Hello, my name is Gwen Kansen and I have Asperger’s Syndrome. I’ve known since I was 13. I’m 28 now. I’ve spent my whole life trying to fit in. I feel like I’ve worked so hard trying to be somebody else that I don’t really know who I am.
People with Asperger’s are different. For a long time I didn’t see that. Or rather, I didn’t want to accept it. But it’s true. We think differently, even if our feelings are mostly the same. Now I’m trying to figure out what that means.
I moved to New York to be a fashion designer. I’m still a student. But it’s exhausting. My classmates don’t talk to me. I got canned from my internship. Some of my professors have told me that they don’t think I’d make it in this field. They said it to be kind, but they also sounded kind of incredulous. Like how could I have ever thought I could do this? Two of them asked me point-blank if I have a learning disability. I said yes.
It hurts, that it’s that obvious to people. And it really hurts that I’m not going to have the career that I wanted. Honestly though, I’m relieved. I guess I was waiting for someone to tell me that it’s okay: I don’t have to torture myself like this anymore.
I’ve always had trouble keeping jobs. And friends. I feel like I used to relate to people better though. When I was younger we were all doing the same thing: college, dating, getting our first jobs. But I’m behind other people my age now. I don’t really know what to say to them anymore.
People with Asperger’s want to connect. We do. That’s the first misconception people have about us – that we’re robots.
Another one is that you’d know immediately if someone has it. The truth is that we’ve spent our entire lives studying social interactions. Like a science. A lot of us have trouble sustaining things because it takes so much energy to come off as normal. The more overwhelmed we are, the more obvious it is. Still, the more high-functioning people among us can get through dinner and even a party without giving ourselves away. We have to learn things intellectually while you learn them intuitively. That’s the main difference.
Something important to note: I don’t always know what I’m feeling. That’s common for people with Asperger’s. It’s called alexithymia. I know I come off with the wrong tone sometimes because of it. Tone is a good way to tell. We’ll be getting along fine for a while and then we’ll say something that sounds off. Like we’re taking the situation too seriously. Or not seriously enough.
Humor is another tell. Sometimes our jokes are on-point. Other times though, they’re just not. Some days we’re more in-touch with our brains than others. On my “on” days, I’m deadpan. I give good advice. I like to think I’m almost charismatic. I see this as my true self. On my off-days I feel hazy and detached and it takes a lot longer for me to figure out what’s going on.
We have a hard time filtering information. All information. Not just social. We fixate on details and ignore the big picture. I learn things by connecting one piece of information to another in a very systematic way. Here’s an example: I went on a few dates with a guy who was an orderly in a mental hospital. He didn’t seem that curious about the patients. I get that it might have been hard to have sympathy for them a lot of the time, especially since one of them tried to stab him. Still, I don’t think he’d asked himself what it must be like to not know what’s real and what isn’t. I realized that if he didn’t have the patience to do that, he certainly wouldn’t have the patience to deal with me.
I also learn by comparing myself to others. A lot. It’s how I know if what I’m thinking or feeling is appropriate. My therapist says I judge myself through my friends. I compare myself to stuff I see in the media too. I read stuff on Thought Catalog like 13 Things You Feel When You’re The Slacker Friend. And then I ask myself wow, is that how I feel? (I do this more than I should.)
Many of us are like that. I have a friend with Asperger’s who is obsessed with movies. He says it’s because he appreciates a good vision and character development, but everything he knows about people he judges through the lens of movies. I’m not sure if he realizes this or not.
Some studies show that autistic people have higher connectivity within brain regions and less connectivity between them. That might explain why so many of us have special interests: it doesn’t require much switching of focus. It could also be why we’re so good with details. Things stand out to us separately and we have to tie them together to figure out what’s going on.
Having Asperger’s is perpetual detective work. It makes sense that a lot of us are smart. We have to be.
Women experience Asperger’s differently than men do. We’re supposed to be more social. So instead of throwing ourselves into our special interests like the boys, many of us start to develop personas. In fact a lot of girls with high-functioning autism get misdiagnosed as borderline because we tend to have an underdeveloped sense of self.
When I was little I always wore the same purple polka-dotted dress. One dress, all the time. My mom had to wait until I was asleep to wash it. And I carried around an encyclopedia about dinosaurs. I’d tell the other kids about dinosaurs until they walked away from me. At which point I’d follow them into the hallway and they’d shut the door. It hurt my feelings, but my purpose was still clear. I was a dinosaur dictionary. No multitasking necessary. When I hit puberty though, things changed.
When I was in middle school I used to model myself on bitchy prime-time characters from the WB. I made friends with these two girls who were also trying to rule the school without the necessary social chops. (I don’t think they had Asperger’s. But they had something.) We used to insult people, like walk up to people and insult them, because that’s what they did on the television show, Popular.
But the two girls were closer to each other than they were to me. They kicked me out of their group and they made me believe that the other students were against me. I don’t think that was true though. I think kids can see when someone’s trying to be something they’re not. But I got depressed. I dropped out of school. My mom sent me to a psychiatrist because I didn’t want to leave the house. And I got a diagnosis.
A lot of people with Asperger’s feel like they’re on the wrong planet. It’s actually a website: wrongplanet.com. I don’t think the divide is that big. It’s hard to know how big it is, really. But most of my friends have Asperger’s. Or something else like bipolar or borderline. I meet people with problems naturally. It’s like we have radar. Since I moved to New York though, I started going to support groups. It’s harder to make friends here. And I know we can’t endure our bruised egos alone.
I have had a fair amount of “normal” friends who I don’t have to contain myself around. And it’s the best feeling ever. Most of my conventional social life: clubs, spring breaks, road trips – I can credit to them. A lot of the time it’s been gay guys. They like girls with personas. Especially over-the-top ones like mine. Awkward + sexy = campy. And I’m cool with that. If I can make people laugh, that’s great. Even if it isn’t intentional. But I also get along with other brainy, introverted girls by default. One of my best friends, Caitie, is analytical and bookish like I am. But she’s not on the spectrum.
I have some platonic guy friends too. They say they like me because I’m honest. Sometimes because I’m “logical.” My best guy friend is nothing like me: he’s conservative, military, and pretty much only has sex in serious relationships. He likes hanging out with me because he can get a female perspective without sex getting in the way.
Honesty is my strong point. It’s most autistic people’s strong point. That part of the stereotype is true. Granted, a lot of the time we’re blunt without trying to be. But people appreciate that. They like it when we cut through the bullshit. Even if it isn’t a heroic act of insubordination on our part. Penelope Trunk put it best: people with Asperger’s look outside the box because we don’t see the box.
You’ve probably heard that we’re loyal. That’s also true. People with Asperger’s want your approval. And like anyone else who’s dealing with some rough shit, we’re often kinder to others because of it. Another good thing about being different is that you meet more interesting people. Do you know a bisexual, alcoholic Communist in a wheelchair? A 350 pound chick with a country accent and an IQ of 85? A bipolar ex porn-producer whose mom died of AIDS? Probably not. Because you don’t have Asperger’s.
I did find another way to be social: I used to have sex with a lot of people. And I do mean a lot. I know that could come off as a sob story, like oh, I have Asperger’s, I got used. But no, this bitch has agency. There’s a thrill-seeking gene that’s just as real as the genetic basis for autism. I wanted the thrill. And, mind you, it was pretty thrilling. But it was also the easiest way to talk to regular people. I had my weird friends. That was the perspective I got about life. It was insular. But normal guys wanted me. I got to learn things I wouldn’t have learned from being stuck in a bubble with other people like me.
It was an identity thing too. I wanted to be something other than the weird smart girl. I got a bad reputation in college, but I didn’t hate that either. I kind of liked it actually. I wasn’t the hapless freak that people avoided. I was empowered. You were with or against me for something I could control.
