Chris is a 31-year-old white man who is autistic. He is an expert on the subjects of locomotion and classic rock and roll. Chris is also, a vocal supporter of racial justice, kindness, and respect.
Chris Halberian. Delhi, NY
Interview with Christopher Halberian
Christina Hunt Wood, lead artist for the Living Archive Project, had the pleasure of interviewing Christopher (Chris) Halberian at Bushel Collective (Delhi, NY) in November 2022. Chris is a 31-year-old white man with autism who is an expert on the subjects of locomotion and 60s and 70s music. Chris is also, a vocal supporter of racial justice, kindness, and respect.
Christina Hunt Wood (CHW): Where did you grow up, Chris?
Chris Halberian (CH): I grew up in Manhattan then we moved to Forest Hills and lived there from 1999 to 2003. After 2003, I moved to Great Neck, Long Island, Nassau County from 2003 to 2010. Then 2010 is when we moved up here to Delhi, New York. We’ve been here for 12 years.
CHW: Was life in New York City a lot different from life in Delhi?
CH: When I was a kid in Manhattan in the 90s, I was so happy. You know, I was a lucky New Yorker and very happy with my life. I didn’t have problems in the way we did after 911 when [the terrorists] struck the towers of the World Trade Center. Things have never been the same. It not only changed the United States, it changed the whole world putting us in a great depression.
CHW: Did your family move out of New York City because of the 911 attacks? Oh, wait, never mind. You said you moved to Forest Hills in 1999.
CH: But you know, my mom saw when [the towers] got struck. She was in Manhattan and when she saw the two World Trade Center buildings that were attacked by commercial jet airliners, that’s when she knew she had to evacuate. She went to Madison Square Garden to leave from Penn Station to take the last Long Island rail train to get out of Manhattan and she made it back to Forest Hills.
My principal announced that there was a terrorist attack that day in the morning—I went to Catholic school in College Point Queens. When I saw the smog from the World Trade Centers, I knew that this [attack] shouldn’t have happened, but it did.
My mom got out of the city, but I had to wait a long time in College Point to get out of Queens and get back to Forest Hills. And when I was done with that, you know, it changed everything. Things will never be as they used to be in that era.
CHW: So, in 2010 your family moves to Delhi. Was there anything that you liked about the move? How was it different from being in the city or in Long Island?
CH: It was hard to change from city life, but it wasn’t making me feel good anymore—I was stressing and worn out. There was a lot of energy that didn’t feel helpful. After many years, from 2010 to now, it has made me feel a lot better. I don’t feel like I need to go back to Manhattan.
But when I had to get my wisdom teeth pulled out last year, I had to go to an Emergency Dental in New York City. I got two pulled out there and one, on the left side, pulled out in Oneonta by Dr. Isaac.
When I went into the city, I just didn’t pay attention to people. I did the best I could not to provoke that. [It seems like] everybody is trying to move out of New York City because there are too many people around and the prices of everything is higher. It’s too expensive.
CHW: So, what you’re saying is that while it took a while to adjust to this area, the slower pace has been good for you, and you feel it’s more affordable.
CH: Yeah. And it’s an open mind that makes you free and not just a cloud of smoky and polluted judgment. That doesn't help you with your attention. It’s a distraction and it makes me feel like I’m not me anymore.
CHW: What do you think is the hardest part of living in the country, Chris?
CH: It’s hard to find your passion and your style—to find a unique look to make you want to be…who you choose to be. It’s hard to find the basic ideas and put it all together.
CHW: Do you mean that there are fewer references from other people to see how you might fit in?
CH: Yeah. Like your “uniform” is not my “uniform.“
I wear this [kind of] uniform every day now—not because I’m a nerd, but I’m just using these clothes. I don’t have to be worried about having a serious uniform all the time. [People here] have a more open nature about getting dirty and you don’t have to worry as much about having a perfect uniform like in the city.
It doesn’t make you feel good when you have to worry about that all the time. I’m wearing clothes that are no longer a uniform. They’re just something I use all the time.
CHW: I see what you mean, it makes it more casual. Yeah, when you got out in the city, you really feel like you need to be dressed and ready. Otherwise, people judge you and may think you’re a maniac (laughs). Here, I can run to the store in my sweats and an old t-shirt.
CH: And it’s not inappropriate.
CHW: Let’s shift gears. You took some classes at SUNY Delhi. What did you study?
