Speech given to the Purchase College “Autism Spectrum Panel & Showcase,” April 2015.
Hi. I’m glad to be here to talk, tonight, because it wasn’t always so easy for me to do this sort of thing, and I hope that if I can tell my story, I can show people that it’s possible, for people like me, to evolve and improve, and to learn to live meaningful lives. For the past four years I have worked to distance myself from the problems autism caused me, and embrace all the good that it’s done me. And I think I’ve done it. If I can do it, we can all do it. The key is, for all the faults the spectrum gives us, it gives us abilities, too.
Like most people on this panel, I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, back when that was something that professionals diagnosed. I didn’t find out about it, though, until the summer before college. Back then, I had major social difficulties. A lot of basic interactions proved problematic for me, as someone who couldn’t understand the fundamental rules that everybody is expected to adhere to. All throughout high school I had sat on the outside of things, generally ignored by most teachers, and dismissed by most students as either “simple” or, sometimes, a drug addict, since they couldn’t figure out any other reason I might act the way I do. When I came to college, that didn’t change. College is supposed to be an institution of transformation, but in reality it serves more as a method of molding oneself; the environment stays the same.
Early on in college, I found myself struggling with the same social issues I dealt with in high school. Within my suite, a hierarchy developed in which the others found it easy to assert dominance over me. That, combined with the sheer discomfort of being away from home for the first time in my life, led to some outbursts, the kind that families of Autistic people know all too well. You can ask my friends about the furniture I destroyed, the venom with which I retaliated for things that had built up for so long – they don’t forget. I didn’t want them to, either.
But the change came, at last, through my academic success. Growing up, I had always heard from my parents how smart I was, all this talent I had, that I never believed in. My grades never seemed to reflect any sort of skill, or intellect, and most of my teachers ignored me. There were occasional teachers who advocated for me, but they were few and far between, so I never believed them. The weight of all the others seemed so much stronger, back then.
In college, I managed to get straight As. With the exception of some – let me be frank – ridiculous outliers, I have managed to maintain a streak that I never knew I could. I still had my doubts. I still couldn’t get myself to speak in public or social settings. I still felt weak, and afraid. But the success served as a small shred of proof that I had something I could call talent. With that in mind, I set to work to improve everything about myself that I could. I taught myself instruments and languages, I practiced speaking and I discovered that I have a truly savant-style ability to write. I wrote entire books in my time here, and even though I have no idea how to get them published I still feel pride that I managed to work that hard, and get such a result.
I still face difficulties, from time time, but I now know exactly what my faults are, and I work every day, still, to improve on them. I still have issues understanding what’s acceptable, sometimes, but by and large I can interact with people in a way that doesn’t hinder my life. All of the way that I’ve come, I can only look back in wonder and gratitude, gratitude towards friends, family, teachers and whatever divine force is out there that encouraged me to push ahead, to defy the limits of my discomfort and fight my shortcomings. I’ve come a long way from the meek, long-haired, hazy-eyed kid who walked into the dorms for the first time four years ago. The fact that I’m talking here is a testament to willpower, not just mine, but to all the people in my position – because we can all do this.
Four years ago I didn’t know what Autism was, I had never heard of autism, and my parents told me I had Aspergers – I had no idea what that meant, but it sounded disturbing. It sounded uncomfortable. I’m an Aspie – what does that mean? I realized, it means I don’t have to blame myself for everything that goes wrong, but I definitely have to give myself credit for what I do right. It means that I’ve had to work hard and fight every step of the way, and do it all with a smile on my face. Every day I go out into this strange foreign land and I explore. I’m an Aspie. I hunger, and search and thrive, and I don’t let anything stop me. I’ll never regret who I am, what I am, what we are, because what we are is amazing. We can all live meaningful lives. Not normal lives, but meaningful lives – beautiful lives! Because we can never be normal, and that doesn’t matter. We’re not ordinary. We’re extraordinary.
For four years my professors tried to get me to talk, to speak up more, and I’ve finally managed to do it. I walked in as a freshman, too intimidated to open my mouth. But I’m not afraid, anymore. I’m hungry. I’m hungry for experience and growth and I’m hungry to shape this world. I don’t know what life is going to bring, but I know it will be amazing.