I think it’s time I made a confession, although I consider it less of a confession and more of a confirmation. I have Asperger’s syndrome.
“What’s that?” you might ask. Asperger’s is a mental disorder that has extreme irregularities with social development and nonverbal communication. Think of Mark Zuckerberg from The Social Network, Steve Jobs or Michael Burry from The Big Short, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what the disease is like. It’s a condition that exists on the Autism spectrum, and many doctors consider it a high-functioning form of Autism.
In a way, I guess you could say I’m half Autistic.
I’ve known this for a long time. In many ways, I’ve always known. Ever since I was a child, I struggled to understand my peers and to talk and communicate with them. I couldn’t read facial expressions. I couldn’t interpret sarcasm. I couldn’t tell whether someone liked me or if they were afraid of me. I said things in the wrong way, or used the wrong tone of voice. I hurt people’s feelings and I didn’t even know I was doing it. I’ve always felt like an alien inside of my own body, and I sometimes wondered if everyone else was clued in on some big secret that they were all intentionally hiding from me. It was a very lonely, confusing experience, and most of the time, I didn’t know what was happening with myself or the people around me.
When I was 12 years old, my dad pulled me aside and told me that I had Asperger’s syndrome. Like you, I didn’t know what it was at first. Then my dad read to me all of the symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome. That kids displaying traits of Asperger’s were socially inept. They couldn’t read nonverbal cues. They were hypersensitive. They could spend hours over subjects or tasks they found interesting. They could hyper-analyze on anything they wanted to focus on, even to the point where it hurt them to keep thinking about it.
Over time, I’ve learned to live with the both the good and bad of Asperger’s. On one hand, thanks to my intense interest in certain subjects (like movies), I’ve become very knowledgable on the ins and outs of certain fields. I don’t know many people that can recall most best picture, director, screenplay, and acting winners at most awards ceremonies. I can, and that’s a small thing about myself that I’m proud of.
On the other hand, the negative effects of Asperger’s has been obviously detrimental to say the least. In terms of building relationships, it is a never-ending battle of interpretation and understanding, and usually, I’m always on the losing end.
I’ve recently had the motivation to publish an opinion column on The Dallas Morning News about my struggles with Asperger’s. There was no particular reason behind this. I’ve just felt that the disease has been something that I’ve been unintentionally hiding for some time, and it wasn’t something that needed to be hidden. Like most kids with Autism, they don’t have a choice in hiding what they have to the people around them, and it subjects them to insults and cruelty. Since they don’t have a choice in being Autistic, why should I have a choice in having Asperger’s?
Yet, I’ve learned to cope with my illness not in negativity, but in practicality. In one of my favorite stories I’ve ever reported on, I profiled a college student that had dyslexia, dysgraphia, auditory processing disorder, and attention deficit disorder. I don’t know how he does it. Asperger’s has been enough of a struggle for me. How does he deal with struggling to read, hear, write, and keep up with daily tasks?
The thing that had the most profound effect on me while interviewing him was how casually he saw his illness. He often laughed about it and smiled about the funny things he did, not drowning himself in sadness over what he could or couldn’t do.
He didn’t see his dyslexia. He saw himself.
“Someone with dyslexia is no better or worse than someone without it,” I remember him saying. “They’re just different.”
I listened to this statement, and pretended “dyslexia” was replaced with “Asperger’s.” I have since chosen to see myself in this same light, and I encourage other people to do the same. We all have struggles in one way, shape, or form. Mine just comes with a diagnosis. In realizing that disability does not define, I give power to the fact that I am David Dunn and I am not Asperger’s syndrome. I hope others choose to pursue their identities over their illness as well.
– David Dunn