Growing up with Asperger’s in Retrospect

Not so long ago, I had the opportunity to sit with a group of pre-teenagers with Asperger’s Syndrome, and I had the chance to ask a question I am often asked: Does it help to know? Does it help to know that your way of being—with its frustrations and anxieties and gifts—has a name? Invariably, the kids I was interviewing all answered “Yes” without hesistating.

Boy, I thought, have times changed. Not only were these young people feeling okay about being so openly identified, they actually gave the impression that it was a healthy thing—a good thing—to fess up to this new self-awareness. I got to reflecting upon my own way of being and how I grew up feeling anything but positive about myself.

I was the oldest of four boys and, from an early age, was moody and controlling. I tended to dominate my brothers and lash out when they attempted to deviate from my “official” direction. This became confusing and awkward as we all grew and changed, and my brothers began spending more time playing with other kids their age. I was still interested and intrigued by childish things and was drawn to children younger than I was, or, because I was very astute and mature in many ways, I was drawn to relationships with adults. I especially enjoyed the latter because I was a miniature adult; I could’ve jumped from 10 to 30 without a problem. This meant that among my typical peers, I had little in common; and was considered “weird,” anti-social, and a loner.

I spent evenings and weekends and entire summers alone in my room drawing and creating and reconfiguring my bedroom in ingenious ways. The trade-off was that I was “socially retarded.” Imagine growing up across the street from a very active playground—kids my brothers played with didn’t even realize they had an older brother because I was invisible; they never saw me. Once, someone got wind that my artistic skills were beyond that of most adults and sent one of my brothers to request that I donate one of my drawings to a playground art show, which I did. They were wowed but it didn’t open any social doors. In fact, ultimately things got worse as I entered my teens and young adulthood.

As I’m writing this—now a middle-aged man—it’s still a painful recollection. But my intent is not to paint a despondent, hopeless portrait for others. We can all learn from my truth and that of others. My point is that had I known—if I had a name, an excuse, a framework called Asperger’s—how might my life have been different? Might people have demonstrated more empathy and patience? Might they have made more of an effort to help me feel included socially? I’m not sure, but I do know how pleased and relieved I was that the bright, enthusiastic, free-from-shame group of school-aged kids with Asperger’s so readily agreed, “Yes, it helps to know.” They have an advantage I didn’t, and I’m so grateful on their behalf. Armed with this self-advocacy, they are better poised to move forward more successfully than I was at their age. And, in retrospect, that’s a fine thing at heart.

©2006 William Stillman

Related Articles:

Asperger Syndrome Fact Sheet

Complete List of All Articles on Autism Spectrum Directory

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