In case you didn’t know, April is the National Month of Autism Awareness. Why is this relevant? Autism and its milder form Asperger’s, representing 80% of Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD), provide the basis for an important discussion on how we perceive other people, ourselves, and the world around us. Especially in regards to some here at Olin.
ASD is defined primarily by social interaction difficulties. There are many theories as to ASD’s cause, but they all roughly fit into two categories: The first views autism as undesirable or an epidemic. The second views it as a part of neurological diversity that should be appreciated and harnessed.
Those who see ASD as bad attribute its origin to: Vaccines, excessive use or abuse of technology, side effects from mankind’s negative environmental impact, defective development inside the womb, or an unhealthy diet. More radical members of this party say that it is self-inflicted, psychedelic, a defense mechanism, the result of demonic activity, God’s judgment on America, caused by bad parenting, or the result of psychological abuse. In other words, ASD is one of the signs that our whole world is heading downhill – fast. And something must be done before everything gets even worse.
Granted, it can be hard to see ASD as anything but bad. It often leads to social isolation; bullying; and hopelessness in finding friends, romantic relationships, or even jobs. The fact that people with an ASD have a higher tendency to be LGBT than NTs (neurotypical – someone who is not on the ASD spectrum) certainly does not help. Then there is a giant list of coexisting disorders and quirks. The most common are: ADD/ADHD (coexists in 60-70% of those who have ASD), Alexithymia (85%), OCD (90%), sleep issues (70%), and sensory issues (especially light and sound, 80-100%), just to name a few. Then there are more physical co-symptoms like hypotonia (low muscle-tone, 35%) and gluten intolerance (60%). Add to this depression, anxiety, tendency to self-harm, and suicidal thoughts. Everyone with ASD has their own unique mash-up. It is no wonder that there is a rabid search for a cure.
But for those who see ASD in more positive light, it is something that cannot – and should not – be cured. They believe ASD is either neurologically or genetically based, and is beneficial to society. In general, Aspies (people with Asperger’s) can pursue interests without being swayed by others’ opinions. They recognize patterns or come up with solutions not seen by others, usually have great integrity and great passion/obsession for their interests, and can work for hours by themselves. They are very honest and very accepting. They often question social norms, and are rarely racist or sexist, as many are gender-blind (hence the higher LGBT rate). Even though they struggle to obtain and maintain friendships, they can make great ones.
So at this point, if I were to tell you that I was an Aspie with Epilepsy, ADD, and Alexithymia as primary co-exist-ers, how would your perception of me change? It might surprise you. From my absurd attempts to be an R2 to running an Improv club, it almost seems out of place.
What is it like being Aspie? Just imagine being a foreign exchange student, permanently. The awkward, forever solitary alien robot thrust into a world so wide.
Everything I have mentioned, I have personally lived with – and there are a several things that I’ve left unsaid. But for me, Asperger’s is just a defining characteristic: my normal. I do not think about it any more than I do my eye color or the fact that my right knee is 45 degrees twisted. I know it’s there, and, yeah, I kind of have to do things different to compensate. But that is just: me. And honestly, I would not want to be anything else.
Last month, I sent out a survey asking Olin students about mental, learning, etc. quirks and disorders. From your 126 responses, it was clear that many of you deal with or have dealt with the issues I am writing about, with 40 respondents (31%) reporting some kind of disorder or quirk. Some have one or two; others, much more. I am not going to equate you with ASD or say there are positives – because I know that is not always true. My message for you, especially to those struggling: You are not alone.
Depression, the most common on the list by a fair margin, can make you feel alone. Alone and hopeless after a day of clambering around, forcing yourself to learn in ways that mock your true potential and growing frustrated with a brain that consistently fails to meet your expectations. And this – after you have come so far and put yourself through hell to be in a college where your talents become the norm and the only thing that distinguishes you from others is what made you “different” in the first place.
To the rest of you: These are your fellow students. These are your teammates. These are your friends. Sharing something like this can be difficult, if not humiliating. The myriad negative stereotypes surrounding them doesn’t help. Nobody wants others to think there is something “wrong” with them. No one likes to be treated like something broken that needs to be fixed. Most of the time it is easier for us to keep it to ourselves, sparing you the trouble and favoring what little community acceptance we can get to protect us from the people we are supposed to be able to trust in the first place.
April is the National Month of Autism Awareness, but it can also be seen as an awareness of many more things. So be aware. Realize that you are smart, and that people respect you. Realize that you are surrounded by valuable, intelligent people. And realize that some of the people around you are fighting demons you aren’t aware of, that they don’t want to tell you about because it’s too hard to tell even a close friend. Be respectful, and always remember to be kind.
The print version of this article contains graphs. For a pdf copy of this issue of Frankly Speaking, email submit at franklyspeakingnews.com.