then somewhere in the multiverse, there has to be one who wears headphones as he swings through the air.

But in this universe, Spiderman doesn’t. And he doesn’t need to. Spiderman may not wear noise-canceling headphones, but he also doesn’t have the same support system that I do, and the same team that I got to be part of for three years.

As much as I would like to be invisible, I can’t just put on the mask and stop being Peter Parker. I’m not like Elijah or Jeffery or my Grandpa or Naomi’s brother. In fact, I’m not like Naomi or Jack either, because even if it isn’t autism, they are still hiding something. 

I am me. I can never be more than who I am, but I won’t try to be less.

Spiderman doesn’t wear noise-canceling headphones, but you know what? He doesn’t have banana horns, either.


May 19, 2023 21:44

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Mary Bendickson
03:03 May 26, 2023

This story and the message is very inspirational. You may have everyone wishing they got to wear noise-canceling headphones.


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Michał Przywara
18:46 May 21, 2023

There's a good lesson that gets developed gradually here, and I think it's kind of summed up in the lines: "Spiderman doesn’t look like he wears noise-canceling headphones, but maybe he has them in, and his mask is hiding them. But you would never know unless he took it off." The narrator feels alone and isolated - and perhaps inferior - but at the prompting of his mentors, he realizes that not only does he contribute, the team also supports him, and more importantly, his peers have many of the same worries. Everyone wears some kind of m...


04:38 May 22, 2023

Thank you! I am glad you liked my story.


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