*Published in the WHRHS “Arrowhead” Newspaper*
The Center for Disease Control recently released a study claiming that one in every 110 eight-year-olds have been diagnosed with some form of autism. The number is continuing to grow (some studies have even shown that up to one in 91 children have autism) and yet I am constantly shocked by how little is known about the condition and its related forms. New Jersey is home to more autistic children than any state, and it is important for us especially to be aware of what hundreds of kids around us are living with. This article will focus mainly on a high-functioning form of autism called Asperger’s Syndrome, since it is the form I am most familiar with. I will highlight not only its downsides, but its upsides, which are greater in number than most people think. I should know: I have Asperger’s.
First and foremost, I would like to make the following very clear: Asperger’s is not accompanied by mental retardation. While it is on the autistic spectrum, it is not the same thing as autism. Autism is often accompanied by speech delays and mental retardation. Contrarily, those with Asperger’s (which I will henceforth refer to as Aspies) have no speech delays and generally are of average or above-average intelligence. We Aspies are actually gifted linguistically. From a very young age I have had an extensive vocabulary and a love for words (My first word, at nine months, was “pocketbook,” and I taught myself how to read at the age of three.). The reason Asperger’s is part of the autistic spectrum is because of the similarities in social difficulties.
Social defecits are one of three main traits of Asperger’s Syndrome, besides an obsessive need for routine and an intense interest in one specific topic. I was not born with the ability to distinguish facial expressions and social cues. Conversation is not one of my strong traits. However, it is commonly misconceived that Aspies are anti-social. We do like communicating with others, except instead of talking to them we tend to talk at them. For instance, I have an intense interest in musical instruments and as a young child talked about nothing except the piano. I could ramble on for hours about the instrument, and didn’t understand the concept of letting somebody else have a turn to speak. When they did have a turn to speak, I never knew what to say back. For instance, if somebody were to say to me, “I got a new toy,” I would probably respond with “I learned a new song on the piano yesterday.) It would not occur to me that I needed to entertain their conversational topic. Aspies tend to lack empathy (which basically means the ability to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes) and it makes conversing awkward. For this reason I would avoid talking to others, giving off the impression that I was anti-social.
But in all my alone time I discovered some of the major advantages to being an Aspie. As I mentioned, I have an intense interest in musical instruments. I played four instruments by the time I was five, and now I play 25. With my form of Asperger’s, I gained perfect pitch and synesthesia, a condition which essentially allows me to see music. These traits are not uncommon in Aspies, and allow me to gain a connection with music that few others possess. In this regard, I consider myself lucky to be an Aspie.
However, there still are the downsides. For about three years prior to my diagnosis, I was thought to have OCD and an anxiety disorder due to my obsessive-compulsive tendencies. I have a preoccupation with germs and a necessity for routine and order, and often had panic attacks upon the disruption of my daily routine. What made the proper diagnosis difficult in my case is that these traits are the main symptoms of OCD and similar anxiety disorders. My social problems were written off as a social phobia accompanying the OCD, and my synesthesia and connection with music was completely overlooked. Diagnosing Asperger’s is often challenging because its individual symptoms can be attributed to several other conditions such as ADD or AD/HD, OCD, anxiety disorders, and other disorders. It is necessary to look at a child as a whole, a concept, which, according to research, has become more accurate, therefore making a diagnosis a relatively simple process. Still, even though I will live with this condition for the rest of my life, it is not a death sentence. Some of the most prominent figures of all times (i.e, Albert Einstein, Jane Austen, and Bill Gates) are speculated to have Asperger’s. It’s not a disorder as much as it is a way of life. And, by the way, it has nothing to do with meat.