Dear Captain Awkward:
I’ve always been a little different from most people, and it was only about a year ago that I was finally diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. This came as a somewhat crushing blow to my already dwindling self-esteem. I’ve honestly thought about suicide numerous times because of it, It just makes me feel as if I can’t connect with people on a meaningful level, regardless of whether that’s true or not. I can’t help but notice this MASSIVE stigma against people with Asperger’s, people saying we’re shut-ins, that we’re all like “Chris-Chan” or have some other manner of extreme antisocial tendency. I find that I have none of these, in fact for the most part I’ve gotten along just fine with people, even if I have a little bit of trouble making friends in the first place.
Anyway, the problem is that I feel as if I’m lagging behind my peers in terms of emotional and social maturity. I’m off to university in September and I don’t have even the slightest idea of whether I’ll be ready for the environment there or not. High school left such a negative mark on me that I’m worried that what’s left of my attitude there will carry over into university and the real world.
Tl;dr, I’m mildly autistic, over the years people have driven me to hate myself for it, and I have no idea what to do now.
Dear Mildly Autistic:
I’m so sorry you are having so much anxiety and depression around your diagnosis.
- Please don’t hurt yourself, and please get your parents to take you to a therapist who can help you with this.
- Hopefully with some time you can see the diagnosis as a helpful way to describe some of the things you’ve been struggling with all along. You’re not broken! There’s a reason you’ve been feeling the way you do.
- I don’t know if this is comforting to hear, but pretty much EVERYONE has anxiety about starting university. “Will it be worse than high school in some ungodly way I haven’t anticipated?” Some of the pluses are that university is voluntary, you get to study subjects you are passionate about as hard and as much as you want, and that there will be a whole crowd of new people who are also anxious to find their place and make friends and an environment of social events, communal living, classes, and extracurricular clubs and activities designed to facilitate this. Being non-neurotypical may make the transition a bit harder or more anxiety-producing for you, but you said yourself that you get along just fine with people, so I really believe that you’ll get along just fine with the people at school.
But don’t take my word for it. When I got your letter, I put a call out on Twitter to see if some of your fellow Aspies would be willing to talk about their own experiences making the transition from high school to college, and this is what they had to say:
For my entire life I’ve felt odd and out of place. It’s as though they can sense it in us isn’t it? The masses see us as peculiar individuals who should be avoided because there’s something not quite normal enough about us. I’ve come to find that this is fear in others. People have told me that I’m intense and that I have too much complexity about me to be bothered with at that opening stage of friendship. I find that a lot of people with Asperger’s Syndrome are described this way. I’ve also heard the same about celebrities (*kanye shrug*).
Negative stereotypes can have a huge affect on people and I can’t blame you for feeling badly about yourself after being the victim of them. When I find myself in those situations I try to think about what I would say if I were in their place. I ask myself “why did they laugh at me” or “why do they think that robot dance looks like me…” often the answer is that they don’t know me at all. A great deal of people get through life lampooning and satirising each other because it takes the attention off of their oddities and places the interest on yours. It’s a cheap move, but in the short-term it works.
You, sir, are the beginning of something amazing, and it scares people. It’s not because you have Asperger’s Syndrome, but because you have an overwhelming depth and complexity that makes people want to know more about you, albeit from a distance initially. Often, from your point of view, I’m sure it looks as though they’re not interested in you at all. Sometimes you can intimidate someone into a fight or flight response and their comedic attempt at fighting is what you’re seeing in all of these negative stereotypes.
I, too, have been suicidal and know that you’re not joking. I even made a couple attempts on my life. I know what it’s like to feel like an alien on your own planet and feel like everyone has me all planned out before they even speak to me. People like that are not worth your time, and if they are worth your time, tell them they’re wrong about you. A lot of times they’re reacting with that fight or flight mechanism and if you call them on it, they’re dumbstruck. The best come back to the negative Aspie stereotypes is to laugh and say “it’s funny because you actually think that!” (THIS IS AWESOME. -CA) Nine times out of ten they’ll stop laughing about it and look confused. That confused look is priceless, my friend.
The point is, if you can hold on a few more months you’re going to start seeing the good side of being an individual. The lag in your “social maturity” will no longer matter. You’ll make friends that mean much more to you than friends have ever meant; friends that may call you Sheldon, or laugh at you when you do something they don’t understand. Ultimately they’re YOUR friends that you made while being yourself. They aren’t the jerks that think you’re a written book that they’ve already read.
Finally: College is a blast. It’s like a four-year intro to adulthood featuring the weirdest people you’ll ever know. Enjoy it!”
“First off, it’s not true. There are plenty of people with Autism/Aspergers with friends and more. But I understand the feeling. I have it too. I feel like I don’t know anybody in this city, aside from family, and it sucks.
