Author Christine Motokane holds her recently self-published memoir outside her Manhattan Beach home. Photo by Esther Kang
Christine Motokane remembers everything.
How she sat perched atop a monkey bar in her elementary school playground and watched her classmates play. The names a cruel boy in her summer program called her during a game of air hockey some 11 years ago. The specific knock-knock jokes she once learned to make friends.
“I have this very big memory, this big old storage,” Motokane, now 22, said. “That’s what autism gives you sometimes.”
In her recently self-published memoir, “Working the Double Shift: A Young Woman’s Journey with Autism,” Motokane chronicles her life as a highly functioning autistic person from early childhood to young adulthood as a student at Loyola Marymount University. Her raw anecdotes are vivid with detail and a keen sense of awareness. In chronology, She recounts times of unbridled anxiety, of social befuddlement, of love, puberty and disappointment. She also offers guidance on dealing with daily stressors and triggers.
As a self-advocate, the Mira Costa High grad possesses a higher level of awareness about what she needs, she explained. Not everyone with a disability has that awareness or the means to communicate.
Today, Motokane frequently shares her experience and insights with the likes of the U.S. Autism and Asperger Association, the Southwest Success Learning & Assessment Center and the FRED Conference, which discusses the issue of limited housing options for adults with disabilities. Last year at an annual conference with the U.S. Autism and Asperger Association, she noted that her fellow panelists were all older men with Asperger’s syndrome or autism. As a young Asian American woman, Motokane represents a small fraction but offers a fresh, unprecedented lens into a neurodevelopmental condition possessed by an estimated 1 million Americans.
Asperger’s syndrome is an autism disorder at the high-functioning end of the spectrum. People with autism may show difficulty in social interactions, problems with verbal or nonverbal communication and possess intensely focused areas of interest.
Motokane’s impetus for writing the memoir largely emerged from her frustration in current literature on autism. At the passionate suggestion of her therapist, she decided to write one herself, with many pages drawn from her high school journal. She cranked out a 140-page transcript in the summer of 2011. In a nearly three-year collaboration with an editor, she condensed the final draft to 90 pages.
“I couldn’t find a book that I could personally relate to,” Motokane said. “Eighty-five percent of books out there are written by parents and experts. It seemed like they were instruction manuals. They don’t even consult with the population they’re talking about. I didn’t like what they had to say – I wanted to break some of the stereotypes, blanket stereotypes that we lack empathy, that we’re socially naive.”
Last week, autism advocate Laura Shumaker wrote on her SFGate blog that she was “very touched and enlightened by this book” and listed it at the top of her list of book recommendations.
“I wanted to provide a raw, honest perspective,” Motokane said. “I think a lot of authors, they sugarcoat it. Even the autistic authors.”
When she was 4, her school psychologist informed her parents that she showed autistic-like characteristics, subtle sensory issues such as walking on tip toes. She was shortly diagnosed at the Westside Regional Center, prompting her mother Helen to quit her job in sales and enlist herself full-time to her daughter’s needs. After many classes and sessions in intensive speech, social skills, occupational and educational therapy, Motokane emerged from her special ed preschool class and mainstreamed in the first grade.
When time for middle school came around, Helen decided to move the family to Manhattan Beach after a school psychiatrist recommended the school district for her daughter. The district’s special needs services, such as the inclusion program, was significantly strengthened after district officials in 2005 made a $6.7 million legal settlement to a child with a disability and his parents for failing to provide him with appropriate support.
At Manhattan Beach Middle School, Motokane played with the American Youth Soccer Organization and joined the Friendship Circle. She proceeded to Mira Costa High School, where she was happy with support but had trouble making friends. In her book, she writes about the biggest transition of all — from high school to college, being completely independent from the usual support of inclusion teachers and aides.
She commuted on the bus to El Camino Community College for two years before transferring to Loyola Marymount as a psychology major this past school year. For the first time in her life, she is living away from home. She acknowledged that some days are easier to get through than others; she sometimes feels depressed and calls home. But the experience is teaching her to independently cope, multitask and manage time.
“I just feel like I have to work extra hard in my life,” Motokane said, relating back to her memoir title “Double Shift.” “That’s what a lot of high functioning people in the higher end of the spectrum feel — that they need to work double the amount a typical person works. Like making friends. It’s not a big deal to them but for me, I have to work extra hard in that.”
Her mother Helen, an active volunteer with Autism Speaks and various community efforts, said she never would have guessed 18 years ago that her daughter would graduate high school, let alone attend college.
“The thing is, you don’t give up,” she said. “Don’t let these preconceived notions limit you. I’m glad that we pushed the envelope with her and she was able to rise up to the occasion. And she’s amazed us and other people with what she’s achieved.”
Author Christine Motokane will appear at a book signing at 7 p.m. Monday, April 28, at Pages Bookstore in Manhattan Beach. “Working the Double Shift: A Young Woman’s Journey with Autism” also is available at amazon.com.