I was at my favorite antique shop last month indulging in my coin collecting hobby, when a boy walked into the shop with his mother. While I was examining a Russian Kopek from the reign of Catherine the Great, the boy started grilling one of the employees with all sorts of questions and talking about his collection. I offered to help him, and the boy then asked me about my collection, the value of coins, and facts about certain coins. After a few minutes, I pulled myself away and quietly asked the boy’s mother: “Forgive me if this is a bit personal, but is your son on the spectrum?” She said that she and the boy’s father thought he was, and I told her, “I ask because I am, and he reminds me of what I was like when I was around his age.”
The spectrum I was referring to was autism—specifically, Asperger syndrome, something I didn’t find out I had until I was 24 and in my first semester at AU. I’ve always had difficulty reading nonverbal cues from others. I can’t always tell when I’m interrupting a conversation and I struggle to control the volume of my voice. Asperger’s characteristics are not often noticeable unless you know what to look for. And therein lies the problem that many “Aspies,” have: people judge us based on certain social norms, and assume we’re able to conform to them.
When I was in third grade, I used to excitedly ramble to my classmates about random US presidential facts, how many patients my father saw in a day, and how big our house was. I rightfully came off to fellow third graders as annoying, snobbish, and rude. I was tested for Attention Deficit Disorder, sent to a neurologist at Boston Children’s Hospital, and put on Ritalin. This was the mid-1990s and America was going through a phase of labeling kids and pushing medications, simply because they seemed different than their peers—a phase we’ve unfortunately been going through again over the last few years. Most of my teachers wanted me to conform and act like the other children. Given the proper outlets, I could have channeled my unique traits instead of being stigmatized.
I struggled socially and academically in high school. Given the stigma of autism at the time, I was instead diagnosed with a Nonverbal Learning Disability so that I could have access to academic assistance. I had to attend social coaching classes led by a patronizing psychologist who told my parents that she didn’t think I would graduate high school on time, and doubted I could attend a regular four-year college.
It was a running theme through school, hearing that I couldn’t do something. It burned my self-esteem but drove me to prove every naysayer wrong. Years later, I ran into my former psychologist and had the pleasure of telling her I’d graduated from one of the best universities in the country.
A mentor later advised me to never change my personality, but refine it, just like sugar is refined to make it sweeter. I found that being an Aspie was advantageous to my work running the AU Graduate Leadership Council and overseeing the graduate student body. I channeled my enthusiasm, organizational abilities, and sensitivity to help those I represented in a meaningful way.
I also forged productive relationships with President Neil Kerwin; Gail Hanson, vice president of Campus Life; and AU Student Government president Sarah McBride, SPA/BA ’13, who is now one of my most important friends, and whose courageous coming-out story was one of my inspirations to write this piece.
I’ve since learned how to apply the benefits of being an Aspie in many positive ways. My ability to recall Congress members’ positions helped the lobbyists I worked with while interning at the National Education Association. My energy and passion “fired up” volunteers on President Obama’s campaign. And my knowledge of American history and politics and attention to detail has helped me at my current organization, the American Council of Young Political Leaders (ACYPL).
Many people don’t realize that by taking a closer look at people with Asperger’s, by really trying to get to know who we are, they can help make us feel more accepted, as we should be. The people who have had the most profound impact on my life are those who have made that effort. My coworkers at ACYPL have done that. They know I’m quirky, overly enthusiastic at times, and occasionally have difficulty slowing down in conversations with them. Nevertheless, they have accepted me for who I am, and given me advice about how to refine the aspects of my personality that can be off-putting.
Some of the traits related to Asperger’s may be annoying at times, but for every one of those, there are positive ones. We can accomplish amazing things if we are provided with outlets for those traits. Some have speculated that the greatest of the great, from Albert Einstein to Jane Austen, were Aspies.
The desire to label kids can negatively influence their self-confidence and development. Instead, we as a society need to stop thinking about Asperger’s as a disorder, and view it as a series of quirky personality traits that can positively contribute to our society.
As I wrapped up the conversation I was having with the boy’s mother at the antique shop, she told me that she would never have guessed I have Asperger’s. I smiled and said, “By the time your son is around the age I am now, nobody will ever guess that about him, either.”