REFLECTIONS OF AN ASPIE
Most people are familiar with autism, a behavioral disorder that refers to people being socially withdrawn in their own world, obsessed with routine, reacting negatively, sometimes violently, and generally having a difficult time in mainstream society. It has been a popular issue for years, with events such as VH1's "Rock Autism" campaign and the HBO documentary "Autism: The Musical" bringing publicity.
However, that is not an issue that pertains to me.
For my entire life, I have had to live with something different. Something that has been akin to living in a foreign country without any knowledge of the language or ever having been there before, and needing to take an exam in that foreign language in which if you don't pass, you are denied the chance of ever obtaining what is considered by American standards as a "normal" life: having a succesful career, getting married, raising a family.
It is safe to say that this issue is personal to me, because of my experiences and struggles with it. You see, I have what is called Asperger's Syndrome, which is described as a condition on the autistic spectrum, a high-functioning form of autism that affects social interaction, usually in a negative way.
Like all other "Aspies", I was born with the condition. I was seen by my family and others as being a "little strange", and lacking the social skills necessary to function well in the world, even though I showed unusual intelligence at an early age, such as being able to read before my third birthday.
Looking back on when I was a child, there were several episodes involving me that I would recognize today as something an "Aspie" would do.
For instance, one time my grandfather was taking pictures of me and two of my cousins in our front yard. I was around eight at the time and wearing a straw cowboy hat that I was obsessed with and constantly wore, when all of a sudden my grandpa took the hat off my head and gave it to my cousin. I went nuclear-level ballistic; yelling, crying, throwing lawn chairs around. There's even a picture of me sitting down looking quite angry, all because of a hat.
I recognize now that my grandpa wanted to try something different, but to an 8-year old kid with Asperger's, who reacted badly to sudden and unexpected change, which is a prominent trait of the condition, it was as if I was being attacked for no reason. That's how I felt at that time.
Another example of me reacting badly to unexpected change in routine and showing my AS (short for Asperger's) traits was when I was five, I called an uncle of mine a "blockhead" when he took a different off ramp from a freeway that we usually took during a trip. Reacting negatively to sudden changes was definitely a trait of mine not only as a little kid, but throughout much of my life.
As a result of this trait and other social skills that I lacked, having AS led me to fall behind socially for the bulk of my life. Academically I was doing well, consistently getting top grades during my elementary school years.
Socially, however, I was a mess. I spent many of those years being ostracized and bullied by different individuals and groups of people, because I acted differently in many ways from the kids in my neighborhood and at my school. One such classmate made me the target of his bullying for several years. I vividly remember the first time he targeted me...
It was around the first week of school, fourth grade. I was standing on the playground waiting for our P.E. class to start when all of a sudden I felt a hard punch on my arm. I turned around and there he was, taunting me to fight him. Since I didn't like to fight, anither difference between me and what was considered "cool", that was the beginning of five difficult years.
At that time I was unaware that he was testing me to see how tough I was. In the Pico Neighborhood, Santa Monica, California's inner city, where I (and the bully) grew up, your coolness factor depended on how tough you were seen to be, as was the case with any inner city - and still is.
Having AS, and having just moved from a rural white area to an urban minority area, plus being one of the smartest black kids in the school, I was as different as one could get. In the "ghetto", as with all of youth culture, different was - and still is - bad. That contributed to this particular kid making my life hell from 1976 to 1981.
Altough this bully was my main torturer, he wasn't the only one putting me through Hades during my formative years. There were others, including girls, who saw me as an easy "mark", in their words, and treated me accordingly. "Big Goofy", "Geek", "Dork", "Ape"; I was called all of these and more.
I did enjoy a modest amount of popularity due to some athletic success during adolescence. Because of that, I managed to have a few friends with whom I played sports after school, Little League, and P.E. class with and hung out with occasionally, blasting home runs and breaking off 100-yard touchdown runs. An aspect of AS is a lack of gross motor skills and not being very good at sports as a result. I was fortunate to have been an exception to that notion.
By high school, however, I was intelligent enough to realize that something was wrong. I found myself without any close friends, drifting away from the few friends I did have. I found myself not being invited to parties and sitting all alone on the bus during field trips.
There was the time at Disneyland with my high school band and a group of band mates were forced to take me with them around the park because no one went around the park alone. Another group ditched me at the penny arcade on Disneyland's Main Street two years running, taking advantage of my social naivete, common to aspies.
Not to mention having to get fixed up for the prom with a girl that clearly did not want to be seen with me; I wouldn't have been surprised if she was paid to be my date. To this day it is difficult to look at my prom picture; I find myself turning it around on my shelf at times.
Because of my social ineptness, my high school career was possibly the worst of all time. I was seen by at least some, if not most, as the ultimate loser. As a result, my teenage years were spent at varying levels of depression. Needles to say, my grades suffered.
As time went on in the years following graduation, I noticed that my classmates and peers were having relationships and marriages, obtaining and sustaining careers, establishing families and independent lives, while I was not. This left me feeling left out, sad, and depressed.
I read an article in a journal once, which discussed how people with Asperger's are not alone by choice. It talked about how because their lack of awareness, personal social inadequacies and failure to make or keep friends, they tend to be despondent and suffer from depression. Throughout my life, this has certainly described me, and honestly still does.
College was decidedly better for me socially, due to the fact that less emphasis was placed on social nuances. It didn't seem to matter as much whether or not you were dating or going to any parties. I even managed to make and keep a few good friends, friends who were able to able to look past my social inadequacies.
However, there were some others who shunned me due to those inadequacies. One time someone I knew told me, "Sometimes you are very rude, and you don't even realize it." Those were her exact words. What I didn't know then was that unintentional rudeness is an Asperger's trait, which has followed me throughout my life.
Life after college - the "real world" - was where my social ineptness due to being an "Aspie" came to a head.
I was fired from my first two post-college jobs, as well as almost every job thereafter, because my supervisors said I was using bad judgment in social situations. According to my employers, I would say inappropriate things at inappropriate times, be verbally abusive on occaision, and be argumentative to my superiors and others.
The puzzling thing was, I did not know I was doing anything wrong. I felt that I was merely expressing myself and using my First Amendment right of free speech. I never intended at any time to be abusive or argumentative.
At worst, I thought that any transgressions in the workplace I may have done were minor, mere misunderstandings, certainly nothing to get fired over. Later I read that oftentimes adult aspies have little or no success in finding or maintaining jobs due to poor social skills.
As such, I have gone through a total of twelve jobs in the nearly 17 years since I left college. Of those 12, I was either fired or forced to resign from eight of them. The longest amount of time I have been able to keep a job was three years. That is far lagging compared to the average forty-year old, which is my current age.
Some gigs I have had only lasted a few months, like this recent one where I was a school yard aide. I was working hard, and everything seemed fine. The day after New Year's, however, when I arrived at work the supervisor called me to her desk and fired me on the spot. I was told that people had problems with me and I just didn't fit. I had lasted just two months there, an all-time low.
This particular firing came out of the clear, blue sky - I had absolutely no idea that was going to happen, and no one was specific with me about any improvements I needed to make or gave any specific warnings that my job was in jeopardy. I had no clue that I was doing anything wrong or inappropriate - that is a cornerstone of this syndrome.
This condition I have, and the social difficulties that go with it, will always make life an extreme struggle for me.
The likelihood, I feel, of me doing everything a normal American in his 40's does; having a family, living in my own home, enjoying a successful career, is slim at best. I do not see myself accomplishing these things anytime soon. Maybe ever. This has been a main source of despondency in my life, and continues to be.
To be brutally honest and candid, I have had suicidal thoughts stemming from this over the years, and have continued to do so.
I have had thoughts of just not wanting to be around anymore, because I'll never be able to fit in. That the requirements for being considered successful in American society and achieving the "American Dream" are too difficult for me. That this world, and this society, is just not for me. That I don't have what it takes to make it, and people would be better off without me. All because of this Asperger's Syndrome, that I'll have for the rest of my life.
As one can see, this disability can be excruciatingly frustrating.
It has certainly been frustrating to me, and remains so. I liken AS to being in a maximum security prison serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole, or being in a fifty-foot hole where everyone else climbs out with ease, but the "aspie" has no clue how to do so, and no one is there to help him. Or wants to. I have often felt sick and tired of being in that prison and that hole, and still do. Hence the suicidal thoughts.
The fact that I'm still here plugging away and not in the form of ashes spread out somewhere, indicates that I have not given up just yet.
It's not like I have not tried to get help. I have seen therapists in the past to help me deal with these negatives and despondent feelings, and am currently seeing one. I have checked out and read blogs on websites such as wrongplanet.net, which is geared toward people with AS.
I have even tried to find support groups of like-minded people, but the one I tried made me feel like I was meeting fellow inmates in the same prison that I felt I was in. Their aspie traits annoyed me, to be honest, because it reminded me of my social inadequacies.
I am sure that some people, after reading this, will think of me as a weak, whiny, stubborn, spoiled, lazy baby. Someone who needs to "get over it" and "just deal", because life is tough, so "get going". Someone who needs to "grow up" - I have been told that on numerous occasions.
They will see me as ultimately a loser. They will see Asperger's as merely a challenge that can be overcome and conquered, which I can and need to do in their eyes. I am certain there will be those who'll be unsympathetic to my plights, struggles, and frustrations due to this disability. Lord knows I've encountered plenty of these people the past few years.
I supose there is nothing I can do about that, except to ask that people at least try to understand and tolerate, if not accept, "Aspies" like me.
If people who have full-blown autism, Cerebral Palsy, and Down's Syndrome can obtain sympathy and acceptance from the general public, and even be celebrated in events like the Special Olympics, so can people with AS, which can socially render a person as disabled as someone in a wheelchair.