Life with Asperger’s Syndrome
When I was seven, I went to a friend’s birthday party where, while my friends were talking and playing games, I grabbed a book and moved to a corner and did a headstand against a wall, choosing to read the book upside-down rather than participate in the party. When I was eight, I was kicked out of karate lessons for constantly arguing with the teacher, and at different times I’ve been kicked out of choir lessons and church childcare for the same reason. And most of my early life, I tended to “info-dump” whenever someone brought up a subject that interested me, lecturing about it at length without regard for the interest of my listener. So it came as a great relief to my family when, at ten years old, my strangeness and social difficulty was given a name: Asperger’s Syndrome.
Asperger’s Syndrome is an autism-spectrum disorder, one distinguished by a myriad of symptoms, but perhaps most prominently by both an inability to understand nonverbal communication and a lack of empathy. I never made eye contact and couldn’t read facial expressions, and so I had no way to know whether any act of mine was appropriate or not unless someone explicitly told me, and explained why. And even then, I had no ability to empathize, to see myself from another person’s perspective, and so if the explanation presented was “don’t read upside-down or people will think you’re weird,” I usually just shrugged and said I’d prefer to do what I wanted to. I did not realize what it meant for people to think I was weird, because I was trapped in my own mind, unable to make sense of the thoughts or desires of others.
Being homeschooled was the best thing that could have happened to me at this stage of life. It minimized the consequences of my disorder, allowing me to be taught by my mother who had learned better than anyone else how to make herself understood to me, and preventing underpaid teachers and potentially upset classmates from having to deal with my disruptions. It also enabled me to work at my own pace, which was an unusually fast one because another common symptom of Asperger’s Syndrome, thank God, is high intelligence. Perhaps, because of the fact that I was trapped in my own mind, I was able to excel there, reading at a fifth-grade level in Kindergarten and beating experienced adults in chess at six years old.
It wasn’t until I was about thirteen years old and in the throes of puberty that I began to realize I had a problem. Then, I actually started wanting people to like me—wanting to fit in. However, I quickly despaired of the possibility, as I recognized the enormity of the social gulf between neurotypicals (people not on the autism spectrum) and myself. I still could not make sense of minds beyond my own. It was then that my Christian faith, which I had claimed in word and theory since I was three, became real and significant to me. I lay awake a great many nights, crying out to Jesus, “Please, help me to understand these people. Grant me wisdom.” I refused to believe that social ostracism could be God’s will for me, but despite years of therapy, I felt no closer to figuring out how to fix myself. If I was going to be saved from the problems of my disorder, my salvation would have to come from God.
And I believe it did. My prayers and the prayers of my family did not go unanswered; for slowly, steadily, I grew capable of empathy and understanding most nonverbal communication. I did social experiments, learning by trial and error what tones and gestures led to what reactions, building up an interpretive framework in my head. I yearned to serve God and love people, working in prayer and conversation to grow to understand the minds of others, until finally, in my second year of college I came to the conclusion that I had become as socially competent as an average neurotypical. I still have my quirks, of course; I’d very much enjoy info-dumping about my studies if your facial expressions told me you were interested, for instance, but my adolescent goal has been accomplished; many people like me, and I have a community where I can fit in, eccentricities and all. Thank God.
Christopher Colacchia is a senior at Biola University studying philosophy, in which he hopes to obtain a PhD and teach unsuspecting college students someday. When he’s not shouting excitedly about whether God commands good because it is good, or whether it is good because God commands it, you can usually find him playing video games and waxing eloquent about the ethical dilemmas and philosophical quandaries presented therein. He also sporadically writes a blog about Asperger’s Syndrome, video games, and Christianity at https://thecrazedchronicler.wordpress.com/
Copyright, 2015. Used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine, Summer 2015. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and download the free apps at www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices.