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Wednesday, March 12, 2014
Asperger's Syndrome Suddenly Everything Made Sense
I have been working in the field of autism for many years and I can't count how many times I have met people who present autistic traits, but have no idea that they may have it. This is a true story about a parent of a child diagnosed with Asperger's.
I'd always found the world a bit confusing. I never understood why people behave the way they do and why I never really seemed to fit in. I'd done well at school, but had found it difficult to relate to people and to make friends. I always tried to avoid social occasions but when I couldn't get out of them I'd end up sitting in a corner, lost in a world of my own.
I did well at university, though and married my fantastic (and extremely patient) wife. After graduating, I got a good job that I enjoyed. But I still couldn't help feeling that I was an observer on the outside, as if there was a big secret that everybody in the world knew but me.
Then, about two years ago, my wife watched a documentary about Asperger syndrome and instantly recognised that it was describing me. Suddenly everything made sense. I realised why I find some things difficult, when they seem to come naturally to everyone else. I realised why I don't always understand what people are saying or feeling. And I realised why I sometimes feel isolated and alone.
Since then, I've tried to learn more about things, such as understanding body language and facial expressions, which had previously eluded me. I've read book after book on social interaction and communication, which have helped me to build up my own set of rules for dealing with people. Although this doesn't yet put me on a par with 'neurotypicals' who understand these things automatically, it does make it easier for me to socialise and to develop relationships with friends and colleagues.
For instance, I'd always found it difficult to make small talk until I read that the aim of such conversations is merely to pass the time, and that it's OK to drift from topic to topic without reaching any specific conclusions. If only I'd known that it was that simple!
I've also realised that there are some things that come easily to me that other people find difficult. For example, I've found that I'm able to understand complex ideas and then explain them to others, and that I can see patterns or trends in numbers and other information that other people can't. I find it easy to learn foreign languages: I speak French, German and Russian, and am learning Dutch and Chinese. I'm also fairly bright academically and enjoy learning new things, even though I find it difficult sometimes to concentrate and to understand things that I have read.
Learning about Asperger syndrome has taught me that I have many talents but that I need to nurture these rather than try to pretend that I'm 'normal' like everybody else.
So I've made a few changes to my life. I still work in my old job, though now part-time for three days a week. This means that I can focus on solving technical financial and organisational problems for my clients, which I enjoy and am good at, rather than on managing staff.
In my two 'extra' days, I'm doing a degree in physics with the Open University, which not only challenges me intellectually but also feeds my passion for learning and knowledge. Since my optician diagnosed me with visual dyslexia, I'm now the proud wearer of a pair of blue-tinted spectacles, which means that I now find it much easier to read and to recall what I've read.
In the small amount of spare time that remains, I'm trying to learn more about my Asperger syndrome and to write about my experiences and the many other things that interest me. I do this just for fun at the moment, but hope to get some of my articles published one day. Although, given the length of time it's taken me to write this, I'm glad I have another source of income!
These may not sound like momentous changes, but to me they represent a fundamental shift in what I want to do with my life. I've realised that it's not about doing what everybody else does, but about doing what I want to do. It's about following my own path, living my own life and finding my own definition of success. I'm still not sure whether having Asperger syndrome is a good or a bad thing, but what I do know is that it's part of what makes me who I am. And I'm OK with that.
Editor's note: since writing this article, Simon has become the author of Body language and communication: a guide for people with autism spectrum disorders, published by The National Autistic Society. www.autism.org.uk