As someone with Asperger’s, I have noticed that, now, when I mention to people that I have Asperger’s, they tend to ask questions such as, “Are you Rain Man?” and “Do you have emotions?”
I’d like to offer a different perspective on what it means to have Asperger’s (slated to be placed under the umbrella of “Autism Spectrum Disorder” in the newest edition of the DSM). Despite all the grief that it has given me, it has been a positive part of my life. One characteristic of Asperger’s Syndrome is “limited empathy.” Apparently, I’m supposed to have a hard time understanding the needs and emotions of others. I feel that my experience has been contrary to that idea; Asperger’s has made me a kinder and more caring person who understands what it means to struggle and wants to make life easier for others.
During elementary school, I was what one might call a “problem child,” something that made educating me an arduous task for parents and teachers. I was awkward, disruptive, and angry (to say the least), lashing out because I felt out of place and like an idiot. I found myself in the principal’s office more times than the typical career criminal finds him/herself in jail. Also having dysgraphia didn’t help matters. The good news is, by the time I reached middle school, my parents and teachers were able to help me overcome Asperger’s and become a successful student with many close friends.
Early on in high school, I came to realize that I was in fact very lucky—there are many intellectually capable students with LD (or without LD) that do not receive the support that they need. Had I not done anything to help solve this, I would feel guilty. Growing up with Asperger’s taught me to be patient and kind as many had been to me. I took up activities such as tutoring and mentoring (as well as my current internship here at the NCLD!) that would allow me to pay forward the favor that parents and teachers had done for me. I decided that it was my duty to give others the same opportunities that I had been given.
Asperger’s is not only a catalyst for me taking action in my community, but also an asset when it comes to doing so. The summer after ninth grade, I worked at a day camp. In a camp group setting, there is often a kid that sits in a corner and sulks. Due to the fact that in school, at times, I had been the proverbial kid in the corner, I was able to connect with these kids and get them to join the group, make friends, and have fun. If I hadn’t had the experience of being the sullen, timid kid, I may have made the error of ignoring such a camper in order to focus on campers to whom socialization comes easily.
Another time that my experiences with Asperger’s helped me was when I tutored at-risk first and second graders last summer. The untapped potential that the clearly intelligent students showed left me shocked and appalled. A number of the students demonstrated clear characteristics of Asperger’s, OCD, and ADHD, yet they had all been in classes that did not provide them any assistance. It took some extra effort, but I was able to coach the students through the coursework they needed to complete in order to advance to the third grade. I helped show them that they are, in fact, very bright seven-year olds with a ton of opportunities in their future.
Upon reflection, it’s not hard to see myself as one of these students, as, if I wasn’t given proper help it’s very likely that I would have come close to failing the second grade. I only got a taste of the hell that is feeling that you are inferior to your peers, an outcast, and failing where you should succeed. However, I got to experience it enough so that I can’t stand the thought of standing by and not helping a child that is struggling and miserable. No one ignored my needs, and I have no right to ignore anyone else’s.