My Life With Asperger's Syndrome



Asperger's
Asperger’s Syndrome is mainly defined by the way someone relates to other people. Click here to read more about what exactly Asperger’s Syndrome is. It can make someone look quieter and less chatty. It can present challenges in a personal journey. But this story is proof that Asperger’s is not a death sentence.
Diagnosis 

I would like to tell you about an issue that I continuously have to overcome in almost every area of my life. It is something that will never go away. I can work hard to mask it, but in the words of Lady Gaga, I was born this way. My family just didn't know it at the time.


It was at the ripe old age of 17 that I was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome. A school counsellor insisted I got tested. After an official diagnosis by a specialist, this person became more of a paid friend through the following seven years of my life. This all sounds quite simple, but my reaction was definitely not.
 

People described Asperger's Syndrome as the mild end of the Autism Spectrum. That felt completely foreign and ridiculous to me. I wasn't disabled, disordered, handicapped, or special ed. I felt normal. Everyone else seemed strange. The main important signs of Asperger’s were that an Aspie would have very specific narrow interests, be bad at small talk, fail to read facial expressions, and want routine a bit too much. I didn’t see anything wrong. I had grown up being just one of everyone else without the labels. Each and every one of us is different. But I didn’t want to feel different. Why should I?
 

My social life was always a quiet one during school. I got used to it. I was like a straight version of Willow from Buffy - quietly living an intellectual life with a few close friends. It was what I was used to. I had a close knit group of friends who I still keep in touch with to this day. We were a loyal bunch who genuinely cared about each other. That wasn’t socially odd.


My first awareness of my social awkwardness was definitely around the time I participated in the school play. I thought I would get liked by my peers by achieving as much as possible, but there was a lack of genuine connection with people. I wanted to get to know the other cast members better. But what was I supposed to say to them? How did everyone else know what to say to each other? The answer is obvious to non-aspies, or neuro-typicals. But I grew increasingly depressed when realising I just could 't figure out the social scene.


Maybe people thought the diagnosis of Asperger's was a beneficial way for me to understand and explain myself. But the link to genetics and neuroscience made it sound like I was permanently wired differently. It felt like an iron barrier between me and the rest of the world.


My self confidence quickly eroded after the diagnosis. I had previously enjoyed learning as much about playing music as possible. The simple fun of trying and learning had been more important than achievement. But suddenly, with people insisting I couldn’t understand  people, the thought of playing a musical instrument in front of an audience seemed terrifying. This barrier between me and the world was growing higher and higher.   

Faith in my own abilities just didn’t exist anymore. Grades had always been alright at school. I happily passed what I needed to. And the music practice during school gave me a foundation of skills I have not forgotten. But all I could only see what I didn’t have.

This feeling of disconnectedness at the end of school inspired some dramatic changes. The semester in Coffs Harbour was a way to redefine myself with a new identity separate from the set social world I had lived in. it was great to see another part of the world and learn to live independently. But the move to university had geographically isolated me from familiarity. A few friends at Southern Cross University were great to spend time with. But that’s different to knowing every face in school. Something wasn’t right. Maybe I would have stayed at Coffs for university. But there were enough incentives to return to my social roots.   

Recovery and Growth

My improvement since the diagnosis is an important story that needs to be told. Toastmasters really did change my life and help me grow as a person. 

Asperger’s is probably the reason why I took longer to get a job in 2008. After the semester at the Coffs Harbour campus, I wanted to work in an office. There was something about my facial expression (I still don’t know what) that just didn’t help me to click with people. I felt brave enough to chase the corporate life at an early age. And my external studies at home were a huge success. Grades improved much more in that time than at Coffs Harbour. Things were picking up. But I still wasn’t getting the job.

I enrolled in a Speechcraft course with my grandparents’ Toastmasters club. The short course got me speaking in front of people and watching others do the same. Speaking became more familiar over time. Skills such as body language and vocal variety became valuable tools to incorporate into everyday life. 

The first job offer I received was after the Speechcraft course. Insurance was not my first choice of industry, but it was a steady full time job in admin. It was really clear that the Speechcraft course had boosted my outward signs of confidence (I had always felt comfortable but been unable to show it). Toastmasters had given me the skills to get my first office job. That felt great at 19.

The decision to attend a university in Sydney meant new social challenges were faced. Asperger’s definitely would not have made the transition any easier. I had chosen to return to a classroom because external study doesn’t get the same support and relationships that on-campus study would involve. Yet university was a very isolating place because of the culture. Students typically just left campus the second class was over. Their priority was making money through their employed work, and not so much the intellectual discussion of university classes. I had been out away from classrooms for a year and a half. My life had revolved around money for some time. Of course money is important to make a living. But we were at college for discussion and to broaden our horizons.

Clubs on campus helped me to form friendships and overcome the Asperger’s. The Christian group was a way for encouraging loyal friends to help me survive university and life. The Liberal club on campus gained my attention and involvement later towards the end of my course. I had great fun meeting politicians, meeting clubs from other universities, and engaging in opinionated debates. I felt truly encouraged to be around people who were just as opinionated as I was. Asperger’s didn’t matter when we all had more in common.  

Toastmasters changed my life once again when I became a regular visitor in Spring 2010. The clubs gave support and skills when Asperger’s could have got the better of me. Speeches at the three clubs allowed me to practice giving a strong presentation both verbally and with Powerpoint. This change was a massive leap after every high school report used to describe me as “quiet” or “shy.” Toastmasters was also a consistent social life in the grown up world. Although I would not have survived university without the support network of clubs there, the Parramatta Toastmasters Club was an older and more professional environment. This was valuable preparation for returning to the professional world. Asperger’s could have wrapped me up in a cocoon. But speaking and socialising got me out of my shell as much as possible. 

Toastmasters led to RYLA, which led to visiting Rotary clubs, and led to a Rotaract cruise, which led to a Rotaract club. I am equally thankful to the Rotary world for giving another social world for this Aspie to embrace. Organisations like this really do provide an encouraging and supportive environment to make new friends and have fun. I ‘came out’ about my Asperger’s at RYLA because I knew I would not be rejected. Other attendees embraced this as just another difference. They all had stories to tell. They were all unique people. They didn’t see me as wrong, just different. Some new friends at that event provided the encouragement I needed to get out there regardless of whatever I was diagnosed with.  

It was through all these social groups that I have been able to overcome the social awkwardness of Asperger’s Syndrome. I don’t feel Autistic. I feel completely normal. Organisations and friends gave me confidence in my own abilities and a social network I am truly grateful for. Don’t let any condition get in the way of you living life to the full.  

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