by S.C. Taulbee
Like many people his age, 18-year-old Portland Community College (PCC) student Niko Boskovic is still discovering who he is, where he fits into society, and how he can bring about positive change for himself and others.
Niko is non-verbal autistic and requires alternative methods for communication. He uses a letterboard to communicate. It is a slow process; someone must hold the board and speak aloud the words as he points them out, one letter at a time.
“People think they know autism,
but they don’t know shit.”
“Everyone knows something is up with me,” Niko says. Loreta Boskovic—Niko’s primary communication partner—translates for him by speaking aloud—slowly—the words as he points to them. “I am proudly autistic and have no issues with the label. It’s when I have to deal with ableism that I get pissed off.”
I sat down with Niko and Loreta to learn more about him and his experience at PCC.
Niko Boskovic: I was the first student in Portland Public Schools to use a letterboard and it simply became part of who I am. It is sort of like a phone for neuro-typicals (NTs).
SCT: Talk about how you communicated before discovering the letterboard.
Loreta Boskovic: The dark ages.
NB: They relied on my speech, which is severely affected. Having to rely on a communication partner sucks though because I can’t talk to girls. Really cramps my style to have my mom as my service dog.
Niko starts rapping his fingers quickly against the table. He gets up, walks deliberately to the cracked-open door, and pulls it shut the rest of the way, quieting the noise coming from the next room. What I hear are dampened voices, barely registering. To Niko, the extra stimuli had become too distracting.
NB: Sorry, dude. That’s one way my OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) manifests. Right now, I’m hearing the people next door, the cars outside. I use tapping to redirect my auditory sense. Tapping is sort of my echolocation because the sound is closest. It really helps bring my attention back.
SCT: It’s my understanding that this behavior is what is referred to as “stimming.” Can you describe what that is and how it manifests?
NB: I have rituals and routines that are ingrained into every part of my waking day. My routines are not stimming because they make little sense and make me miserable, while stimming brings me comfort and peace. Stimming is a beer; rituals are the Coronavirus…I couldn’t function without stimming, but OCD is gonna kill me, just like Joey Ramone.
LB (to Niko): OCD harnesses you.
NB: So true. It never feels right. I am taking meds for it but still working my way up to the dose. I’m learning to be flexible but that is a lifetime sentence for me.
SCT: How has your experience been at PCC?
NB: I think I’ve been waiting to connect with people who have already figured out their shit. When I was in high school, everyone had their own problems and couldn’t see their connection to the greater good. At PCC, I’ve felt more accepted for being exactly who and what I am.
You have to understand how lonely my life has been to date. Now I have peers to whom I can describe my experiences as an autistic and they like me for it! I am so glad for the opportunity to attend this college.
LB: PCC feels way more open.
NB: I think people with disabilities ought to be included from the beginning of school.
SCT: What does full inclusion look like?
NB: Inclusion is a person fully a member of society’s communities: schools, the medical system, extracurricular activities.
I want to inform and educate people to all the potential value we as a mutated race can bring to society.
I chuckle at “mutated race” and mention to Niko that I enjoyed reading a particular line from a poem of his wherein he referred to his “race” as Homo Autisticus.
SCT: How did you discover your talent for and interest in poetry?
NB: Nothing too crazy. Originally, I wanted to go into science—chemistry—but discovered in high school that it is next to impossible for me with my abhorrent fine-motor skills. I couldn’t work a microscope or take notes or make things happen in experiments.
I had to write a poem in high school and loved it. I love being able to describe something in my own way and represent all the associations in my mind. So, when I think of love, I remember the way a certain girl’s hair smelled and the way her hips had a little flounce when she walked. Stuff is defined with real experiences for me. My dictionary is sensory.
SCT: That’s very interesting. Can you expand on that for those of us who aren’t lucky enough to know first-hand what that’s like?
NB: When you picture childhood, what do you remember? A lot of people get snippets of details from what they experienced. I see so much and can retrieve it at a thought, almost as powerfully as the first time. I sort of feel bad for NTs because they have such a limited sphere of noticing sensory input.
Niko on music: I am synesthetic and see color when I listen to music. I listen to the nuances of a singer’s voice more than the lyrics, but a strong bass line gets me every time.
Niko on Judge Judy, his favorite television personality: She tells the truth as she knows it, much like autistics do. I like how abrasive she is: really abrasive. But I’d still like to meet her.
It’s 1pm the following Thursday afternoon. Niko and Loretta have invited me to one of their favorite burger joints, Bar Bar on Mississippi Ave. in inner-northeast Portland. They like to sit on the patio, where they can find a table away from the noise and distraction of other people.
Niko grabs a handful of fries from my plate and though I’m hungry enough to order seconds, I give him a sarcastic comment and watch as he shoves a fistful of them into his mouth.
NB: Having a burger was a damn fine idea.
At a conference in August 2018, Niko was approached by the Oregon Council on Developmental Disabilities and asked to be their featured blogger. “They were looking for young blood,” Loreta says. Niko gladly accepted and has been their featured blogger ever since. He gets paid to write about his experience living as an autistic in a neurotypical world.
NB: We are not ashamed of having a different way of viewing the world. I believe it all comes down to capitalism and the cost of disabled people: what it takes to educate them, house them, pay them for work. We are segregated from the time of diagnosis to that point where someone deems us worthy.
I love writing the blog because so many people think they know autism, but they don’t know shit.