The Autistic Experience
I am usually able to communicate, but not always. I am usually able to walk and move about, but not always. I have stereotypical movements at times, including pounding my hands against my body -- though I don't always remember for how long, why, or what ended it. I have been diagnosed retarded and gifted, dependent on when and how I was evaluated.
What I know is that I am fortunate because I am not always "low-functioning" and am, generally speaking, now able to anticipate those stressors that cause regression and meltdowns. I'm not always able to prevent lost days or weeks, but I usually can.
So, can I speak for only one group? No group? I have no idea and don't make any claim to universal understanding of the "autistic" experience.
I hope my experiences make me somewhat "empathetic" towards those less fortunate, those who will not be able to attend college or live independently. But, I also understand when some of those I meet with minimal communication skills tell me that school or independent living don't matter to them. They don't have the same desires and needs I have. It would be wrong of me to assume to speak for people who don't share my desires or who have entirely different needs.
Last week I had a college student and reader of this blog tell me via e-mail that he felt lonely. He asked if I ever feel lonely. I had to think about it. Yes, sometimes I realize I am alone. I don't know if that's the same "lonely" that a student with Asperger's experiences. I know I'm missing something by not having social connections. I missed events on campus over the last few years because I didn't know the department was hosting various conferences or luncheons. I missed some discussions I might have found interesting.
At the same time, I had to bow out of presentations I was scheduled to give because I couldn't deal with the stress of being on campus, with people from my department whom I didn't like or trust.
I can't think of anyone from my years in a doctoral program whom I want to see again. There are a few people I would be willing to see again, but not whom I would seek out without a reason. That would feel awkward. I doubt I share many interests with former peers. I don't "miss" most of the people. They didn't leave much of an impression on me. They existed in classrooms and cubicles. I doubt I could accurately name more than twelve people I met during the previous four years on campus, from my program or elsewhere at the university. I might have to include my doctors who work on campus to reach one dozen names.
The student with AS pointed out that I remain in touch with people via Facebook. That's true, but my classmates connect to me -- I don't search for them. I do respond to posts, and I post links to news stories I want to remember later or that I think my wife might enjoy reading. Sometimes, I share articles or links my colleagues dislike intensely, but I seldom pause to think about the political or social views of virtual friends.
Facebook is my primary source for news feeds from CNN, The Atlantic, Mediaite, Politico, et cetera. I use Facebook the way other people might use an RSS reader. I do this because I can have everything in one place with Facebook. I'm lazy, I suppose, but I hate going to several websites when one can do all I want. Conveniently, this laziness seems to help maintain a loose network of friends!
Do I have friends? Yes. I think so. But do I see anyone other than my wife more than once a month? (Not including when I was in class or teaching!) Nope. Not one person. There is no one I see, face-to-face, at least once every month of the year. In fact, I think I've seen my doctors more in the last few years than any single person other than my wife. My wife is my friend, along with my cats.
The student with AS wrote that he could never exist that way. He likes to "do things" with people. He feels lonely. He can't understand why he's alone, which makes it worse for him. I'm sure support groups or campus clubs will help, over time. But such groups don't appeal to me.
So, I'm not low-functioning, but I'm not really like many of the students with ASDs I've met. I'm not as social as the students are. I'm not as interested in new experiences. I lose days or weeks when under stress. I can't ride the train without wanting to scream and I hate the campus bus. I admire how easily some of the students with ASDs move about the complex campus, which is really three separate physical campuses. I'm not like them. I get sick, now, physically, when I have to visit campus. I hate it that much.
Maybe my experiences are not "autistic" or anything special at all. Maybe I'm merely an old codger?