Below is an essay I wrote when I was 12 and had recently been diagnosed with Asperger's. I wrote the essay as a writing assignment for an on-line university-level writing course I was taking at the time.
Three years prior to writing this essay, I could barely write a paragraph, let alone an essay. Although I was full of ideas and my thoughts were eloquent, I struggled to get them down on paper. I was too focused on making my handwriting legible (something I am still working on), not letting my writing float off the lines, my spelling and my punctuation. As a consequence, my writing suffered and I barely managed to get anything down on paper. Although I have since come a long way, I still misspell the most basic words and have to be constantly reminded to use punctuation.
June 26, 2015
When I was very young I thought I was an alien – an extraterrestrial being from a distant planet. What other explanation could there be for why I felt so different to everyone else?
At first, I was set apart by my medical problems. When I was eight months old doctors discovered that I was missing a hip socket. Several attempts to correct this abnormality followed. I was encased in a body cast for six months – locked in a lotus position. While all the other kids in my toddler Monkey Music group ran amuck bashing their musical instruments, I sat propped amongst a mountain of pillows, like a sedentary monk. Eventually, I would undergo reconstructive hip surgery involving a bone graft and would spends months mummified in another body cast and in a reclining wheelchair that could constitute a bed on wheels.
My mother was intent on keeping things as normal as possible for me. And so, she insisted that I attend Kindergarten. While all my classmates spent break time in rapturous laughter - chasing, swinging, skipping, sliding, darting, I watched from the outskirts, from the confines of my wheelchair. I was given a coloring book and some felt tip pens drained of their ink. As I half-heartedly colored a worm wearing a backpack and top hat, the pens rolled off the tray and onto the inviting grass. No body noticed. I would watch my classmates playing until I was wheeled back into the classroom.
I would eventually learn to walk. Yet, the legacy of my operations would trail me. I was atrocious at any and all forms of sport. On Sports Days, I could be depended on to come last in every category. It took several years before my poor co-ordination began to ring alarm bells. Perhaps it was understandable that I couldn’t run or hop or skip. But I also couldn’t catch or throw a ball, open a water bottle or even button my shirt. Eventually, I was sent for an assessment in which I performed so poorly that I was tested for cerebral palsy. A team of specialists diagnosed me with dyspraxia, an incurable motor co-ordination disorder.
Yet, even this did not fully explain my alienation. There were other things; lots of other things that set me apart – things that I kept to myself. I suffered from heightened senses. Loud noises, bright lights and large raucous crowds distressed me. Smells were overwhelming, especially the stench of dozens of perfumes whirling and mixing into one another. My skin was extraordinarily sensitive. Despite a closet filled with clothes I was constrained to wearing a select few items that did not scorch me. My school cardigan and tights seared my skin, branding me as being odd, as being different from all the identically dressed kids.
But the thing that distinguished me the most was my amplification of pain. Every day ordinary experiences caused me agony. From the breeze on my face to shaking people’s hands, I lived in fear of physical contact. My hair innocently brushing against my cheek could be so painful that it tormented me and made it difficult to think of anything else. A friendly hug, someone innocently bumping into me; felt like shards of glass slashing through my skin. And yet, much like a Super Hero, I suffered in silence because I did not want my uniqueness to be discovered and to be misunderstood. I did not want to be exposed.
Human beings are a mystery to me, which is why I have always felt that I never belonged. Whether from the confines of my wheelchair or the sidelines of the school playground, there is an invisible barrier that divides us. I have always struggled to understand what they mean, how to communicate with them, read their body language and how to conventionally express emotion.
For one thing, I am a dreadful liar. Even a well-meaning white lie is immediately unveiled. My body language exposes me; my eyes overt, my voice turns shrill and my limbs attempt to flee. The thought of being asked if I like someone’s new haircut, whether they look fat or whether I think they are smart, sends me into a panic. No matter how hard I try; I dig myself into a bottomless hole of social blunders that threaten to bury me alive.
I also have an annoying tendency to take things literally. As a consequence, I have suffered many embarrassments. My 4th grade science teacher once mentioned that almost everything we do causes cancer, even breathing. I think she would be amused to discover that her comment caused me to spend months holding my breath. Recently, a houseguest asked me if I could show her ‘to the smallest room in the house.’ Although it struck me as an odd request, I escorted her to our laundry room. It wasn’t until the guest asked if I could show her to our ‘ladies room’ that I realized my faux pas. If you were to ask me if I knew the time, I would probably respond by saying ‘yes.’ On the other hand, if you asked me to tell you what time it is, I would happily do so. The more specific the question the more likely I am to answer it correctly.
I am also robotic. It’s not that I am heartless and unfeeling; I just find it difficult to express emotion. I rarely cry or show signs of being upset. This has caused endless troubles. At school I have been relentlessly bullied. Although the evidence against my tormentors is always irrefutable, the teacher’s always sympathize with them. It is not hard to see why. While I stand stoic and detached, my tormentors put on an Oscar-worthy performance in which they repent and plead for mercy. Since I appear unaffected and aloof, my tormentors are given chance after chance after chance. The story always has the same ending. Defeated, I eventually retreat by transferring to yet another school.
Yet, it could be worse. My saving grace has been my heightened intelligence. It has allowed me to go relatively unnoticed because I have used my analytical powers to disguise myself. With the help of the Internet, I have researched and taught myself social norms and adopted ways to morph into them. I have memorized the common responses to the most frequently asked questions. I have watched hours of YouTube videos on body language and the art of conversation. I have spent years working on making eye contact. Smiling. Changing my facial expressions. Toning down my intellectual pontifications. Attempting to fit in.
And yet, I am not and never will be one of them. I now know why. It is because I have Asperger’s, a form of autism.
My recent diagnosis has been a revelation. It explains why I see and experience the world differently than most people. Although I was aware that I perceive the world differently, it never occurred to me that I might be autistic. Like most people, when I envisioned someone with autism I imagined a person that is unable to interact or communicate with others. I pictured a boy, like Christopher in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, who was trapped in his own world: unreachable and isolated. Alone. A boy that could only find solace in a military routine that provided a sense of security from a hostile world. I envisioned savants that could play Chopin at the age of two without ever having learned to play the piano. I thought of people that memorized esoteric facts about mundane subjects like train schedules, telephone numbers and license plates. I also assumed that people with autism had serious behavioral problems, erupted into frequent tantrums and melt downs when stressed or overwhelmed and were so severely incapacitated that they would inevitably be institutionalized.
I did not fit into this stereotype. Or so I thought. However, I have come to learn that autism manifests itself differently in each individual and that each of us is affected in our own unique way. Although there is still much to learn about the condition and although being labeled “autistic” carries a social stigma, I am comforted in knowing that there are others like me in the world; that they, too, perceive the world very differently to how others do. I also find comfort in knowing that, despite our other worldliness, we walk in the footsteps of some brilliant minds that revolutionized and transformed the world. And that maybe one of us will revolutionize and transform the future.