Thursday, November 10, 2005

Life, Newly Realized, on the Autistic Spectrum

By Kait Goldfield

When I was a freshman, someone asked a friend of mine if I was autistic. Having almost no knowledge about what autism was other than a dim memory of a Rainman-like character rocking in the corner and nonverbal, I was appalled. How could anyone possibly think I was like that?

Two years later, I rediscovered the subject of autism after seeing a Lifetime movie on it. I was intrigued by some of the concepts in it, and started reading everything I could find about autism, purely out of intellectual interest. Somewhere along the way, I realized that a lot of what I was reading sounded like me. I learned that autism is actually a spectrum disorder, which means that there are people who are affected by it on all different levels. I discovered something called Asperger's Syndrome, which is high-functioning autism and markedly different in its presentation than what we could call classical autism.

People with Asperger's Syndrome, I learned, have trouble reading social cues and understanding nonverbal language. They have trouble knowing what to say in conversations; when to start talking and when to stop talking. They fail to notice subtle conversational cues like change in tone of voice or body posture. In fact, they have trouble with social language in general. They are often highly intelligent and greatly knowledgeable in many subjects, especially with special interests that they pursue, but have trouble conversing with their peers. Because of this, they have trouble making friends and many will go through all of high school and college without having ever really made a single good friend. Because of this social rejection, AS kids will often try to shut the world out.

Sensory issues are very prevalent in people with AS. They can hear the sound of a person tapping their pencil from across the room, the smell of cigarette smoke or cleaning agents will drive them crazy, lights are either too bright or too dim, and they often have a hard time finding clothes that they can bear wearing because of the way they feel on their skin. Often they will have "sensory overloads" and need some time out from an activity to process all that is happening to them. Their brains simply process information in a different way and do not organize incoming sensory information very well.

Eye contact can actually hurt for this reason. Social interactions for the person with AS can be like trying to put together a five hundred piece puzzle before the time is up - the AS person must try to search through their databases of what is appropriate to say in any given situation and then try to find an answer that matches. It is almost like speaking a different language: AS people tend to speak in a more concrete and factual way and are usually very genuine.

It is this genuineness, though, that endears us to many people. We don't play guessing games with people; we say what we mean. As employees and friends, we are quite loyal. We have the ability to focus completely on tasks of interest for hours at a time and also to remember large amounts of facts related to our interests quite easily.

When I was finally diagnosed with Asperger's this past summer, it came as an enormous relief to me. I finally knew why I had always hovered on the outside of social life, always wanting to join in but somehow never being able to figure out quite how. I had an explanation for all the social blunders I had so painfully committed in the past; an explanation for why certain things that didn't seem to bother others bothered me so much. I could find other people who understood me and were like me. It didn't change who I am: a label like Asperger's carries some pretty heavy connotations with it, but in the end I am still the same old me, a psychology student at a liberal arts college in Baltimore, who loves country music and smoothies from Smoothie King. It just gives me a new way with which to understand myself.

Unfortunately, so many people are not as lucky as I was to gain this understanding. There is comparatively little information available about Asperger's; it was only put into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Disorders (the official handbook of what is and what is not a psychological disorder), a little over ten years ago in 1994. Misinformation and a lack of information abound. There are so many people out there that are wondering why they are different, who are desperate to find the missing piece but have never even heard of Asperger's. Many people with AS do go to college; this is a disorder that does not affect intelligence, only social functioning. On this campus alone, it has been estimated to me that there are at least seven identified students with AS. There are probably many more who never bothered to identify themselves to the college or who might have it but not know.

I explain all of this just to give the average person an idea of what it is like to live on the autistic spectrum. Someone once described it to me as living next door to a candy store and never getting to go in: the feeling of wanting so much to interact with others in the way that you see everyone else around you doing but somehow not being able to work out how it is done. I feel that it is only by learning about each other's struggles and truly trying to understand them that we can build a world that is safe for everyone to live in. A kind of world where people don't have to be afraid of being different, but can instead embrace their unique challenges and strengths. A world where we can truly grow and improve because we are taking advantage of everyone's strengths, not just the strengths of a selective few. That is the kind of world that I want to live in. It's the kind of world I think we all want to live in.

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