I have been absolutely captivated by early American history since I was a little girl. My fascination was sparked by an activity day at school where we had the opportunity to try different trades and activities that were done during the colonial era, including candlemaking and playing colonial games.
It was all to prepare our class for a field trip to Colonial Williamsburg. Unfortunately, because of my autism and the resulting difficulty I face in adapting to any changes outside of the normal routine, I was not able to go. Despite missing out on that experience, I took every opportunity I could to independently learn all that was possible about life in the 18th century.
While I was determined to visit Colonial Williamsburg on my own time outside of the classroom, I still had anxiety about the continuous stream of sensory stimulation that would accompany such a trip. I knew there would be a large number of people in crowded spaces. Plus, there were the social expectations; the numerous, different noises all occurring at the same time (including extremely loud and sudden noises coming from the cannons); different and sometimes strong smells from various perfumes or animals; the bright sunlight and difficulty adjusting to certain outside temperatures; and a menu that would certainly be different from my typical (and rather boring, I am sure to many) food choices. These factors made planning a trip there quite overwhelming! But finally, my parents decided we could go and we would just do our best to control what we could.
While we had a great time, there were many autism-related struggles we could not have predicted. None of us had ever actually been to Colonial Williamsburg, so we really didn’t know what to expect. From the time we arrived, I was immediately fascinated with all that was going on around me—and there was a lot! There were people dressed up in colonial-era fashions, beautiful historical buildings and landscapes, and so many activities. I finally found a place where people loved the colonial period just as much (if not more) than I did! But because there was so much to see and do, without a schedule, it was a often a bit disorienting. The loud and sudden noises of the cannons scared me and were painful. It was also July and terribly hot! Walking for such long distances in the bright sun caused discomfort and the large amounts of people in sometimes very small spaces created extreme anxiety for me. In the midst of all the distractions, my parents also had to keep a close eye on me. Wandering off can sometimes be a dangerous difficulty with autism.
At the end of our visit, my parents agreed to purchase me an 18th-century gown. While they thought it would be a wonderful idea, they were understandably concerned about how it would go during the fitting given my sensitivity to different fabrics and nervousness with meeting new people. But inside the Mary Dickinson Shop, without any prior knowledge of me or my autism, Miss Robin knew instinctively how to make me feel at ease. She calmed my nerves and made the entire experience one of the most memorable moments of our trip.
Often, with autism, people do not know what to do and easily lose patience. That’s why I felt it was extremely important to tell Miss Robin what her kindness meant to me. I posted to a Colonial Williamsburg fan group on Facebook and instantly saw how social media has a wonderful way of connecting people! Not only did my message reach Miss Robin, but I was able to make plans to visit Colonial Williamsburg again to thank her in person.
My interaction with the group and Miss Robin was seen by other CW employees, including the social media team. Miss Jessica contacted me and offered to help me to reconnect with Miss Robin personally on our next trip. She was so touched by my story and openness, she thought I might be able to teach the Foundation about autism to better help guests and their families who may visit in the future. I was beyond excited to be able to spread some awareness and give insight into what it may be like for others just like me.
Miss Jessica, along with many others in the Foundation, got to work planning a special itinerary. And this time when my parents and I returned, we had a schedule! We arrived on a Friday afternoon and checked into the Williamsburg Lodge. This was the first time we were going to stay right in the middle of Colonial Williamsburg, rather than a hotel outside of the area. I was so very excited! Our location was perfect in terms of planning. It put us quite close to things if we were to ever need to go back to our room, and almost all of our activities were within walking distance. March also seemed to be the perfect weather wise. It was not too hot and it was not too cold.
Upon arriving at the Lodge, everyone was so very friendly and helpful. But I was still a little nervous about meeting Miss Jessica and those who would help her make this weekend possible. Throughout my life, I have been the victim of bullying because of my autism. As a result, I have found myself to be quite insecure that people will find me rather odd or make fun of me. Since I had only spoken to her online, I was anxious about finally being able to see her person. But when the time came, Miss Jessica, accompanied by Miss Jenn, were the kindest, gentlest and most lovely people, with such positive, bright dispositions. They seemed genuinely excited to help me have a memorable experience. They understood my difficulty making eye contact and were respectful of my time and space, shaking both my mom’s and dad’s hands, but saying hello and being very welcoming of me. They immediately made me feel so safe, welcomed, and accepted.
First on our agenda was a trip to the Costume Design Center and an opportunity to see where more than 50,000 costumes are made and stored. It was truly an absolutely incredible experience. Mrs. Brenda took us on a tour of the facility, taught us about the fashions worn during the Colonial period, and talked about how they design clothes specifically for each CW employee depending on his or her job.
It was absolutely fascinating to learn about the process from beginning to end. I was so appreciative of Mrs. Brenda’s kindness and the time she took to explain things in a way that I would understand—showing me each detail down to the very buttons of all the costumes! She even gave me a stay pattern in my own size to take home. It was such an incredible experience, one that I will never forget.
Next, was the big reunion! We met Miss Robin at Chowning’s Tavern for dinner. I am not sure that there are enough words to adequately describe that moment, as it was something I had been waiting months and months to do! When I saw her, I experienced so many emotions all at once. I really didn’t know how to handle it best, so I started to hand flap and cry (and my parents, Miss Jessica, and Miss Robin also had tears in their eyes), but no one at all seemed to notice or stare. I asked my parents if it was okay to hug her, and without any hesitation or anxiety at all, I hugged her… not once, but twice!
We ate our dinner in a room upstairs that was set up to give us a little privacy. Mrs. Felicia, a lovely lady who worked at Chowning’s, politely introduced herself, and offered to help us with anything we needed. Everyone was so accommodating and polite, and the food was absolutely delicious. It was truly the perfect setting to share with Mrs. Robin how she touched our lives.
The next morning, Miss Jessica and Miss Jenn took us to meet Mrs. Christina at the Dollhouse Exhibit! I was so excited about this, as I absolutely love anything having to do with dolls or dollhouses! Mrs. Christina gave us an inside look at the history of the dollhouses that were on display, and allowed us to take the time to look in each room.
We were then allowed to do a special craft and “painted” on mini canvases to make portraits for our own dollhouses. It was such a neat activity that allowed you to work on your own piece at your own pace, while being in the presence of others. Overall, the social aspect was low anxiety with little expectation, which I was so grateful for. At the end, I was also given a special box to take home to make my own dollhouse!
The Taste Studio was where we saw Chefs from the Williamsburg Inn do their cooking/tasting show called Biscuits and Brisket. I was quite nervous about this, as I didn’t know what to expect. Mrs. Faye sat us in the front row so we would have the best view and fewer distractions.
It turned out to be one of the most fun events we attended and the food was delicious! Because any verbal participation was optional, I had the option of simply watching the chefs cook (and entertain) without hesitation that there would be any single focus on anyone in the audience. It was such a relaxed and fun atmosphere that made for a truly enjoyable, fun time.
There was a bit of break before our next activity at the stables, so Miss Jessica and Miss Jenn took us to a few smaller activities they thought I might enjoy. We stopped by the Apothecary. It was so interesting to learn about all the different medicines they used during the colonial times, and absolutely fascinating to learn about the ways in which different surgeries were performed. It was the one time during our trip that I was quite grateful to be living in more modern times!
We made a quick stop at the Raleigh Tavern Bakery, where I got an amazing hot apple cider and my first taste of a ginger cake! It was delicious and although not anything that I would typically eat, because I absolutely love anything sweet or bread, I was so excited to try it and glad that I did.
We also visited the Millinery and Miss Sarah showed me all the beautiful clothes being hand-sewn! It was absolutely incredible to be able to see girls making dresses without the help of a modern sewing machine. Unfortunately, the shop got a bit overcrowded and I started to become extremely anxious, but before any type of meltdown could occur, Miss Jessica helped us to make a quick exit and my anxiety quickly went away! I was extremely grateful for her quick thinking.
One of my favorite stops before the stables was at the Coopers, which is where I met Mrs. Ramona, who is truly one of the most interesting and inspiring people I have ever met. It was so amazing to be able to see a woman doing work that would most usually be associated with men. And how rewarding to be able to have a job where you make things yourself—without the help of any modern technology! Mrs. Ramona took extra time to teach and show me personally how things were done and even let me try the work myself. I was so humbled and honored that she would show me such amazing things, and even allow me to keep the piece of wood I had worked with. It is something I will keep and cherish forever!
For our final event of the day, we got to meet Mr. Paul, who showed us around the stables! I was beyond excited for this opportunity, as animals, especially horses, have been one of the most useful, therapeutic means for helping me to connect.
Upon meeting him, his mere presence was incredibly calming and soothing. He has a very gentle demeanor and also seems to naturally know how to work with me in a way that made it seem as though he had been working with autism for his entire life. He allowed me to meet and actually pet some of the beautiful horses and oxen, as well as hold one of the Rare Breed chickens. He showed me around the different areas of the stable, and I was even allowed to sit in the carriages, including one that Queen Elizabeth II actually sat in. I felt like a real princess!
At the end, Mr. Paul allowed me to take home a piece of unprocessed wool and a real horseshoe. He told me I must always keep the horseshoe standing up, so all my luck doesn’t fall out. I promised him I would take extra good care of it as to not be unlucky! Words truly cannot express how excited, happy, and grateful I was that he took so much time to truly show and teach me so many new things.
We ended our evening (and for the most part our trip, as we had to leave quite early the next morning) eating at Christiana’s Campbell’s Tavern, which was absolutely delicious. I was personally able to meet Mrs. Christiana! Upon meeting her I could hardly contain my excitement to tell her that I too, am Kristianna! She was one of the sweetest, kindest ladies I have ever met. She even gave me a handwritten note expressing her thanks that we had come to see her. I do so hope that the next time I come I will be able to visit her again and bring with me a handwritten note in return.
This trip was truly one of the most incredible, if not the most incredible experience of my lifetime. With help from the staff, we had very few hiccups or difficulties from my autism. Because the schedule was planned far in advance, I was able to feel stable and secure. I knew what to expect and when to expect it. We stayed in the Lodge, which allowed for a close place to go with relative quickness and ease if ever there were any times that I needed to take a break.
There were staff and supportive people around who knew I had autism and remained gentle, accepting, and were willing to learn how to best work with me and my needs. Their compassion made for a safe place—one free from many of the anxieties of social expectations. I had the ability to simply be myself without feeling as though I had to hide any struggles I may have had.
I am not sure that I will ever be able to find the words to express what this trip meant to me, how much it has changed and touched my life, or how very grateful I am for each and every person who came together to make everything possible. Perhaps there are not enough words yet created to be able to really express such huge feelings. For the first time in my life, I feel I have a found a place where I am accepted for all that I am and all that I am not. A place where I never have to pretend to be anything other than myself. It is truly a place where people come together to support one another and share a common interest in Colonial America. Through this trip, I have learned that Colonial Williamsburg is more than just a place to learn about history; it is a place to learn more about yourself and about others around you. Make your own memories and you own history that you can cherish throughout your lifetime.
Guest Blogger: Kristy Makuta
Until recently, there wasn’t much known about ASD, or Autism Spectrum Disorder. Many people typically associate autism with boys, and while it is five times more common in boys than girls, girls like me are also impacted. Because it is a spectrum disorder, no two cases are alike.
Ever since I was quite little, I have been aware of the differences between myself and others. As a child, I was unusually quiet and shy, and though I would play around other children, I never played with them. Instead, I engaged in parallel play, seemingly in my own world. As a young adult, I hardly make eye contact and I have difficulty relating to other people though I enjoy making connections with animals or toys. I have an all encompassing need for things to be a certain way, with very little flexibility. Any unplanned changes in my schedule or daily actives can cause severe anxiety.
When I am uncomfortable, I may hand flap or rock, which is calling “stimming”, a term used for repetitive movements to help ease anxiety. Sensory integration difficulties are among some of the more painful aspects of having autism. Loud, sudden noises or many different noises occurring at once, bright lights, crowded areas, certain tastes and smells, and different physical sensations like the feeling of jeans on my skin, or washing my hair can cause such terrible, painful discomfort. The social aspect of autism is perhaps the most well-known and cited characteristic of the disorder. Many people with autism, including myself, are often said to be “in their own world” due to our narrow, special interests.
Whether you have been personally diagnosed with autism or you have family, friends, or coworkers with it—they will say it doesn’t limit them. They may also say not to label them as “autistic” but rather as someone with autism. While I do not believe autism defines all that I am, I do believe it has in fact helped to shape me into the person I am today. Given my daily challenges, I would be dishonest to claim I have no limitations.
For me, life with autism has admittedly come with struggles. At times, it has felt very isolating and despite my best efforts, I don’t always feel like I truly fit in. Still, I always try to remain positive. If I’m faced with an obstacle, I do my very best to find a way to achieve my goal—even if that means doing it in a non-traditional way. I truly believe in the statement, “different, not less” and feel that while autism has presented me with many challenges, it has also given me the opportunity to connect with some of the most beautiful, genuine, amazing people like those at Colonial Williamsburg I can now call friends.