I am 16 years old and am an incoming tenth-grader this coming school year. I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome (AS), a combination of social and learning disabilities on the autistic spectrum, at age 4 and have been in Special Education since age 3. I have faced countless challenges throughout my life. Foremost among them has been anxiety, which has been an issue since day one. My father recently told me that when I was a baby, I would constantly examine my physical surroundings by anxiously looking all around.
After I entered grade school, I tried to hide this pervasive anxiety by appearing mischievous while answering questions in class. For instance, once in elementary school, a teaching assistant asked a question about what a prominent ice cream company was named. Anxious that I would answer incorrectly, I (incorrectly!) answered, “Ice Cream Company.” (This was logical in my mind, as why would an ice cream company not simply be called “Ice Cream Company?”) The teacher, who mistakenly thought I was trying to make trouble, gave me a “time-out.”
As I matured, worrying about the consequences of misbehaving and transgressing was a major hindrance to my social development. Later in my elementary-school years, I worried about getting arrested after I heard about juvenile and teen delinquents. My AS hindered me from being able to distinguish between one teen’s situation and my own.
After I stopped worrying about run-ins with the law, my anxieties were replaced with more rudimentary worries. For instance, I would obsess about what my parents would be serving for dinner one particular night. Even to this day, if I go to school in the morning unaware of that evening’s dinner menu, I occasionally worry about it all day.
However, the old anxieties about getting into trouble either in the classroom or the broader community never completely went away. To this day, I am frightened if a teacher raises his/her voice or threatens punishment. I also worry about being unable to keep up with class assignments, and then fret about getting into trouble. A constant phrase of mine during rushed week-day mornings is, “I can’t find my homework. I am going to get detention!” Of course, I know that is not true—and even if I did get a detention once, would it be the end of the world? Of course not! At moments like these, I try to do a “reality check” on myself. I will say to myself, “What happened the last time you forgot your homework? It will be fine!” While I expect to face obstacles in the future, especially regarding anxiety, I expect I will compensate for these differences by my ability to self-advocate.
I know AS makes it harder to understand certain social rules (e.g., that any teacher has authority over any student in any school environment). Frequently, when I miss social cues and inadvertently offend someone, I worry whether that person will be angry and act “mean and powerful” toward me. On the positive side, however, AS makes me scrupulously honest, very loyal, and sensitive toward other people I feel are being mistreated.
Despite my difficulties, I do not wish to be cured of AS, but wish more typical people would meet me halfway. While I think my close relationships outside my family will be reserved for those with AS or other special needs, I would like to have day-to-day relationships with more typical people without undue conflict. In other words, to cure AS would be to rob me of my sense of being. Rather than wishing that I were cured, I wish that non-special-needs people would try to understand people with AS and make a greater effort to reach out to them.
Nathan Weissler, 16, lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland. A student at the Sulam School of the Hebrew Academy of Greater Washington, he’s a public speaker and has published several articles on the topic of inclusion and his own experiences.