I’ve had plenty of relationships despite all that. Guys like being around me because they can say pretty much anything and I won’t be offended or stunned. I’ll just look at them with my impassive stare and discreet awe and let them teach me about their world. They think I’m just the laid-back chick they’ve been waiting for. But that doesn’t last long.
An ex of mine laid it out for me: I was confident and funny. I liked things like anthropology and hiking. People at the bar we went to thought I was cool. He didn’t expect me to be a depressive. He was really good with people – a lot of guys I’ve dated have been really good with people. People with Asperger’s gravitate towards people who are socially gifted because we want them to teach us things.
I kept asking him questions about people we knew because I wanted to get his perspective. And I repeat myself a lot. I’ve always repeated myself: it’s called perseveration and many of us do it. He said he had to hold himself back from yelling at me because I annoyed the shit out of him. I’m sure other guys dumped me for similar reasons. Which doesn’t make them bad people. Most of my non-crazy exes would be great for someone else. I don’t want to have to hold myself back in a relationship, anyway.
I have a boyfriend now. I met him in my support group. We’ve been together for a year and a half. And it’s the longest, and best, relationship I’ve ever had. I feel more comfortable around him than I have around any other human in my entire life. And he feels the same way. We act the same around each other as we do when we’re alone. That’s a big deal.
I guess I have mixed feelings about men. On the one hand, I love them because they don’t judge me as much. Men don’t care if someone’s aloof as long as they have something interesting to say. On the other hand, I resent them because I have a hard time believing they’ll be this supportive of me once I’m no longer attractive.
My boyfriend told me I have a social advantage because men want to talk to me, therefore I’ve had more opportunities to develop social skills. However, I think he has the advantage. He’s content with being good at video games. He’s designing an indie game now. He got respect by being good at what he does. Not by being charming or hot. (Which, by the way, he is.)
Autistic men learn to emphasize their strengths. They know they have no way to be valued besides performance and knowledge. The men in my support group are loud and bold. They say whatever comes to mind no matter how fucking weird it is. They demand to be heard.
The women’s support group is much sadder to watch. We know we’re judged for things we just can’t win at. We’re a group of very smart women who know about history, astronomy: all kinds of obscure shit just like the men. One girl loves to draw blueprints of bridges. And many of these women have had to be pushed to speak because they’re terrified of being thought of as weird. We still aren’t used to it. Even though people have been treating us that way for our whole lives.
I’d rather be a freak or a slut or a bombastic, arrogant loser a million times over than be like those girls. Terrified to offend; apologetic for existing. We teach women to spend their lives appeasing others and it’s done tremendous psychological damage to women on the spectrum.
If I were a man, I think I’d have come to terms with who I am much quicker. I’d have actually read all those George Bernard Shaw and Dostoyevsky books on my shelf to distract myself. Maybe I’d be a paleontologist by now. Instead, I’m stuck de-programming everything I’ve internalized about how a woman is supposed to act. It’s okay to not be charming.
It’s okay to be standoffish and obsessed with yourself and your interests even if it doesn’t make people like you. And we shouldn’t worry so fucking much about whether people like us anyway. Men are happy with being competent. Sometimes they’re even happy if they’re not competent. They just do what they want. Why shouldn’t we?
I’m scared of getting older because I know people will see me as that weird old lady instead of the quirky ingenue that I’ve tried so hard to be. I’m just going to have to make peace with that though. And take my own advice.Part of maturity is not worrying so much what other people think of you. Which is very hard when comparing yourself to others is the only way you’ve been able to develop awareness of what’s going on around you. But it’s a balancing act. I hope one day I’m able to enjoy being part of the world instead of trying to figure out ways to force myself into it. It’s manipulative, really, even though I don’t mean it that way.
People with Asperger’s are scared. But we don’t have to be. There’s something out there for all of us. We just have to change our expectations a little. But that’s okay. Everyone does.