CH: I took psychiatry classes with Lisa Heimbauer. She taught me the differences between a monkey and a human and how they learn to read words and respond and communicate with their minds. In the class, we learned to nurture with respect and raise [children] right without hatred and hurt. When you get hurt by someone, it can affect their feelings—that hurts healthy development in a way that is very serious.
CHW: Did you earn a degree from SUNY Delhi?
CH: I was just a part-time student.
I didn’t go to real schools when I was growing up. I went to the New York Child Learning Institute for a long time. It wasn’t a great place to be. The teachers were not nice. I am still mad today about how they hurt me and didn’t help me with my problems—they just told me what to do. That’s not teaching me discipline or helping me with my autism. Some people think that the school helped me, but that’s not true.
CHW: How were they treating you?
CH: They treated me like I was stupid. With autism people think different is stupid. Which I understand as a kind of racism. They call Black people the “N” word and people with autism “stupid.” What Martin Luther King and I have in common is he had to repeat 5th grade because of racism, and I had to repeat the 3rd grade because of autism. You can’t just do that to a person—it’s not right. You see, racism and [being called] stupid is the same thing.
CHW: With racism, though, people are disliked specifically because of the color of their skin—if you’re black or brown. It is considered bigotry when they are disliked because they are considered “different.”
Let’s talk more about your autism.
CH: I have a memory of an elephant that helps me remember my mistakes. It helps me learn not to make the same mistakes. But I struggle so hard in my body. I get stuck on mistakes sometimes and it hurts me. But I’m just a human being and it’s important to be a human being because if you’re not, you’re just a robot.
When I heard about Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name Of”—that’s a great song—it’s saying you can’t tell people what do and it’s not right to do that. Your rage against a person with rage is not a devil. You shouldn’t be hurt, and enemies shouldn’t just get away with it. But, you know, if people do, then it’s their problem. And I am a better off without them.
CHW: Yeah, you can ideally omit those people from your life and protect yourself.
CH: You’re better off without them and that’s they’re guilty problem.
CHW: Do you know James Baldwin's work? He was an African American writer. He said, “To be a negro in this country and be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”
CH: You know what? When you’re different and are born into a body that is who you are going be, you have to stand up for yourself and can’t be pushed around.
Like, you’re black and I have autism. When I went to your speech about George Floyd , who was killed by cops, I wore a shirt that said, “Autism Ability, Not Disability,” which I should have worn today. The shirt represents that we are trying to understand each other.
Chris in 2020 at the Honoring Black Lives event in Delhi, NY. Photo by Jeri Cohen
CHW: What else can you share about your autism?
CH: I don’t make good connections looking in people’s eyes. My attention goes to everything from one spot to another in the eye. My mom said that was the way they could tell I had autism. I have PDD NOS. There’s Aspergers, PDD NOS, and autism. And there are people with bully autism—because don’t forget, there are good people and bad people with autism too.
CHW: It’s my understanding that autism can affect different parts of people’s brains and that can come with negative behaviors and trouble regulating emotions.
CH: For people with autism, all the thinking and all the stress makes you want to explode like a bomb and let it out. When you’re getting too much information inside yourself, you need to let it out and it makes you feel better. I’ve experienced this a couple times when I was angry about people. Like I’m not going to like people that are prejudice and not being nice and respectful. You know, R-E-S-P-E-C-T. You have to treat people right.
CHW: You were talking about having all the thoughts inside of you and earlier you brought it up when you spoke about making mistakes and how it can take over your thoughts. It’s a lot, isn't it?
CH: I have to listen to myself, and I work really hard to get my attention straightened out. I’m on medications for my autism because I need help. I take Vitamin D every Saturday and three other pills daily around nighttime—it helps me get to sleep.
[The thoughts] hurt my head. One side of the brain thinks like a genius and the other side didn’t develop right, which is a struggle. It’s like my brain just sits on the skull all the time and doesn’t feel like getting up to do its job. It gets lazy.
When I was in school, I was treated like I was stupid and I didn’t do anything wrong. It’s hard to explain the past, but I was treated badly every day. I’m a strong person though and I fight for that. Being treated badly didn’t make my spirit feel good. I had to learn how to let it out—empty out the garbage that hurt me inside. It left a black hole.
CHW: Chris, something that I’ve learned about you over the years is that you are kind-hearted and willing to stand up for people who aren’t treated fairly. You have so much empathy and have been misunderstood because a lot of people just don’t understand autism. You’ve kind of answered this already, but do you think this gives you greater awareness of other people’s struggles?
CH: Yes. When I went to the George Floyd protest and speech, I brought a picture of my friends Louis and Max. They are two black people who were best friends of mine when I was growing up in Manhattan. Louis died of a heart attack in 2003 and I haven’t seen Max since 2009. I brought the photograph to the protest speech because they’re black too and I think about missing them so much. They were good to me, and I don’t want to let that go—I want to keep it in my life forever.
CHW: Do you have friends that you hang out with…or a girlfriend?
CH: I don’t have friends to talk to right now and I don’t have a girlfriend.
CHW: I’m curious. Is there a local social group for people with autism?
CH: There isn’t a group that I know of, but I would like to find someone with autism. Like a girl, but it depends on the girl if she likes me or not and if I would date her. I respect women that are nice. If they’re not nice, I leave them alone and not interact with that negative activity. That’s what I do with everyone who’s not nice.
CHW: In the past, we’ve talked about the deep focus that comes with autism. Trains are one of your interests. You’re an expert, right? When did this interest begin?
CH: The day I was born. My family used to live in the Steinway Mansion. Steinway was a relative and the founder of the Manhattan Transit Authority Subway System and Steinway pianos. It’s in my DNA, it’s not just autism, but it’s part of my ancestry and history.
CHW: That’s very interesting. I didn’t know that. It really is in your blood.
CH: I love trains and I would pollute for trains…
CH: But I would be much more responsible with how much pollution I would allow. It’s not easy to work with machines. I liked learning about the history and how trains were built. I learned in every way I could and looked at pictures and demonstrations. It helped me learn to read in my mind by myself and figure out terms.
People had to sacrifice and die building the tunnels. It was very dangerous and genius work.
CHW: Do you know about Russ Kaufmann’s model company, “The N Scale Architect?”
CH: No. I don’t know about that. There was a Delhi Station train store a long time ago. The guy who owned it passed away and left his trains behind. It was on 28 to Walton, you make a short turn on the right where there’s a billboard sign that says, “I love McDonalds.”
CHW: Hmmm, I don’t remember that place. Are there any other interests you have?
CH: I like music.
CHW: Who’s your favorite?
CH: I like the Beatles. Back in ’64 when they came to America, they played Shea stadium. That’s about 4 miles from the mansion we used to have. I like Elvis, Charlie Daniels Band, and other good music my father listens to.
CHW: In the summertime, your dad brings music to our pickleball meetups at the Delaware Academy tennis courts. It’s really fun and I agree, he has great taste in music.
CH: Yeah, Grateful Dead, Mountain's "Mississippi Queen," and other rock and roll gods that made the 70s really interesting.
CHW: So, trains and music, but I’d add that you have a deep sense of justice and fairness, which is another superpower you possess. And something that I’m learning from you is that you are also careful not to let the noise of negativity pollute your focus and what is important to you.
CH: I want peace and quiet. I like to sleep in my bed and get my mind relaxed. I don’t watch news all the time like I used to because watching it get my mind cluttered and it feels like it wants to explode. I worry about the tension people have their lives—a lot of them can’t be fixed. If I want to watch the news, I just watch a little.
CHW: I’m the same. I used to listen to the news all the time too and it made me very depressed. Now, I wake up in the morning and listen to Up First, an NPR podcast. It’s about 12 minutes long and it gives me a daily debriefing.
CH: People just keep talking and talking on the news and it’s hard to concentrate on what’s actually important.
CHW: There are “news” programs that spew opinions and call them facts. They are filling airtime with information they don’t even believe half the time. It makes them all rich. That’s a real problem with this 24-hour news cycle we have now.
CH: It’s not good. It’s a very sad life to live in right now.
CHW: Do you feel like people get you, Chris?
CH: When I was a young kid, I was prejudiced [against] a lot and made fun of, and it wasn’t fair but its changing.
CHW: What’s something you would say to people about being autistic that might better help them understand you?
CH: I say “please” and “thank you”—that’s what I do.
Also, it can be hard to hear (understand) what [people with autism] are saying. And we have a different personality and sense of humor. My disability is different than other people’s disabilities.
 In June 2020, over 700 people gathered at the village square in Delhi, NY to protest police violence memorialize Black Lives lost to racist policing. https://www.salon.com/2020/06/15/protest-in-a-small-town-black-lives-matter-comes-to-rural-america--and-it-matters/