The assignment for this essay was to write about an important event that had had a lasting effect. The task was to describe the event and to reflect upon it. The student here chose to describe her experience in childhood and adolescence (so far – she is only fifteen) with Asperger’s Syndrome.
It should, of course, be borne in mind that Asperger’s Syndrome takes many forms, and Nina, the student whose work appears here, is typical only of herself. Yet seldom have I ever encountered so clear and moving an account of living with Asperger’s.
Living With Asperger’s Syndrome
A past event that made a difference to me was when I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at the age of ten.
I had a fairly miserable childhood. I was only happy at home, my sanctuary, where I was safe. At school, I was melancholy and introverted. From Primary One to Primary Five I had no real friends. I just wandered the playground by myself, daydreaming and eating. I had no idea that there was something wrong with me; I just thought that popularity was something you were born with, and that I happened to have been born unpopular. The older I grew, the worse I felt about this. While other girls were forming groups of close friends and learning dance routines and giggling together, I watched from the sidelines, wondering what they had that I didn’t. I was asking myself the wrong question: I should have been wondering what I had that they didn’t, and in Primary Five, I finally found out. The first thing I did when I got home that fateful day was slouch on the sofa and burst into tears.
I was autistic. I was cursed, tainted, diseased and soiled. I was a spaz, a mongo, a retard, a freak. And I would never get better.
As I grew older and got to Primary seven, I got so distressed that I started to self-harm by biting myself. I really savaged myself. Sometimes people would ask me what the purple marks on my arms were, but I’d just pretend not to hear.
Just as I thought I couldn’t feel any worse, I started High School. I was chubby, shy and frizzy-haired, ad all of a sudden I was surrounded by fake-tanned sluts and malevolent chavs. The girls in the school were like an alien species, with orange skin, painted faces and heaving cleavage. Even the girls in my class seemed older than they were; when they sneered with their glossy lips, attitude dripped from every pore. I was terrified of them.
They also all seemed to have boyfriends. The closest I had ever come to having a boyfriend was when I got “married” to one of my male friends under the goalpost in his garden when we were five. I remember one traumatic incident in the girls’ changing rooms when all the girls were talking about boys. One of them interrogated me about how many boyfriends I’d had. I said casually that I’d had none. The cold, shrill laughter echoing around the tiled walls is something I’ve never forgotten.
In order to stop this kind of thing happening again I made a plan. I vowed that I would become exactly like these girls. I would wear clothes like theirs. I would become normal, and maybe I would even become popular.
Except I didn’t. There was a fatal flaw in my master plan. Although I now looked exactly like the scary girls, I didn’t act, speak or think like them. I just couldn’t. I was still clever because my Asperger’s gave me a high IQ, making people think of me as posh, even though I looked anything but. I kept my grades up and didn’t dumb myself down because I was anxious to have a good future, which I’m glad about now. And instead of boys and clothes, my favourite topics of conversation were politics and current events. So even after making my mum spend a fortune on new make-up, clothes and hair products I was no more popular than before. Not only that, I had hidden who I really was, shielding my true self behind a mask of make-up. The problem was, anyone who didn’t conform to the chavs’ idea of “normal” was victimized. There was only one option; if I wanted to be myself, I’d have to move schools.
The moment I moved to Rudolf Steiner’s, I knew the ethos here was completely different. Instead of being the same, the place was a rainbow of different colours and styles, and people who weren’t afraid to be themselves. This totally threw my idea of what “normal” was and I finally had to accept that there’s no such thing. This is what made me confident enough to “come out” about my Asperger’s in class.
I could never have done that at my old school. I would have had to endure snide remarks and taunts, as everyone who wasn’t normal did. But when I told everyone what I had, all I got was a few confused looks from people who didn’t know what it was, but once I explained it, everyone was fine about it. I didn’t even have to endure one sneering whisper of “retard!”
I used to yearn for a cure for Asperger’s. I used to think it was the root of all my problems. But I recently had a conversation in the car with my mum, and she said, “I wish I had a brain like yours, Nina.” I asked what she was on about, and she pointed out how intelligent I was, how I started reading from eighteen months and could recite the alphabet by two; how I could read a fact and remember it for years, and how I could read a book in a day. She said: “I know you hate your Asperger’s, but it helps you process information in an amazing way.”
Something clicked in my head that day. Until then I would have cured my Asperger’s in a heartbeat, because I thought everyone could process information my way. I thought everyone could store and access huge amounts of information that they gained years and years ago. Until I was told, I thought everyone thought like me. This hurt a bit because it meant I was even further from normal than I thought, but it also helped a lot because I’d never thought of Asperger’s as a gift before. I’ll always be grateful for it now.