But you’re going to University. You’ll meet new people, make new friends and if they’re really your friends, your Asperger’s won’t matter.
You’re not a stereotype, you are you.
Look at University as a new start. A new place where you can be you. I’ve never been good at school, but I did have the luck of very supportive teachers. I hope you will too.
The big issue seems to be that you feel left behind emotionally and maturely. I 100% understand. I’m 27 now, and I can still act like a child sometimes. And that’s fine.
Don’t think of it as a weakness, or lagging behind. It’s a huge benefit. For example, I can get crazy excited about things. Most ‘mature’ people don’t.
High school is a horrible place for all of us. People are ALL going through changes, and they take it out on others. Mostly, anyway. Don’t feel bad about it.
Here’s a thing people have given me as advice, but I haven’t tried out yet. Say hello to someone, maybe someone you see more often, on the street. Maybe a neighbor. It’ll help make you feel better.
In short, you’re a good person. Not lagging behind. Not a stereotype, but you. Don’t forget that.”
Two other blog readers also contributed their thoughts anonymously. Here’s the first one:
“My diagnosis is ‘autism,’ not Asperger’s, but it’s called a spectrum for a reason. First, let me say this: diagnosis is not destiny. I realize getting a label can make it feel like things will never get better – like you’re miserable because something in your head is broken and can’t be fixed. Please believe me: that is not the case. You’re miserable because you’re in high school. High school is all about social rigidity; people who are different, especially socially different, suffer there. But you will graduate soon, and college is nothing like high school. (Real life is also nothing like high school. I have no idea to this day why we put people through that shit; it’s not like it prepares you for the rest of your life.)
If personal anecdotes are useful to you – I, too, was miserable in middle and high school. I was a weird kid, queer and autistic and alone, and I made all the bad choices. (Drugs! Really stupid sex! Truancy! Crime! Seriously, I tried it all and it didn’t help. If you’ve managed to avoid any of this, good on you. My suggestion is to keep that up.) I attempted suicide. I engaged in many forms of self-harm. In short, I was really fucking miserable, and I flailed around helplessly, trying to find some fix for what I was sure would be a lifetime of pure awful.
Then I went to college, and – really, for me, things were different basically from day one. My life has been on an upswing ever since. I did all the things I wasn’t supposed to be able to do. I made friends. I had girlfriends. I got married. I held down a job until I quit to stay home with my (amazing) kid. In short: I’m 38. I’m happy, I’m successful, I’m as social as I want to be: life is good. My diagnosis wasn’t my destiny.
And I can already tell that will be true of you, too, because you’re surviving high school. You’re reaching out for help. And, as you said, you get along with people.
Get through this and the rest of it will fall into place. You’ll either catch up or figure out work-arounds in the areas where you’re lagging, and you’ll be able to build the life you want.
Hang in there. The better part is starting soon. I promise.”
And finally, from Twitter:
Okay, when I was your age, perhaps for the best in some ways, nobody had ever heard of Asperger’s Syndrome, so while there was nobody to tell me “well we know what’s going on, and there are exercises and support and meet-ups,” there was also nobody to box me in as a stereotype either.
But anyway, college. I’m pleased to say, with a little fiddling, I managed to make college absolute hog-heaven for someone of my particular neurological tendencies, and in fact I find it hard to stay gone for very long. There are a LOT of social distractions, but for me, they mostly weren’t as interesting as the classes, and that made me special. Professors liked me because I was extra-on-top-of-things thanks to evenings spent enjoying the hell out of the textbooks. Classmates liked me because I knew things, and enjoyed telling stories. I made several desperately important life-long friends there.
After college but before my current gig working on my Ph.D, I landed a very solid-paying job in Portland and spent a few years enjoying the HECK out of having my own apartment all to myself, and between coworkers who reminded me more of me than anyone else I’d met before and a fresh batch of friends with AWESOMELY weird habits, skills, and tabletop gaming campaigns, I wasn’t just “not a shut-in,” I was downright socially thriving. (These days I’m usually a little stressed, but I decided to get a Ph.D, so that’s my own dang fault.)
And they call us “lagging in emotional maturity” but when I was in college most people were just as confused and overwhelmed with their circumstances as I was, and the important stuff? The keeping your own time and remembering to take care of yourself and generally avoid the internet long enough to study for a midterm? I was READY for it.
Bet you are too.
Best of luck,
PS: Choose your pseudonyms carefully, they’re for life 😉
Letter writer, I hope that makes you feel a little more hopeful. I’m going to open the comments up to more stories like this. I really want to keep this thread “BY people with Asperger’s Syndrome, FOR people with Asperger’s syndrome” as much as possible,” so maybe our kind-and-awesome-but-neurotypical folks can hang back for a bit.