Autism on Campus: The Other Diversity
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.
My main strategy, though, was simply to ask people to go out to get coffee, see movies, or visit museums with me. When, after getting put off with "wait until next week" several times I'd inquire about planning up to a month in advance, my acquaintances would tell me they were still too busy--even though they were always hanging out with other people.
Instead of going places with students, I began getting summoned to meetings with the school staff where I'd be told "certain students felt threatened" by me "hanging around them," that "troubling stories" about me had been heard and that I'd been "stalking people." In hindsight, my best guess as to why this happened is that some of my classmates wanted me to stay away from them, but for fear of 'hurting my feelings,' had indicated their desires non-verbally rather than by rejecting me outright. As an Aspie, I don't pick up on social warning signals. Eventually the situation at the dorm worsened to the point where I was ordered out.
Social scientists have recently noted that modern, socially mobile Americans--like college students--tend to actively seek out groups of like-minded people. That tendency was labeled "homophily" (literally, love of the same), and is hypothesized to be based on a desire for comfort. The implications of this are disturbing for an already socially polarized country; for people with AS they're even worse. Simply put, Aspies make most people uncomfortable. Society is so inundated with rituals of politesse that those who don't follow them are considered offensive. As a result, people like me wind up ostracized, not as a result of widespread anti-autistic hate-mongering, but simply because neurotypicals find our differences disquieting. It's bigotry by default.
The first step towards eliminating intolerance for people with Asperger's Syndrome has to be taken by Aspies. We need to be open about having the disorder. I spent a long time pretending--even to myself--that I wasn't autistic and could just "fit in." Of course, denying I was an Aspie didn't stop me from being one; it just prevented me from taking advantage of information about autism which could have helped me adapt to college. People at my school were left to assume that all of my differences from them were attributable to trouble-making impulses.
I think the main reason Aspies are hesitant to be open about having AS is that they see their label as a mark of shame. That was the case for me. After my expulsion from the dorms, though, that changed. I didn't embrace my Aspie identity to be courageous. It was simply that, under the circumstances, I could either agree with most of my classmates that I deserved to be excluded, or come to grips with the fact that I was different. I opted for the latter.
Nowadays I'm damned proud to be an Aspie. My bluntness may offend people, but at least I don't have to walk around feeling I'm a fake. Another typically Aspie tendency I have is to analyze issues rather than to simply emote over them. This makes me come off as "cold" sometimes, but it also often enables me to gain a deeper understanding of issues than supposedly more "insightful" neurotypicals. In essence, I approach the world as a place where problems usually have a cause that can be reasoned out with enough contemplation. The way I see it, figuring out why things happen is the first step to making them better. Finally, like many Aspies, I have "hyper-sensitive senses." Loud noises and bright lights pain me, but--at the risk of sounding poetic--I'm also able to experience the beauties of this world more vividly. Considering that Aspies' variant neurology sometimes has--well--benefits as well as drawbacks, I think it should be considered a form of diversity to be tolerated, not merely a disease to be stamped out.
From what non-autistics have told me, I'm like a bull in a china shop when it comes to socializing. Sometimes even those close to me get tired of my breaking interpersonal taboos. However, to extend the metaphor, they don't expect me to quit being clumsy and to start tap-dancing like everyone else. That's fine by me. Tolerance is about getting along more-or-less in harmony, not being the same.
Daniel Passantino, 19, is a sophomore currently enrolled in the Macaulay Honors College at CUNY Hunter. He lives with his parents and sister in Manhattan. As of yet he has not selected a major, but hopes to find a career which will allow him to continue advocating for the disabled.
Neurotypicals from an Aspie perspective: