I was told six years ago that I had Asperger’s syndrome. Up until that point, I subconsciously knew that I was different in some sort of way. Making friends, for me, wasn’t easy. I couldn’t relate to those around me on an emotional level and, frankly, I didn’t really feel the need to.
Since my diagnosis, I have dedicated much of my time since trying to learn as much as I could about my disorder. Once I was able to look past the stigma and stereotype that surrounds Asperger’s and autism, I was able to conclude that life would never be the same after I learned about my condition.
Because Asperger’s and every autism spectrum disorder affects everybody in a different way, I can only speak about my own experience with it and not the other 3.5 million Americans affected.
Asperger’s is often confused as being “high-functioning autism.” However, we know from plentiful research that this is not the case. Asperger’s is classified by psychiatrists as an autism spectrum disorder, a diverse group characterized by social difficulties, repetitive behaviors and, at times, speech and nonverbal communication issues.
There are numerous differences between someone with Asperger’s and a high-functioning autistic. For example, someone with Asperger’s won’t have major language delays, or even a speech delay. It’s just the general rhythm of how the person would speak that could differ. High-functioning autistics would experience speech delays. Common symptoms such as hypersensitivity to outside stimuli such as bright colors and smells would also be less severe in those with Asperger’s rather than those with high-functioning autism. The dissimilarities go on and on.
While the description above describes Asperger’s and autism in a diagnostic sense, I’ve found that the diagnostic way of viewing the autistic spectrum is very generalized and doesn’t take into account the variety in behavior from person to person.
Some feel the need to stick to a routine, rather than inject spontaneity into their lives. Some display different physical manifestations, such as the flapping of the hands that serves as a calming mechanism from hypersensitivities, while others display none.
Saying that Asperger’s and high functioning autism are the same thing, therefore, barely scratches the surface and does not truly represent how people with Asperger’s think and feel. You might as well say that shyness is mild social anxiety disorder.
As dissimilar as they are, there are some major similarities between the two, hence why they are classified on the same spectrum. Both involve the stereotypical behaviors we have all seen and heard about thousands of times, such as the lack of emotional awareness, and basic social skills such as looking people in the eye and learning to hold a dialogue rather than a monologue.
I myself have been struggling with this all of my life, especially considering that I have a memory that can remember a trunkload of information but cannot seem to remember faces, even if I’ve seen them the day before.
Picture this: I’ve gone to see “Hidden Figures” with, let’s say, fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld. I would probably remember more about the movie than about Lagerfeld’s face, and as such, would have difficulty conversing with someone about the experience and choose to talk excitedly about the movie leading, to a completely one-sided conversation.
Even the trunkload of information can be a major pain. With all the information that I have stored, not only can I not remember faces, I cannot use that knowledge when I need it most, for example, in an exam situation where I have to sit down and focus specifically on that piece of knowledge.
Why? Because a typical memory contains a chain that is very easy to follow and is very difficult to get off track. Mine is a memory that has no chain that can be followed, and, as such, can go completely off the rails even if I desperately need to remember something. It can also become a major problem in conversations with others, where attention to detail is key.
For instance, if you told me about a dancer named Michael that you met at a party the night before, it would appear that I’m listening, but, in actuality I’m thinking of Russian dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov and his defection from the Soviet Union in the 1970s. Then, in a matter of seconds, my mind would transition into replaying a song from “Rocky IV,” because the villain was a Soviet boxer played by Dolph Lundgren, who played He-Man in “Masters of the Universe,” which would, in turn, trigger the question of why a master’s degree comes before a doctorate.
Theoretically, this could continue for hours and hours if no one breaks my concentration.
On top of this, the traditional way of taking a test (sitting down and writing with a pencil) proves problematic, because not only can I not sit still for long periods of time, but a lack of fine motor skills also prevents me from writing for long periods. Again, I have attended occupational therapy, as well as doing wrist exercises every day to make sure this is less of a problem.
Despite all of these challenges that Asperger’s brings, I feel like one of the lucky ones. I am one of those on the spectrum who was not robbed of a voice and who can communicate with those who don’t understand what it is like to be on the spectrum. I can blend into almost any crowd and no one would know what I have. But I know that there are others who are not as lucky as I am.
Of the 3.5 million Americans diagnosed on the spectrum, about 40 percent will never speak. Some of that 40 percent, if not treated correctly, will become the stereotypical autistic person, making incoherent noises and flapping their hands, while others will quietly show their genius.
In my early development, I could not do things that everybody could do, such as eat a slice of pizza. The smells and textures were so overpowering that my mom would literally have to either sit down on top of me to eat it or pack a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (my favorite as a kid) when we went out to a restaurant. Now, not only can I eat pizza, but I have gone across the world and eaten things that not many people would be open to eating like mushrooms, tofu and chicken feet.
I think people often see autism and its related disorders as a disability, a weakness, but I see it as my greatest strength. It has given me the opportunity to understand the basic constructs of my humanity, to explore the foundations of emotion and to see a viewpoint that others might easily dismiss. If someone were to come up to me and say, “I can trade your Asperger’s for a chance at a normal life,” I would say no.
I couldn’t see myself any other way.