February 25, 2007
As I walked home through Central Park one afternoon–having been expelled from Hunter College’s Manhattan dorms that morning–I was so emotionally drained that even the bare trees seemed vivacious by comparison. During my two months as a resident student I’d lost 15 pounds, slept maybe five hours a night, and had constant, vivid, flashbacks of my many humiliations. I spent my days as tense as a hunted animal, fearing the scornful gazes of students who shunned me like they would a person who’d committed a heinous crime. My self esteem was shattered; when enough people look at you with disgust, it’s hard not to see yourself as disgusting. As for why? The best answer I have is that, in this era of tolerance, on a campus where the mere mention of racism elicits anger, I was guilty of being different from my peers.
My most marked difference from the other students is labeled “Asperger’s Syndrome” (AS). It’s a milder form of autism. According to a CDC study released in February, about 1 in every 150 American children has an “Autistic Spectrum Disorder.” That category includes everyone with some variant of the disability. Asperger’s Syndrome, which is one of the least conspicuous conditions on the autism spectrum, doesn’t alter the appearance or reduce the academic abilities of those with it–but renders us “Aspies” unable to intuit emotions from body language. In conversations, people without social disabilities–pejoratively called “neurotypicals”–rely on a steady stream of unspoken social data to time their words so smoothly their entire interactions seem almost pre-choreographed. Since we Aspies don’t pick up on these cues, we wind up awkwardly barging into chats, or getting sidelined out of them. Not getting much in the way of social feedback also makes us forthright to the point where many people find us offensive. The notion of dissembling to “protect” someone’s feelings doesn’t come naturally to us. After all, we can’t understand people who aren’t completely honest with us. In hindsight, my decision to enter a college dormitory–a socially trying place for even a neurotypical–was, to put it mildly–misguided.
At first, things went well for me at the dorms. I made lots of acquaintances there, and figured I was well on my way to starting a new life as a ‘normal person.’ Within a few days, though, I found that whenever I tried to go somewhere with the people I’d met, they’d tell me that they’d already made arrangements with their own buddies.
Barely two weeks of the semester had passed before loose bunches of students crystallized into cliques. These met all their members’ needs for companionship–but left outsiders like me with few opportunities to socialize with those in them. I figured that I could solve the problem of my isolation from these groups by forming bonds with individuals. One way I tried to do this was by holding little ice-cream parties in the lounge of my dorm floor with open invitations. People came, ate my food, and conversed amongst themselves.