Having Asperger's is like living in a world not built for you
I was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, a condition on the autism spectrum, at the age of five. Those of us with Asperger's are of average, and even above average, intelligence but can struggle with social interaction, social imagination, sensory processing, hyperactivity and often have other other learning difficulties.
A hallmark of the condition is a specific interest. Generally people with Asperger Syndrome have a particular area of interest – it might be a particular academic subject, a genre of television or a sport – and many of us will be experts in our area of interest. Expertise is something society needs now more than ever, no? I often describe to people who don't have personal experience of Asperger's or autism that it is like being put on a space shuttle and sent somewhere several galaxies away. You are living in a world not built for you, surrounded by people and a society you want to socialise with and contribute to but don't necessarily know how to, and as a result life can be difficult.
With the proper support, people with the condition can go on to live normal lives, reach their personal potential and achieve the level of independence they are capable of. However, due to a lack of awareness around the specific needs of people with the condition and by virtue of it being an "invisible condition", many with Asperger Syndrome are labelled as "odd" or "weird" and are frequently the target of bullying at some point in their life. When school, and the various safety nets and supports that go with it, ends, often problems such as unemployment or social isolation can ensue and in recent years this has been proven to have a very negative impact on the mental health of those with the condition.
I was very fortunate to benefit from early intervention and as a result am able to live a very "normal" (whatever that is!) life today. When I was 16 I decided I owed a debt to the autism community and for the past three years have had the pleasure of sharing my experiences with others and challenging society to rethink how it views autism through an organisation I founded, AsIAm.ie.
The people with autism I meet are not victims. They do not wallow in the self-pity society seems to feel they should; instead they are people living with disABILITIES. Every single person I have met, all with a wide range of abilities and living with various different degrees of challenges, has something to give to society. Many with Asperger's even hold several post-graduate degrees and yet might struggle to find a job because their specific needs or way of doing things is not truly understood.
Thankfully, things are slowly changing. In 2006, Professor Michael Fitzgerald wrote a book 'Unstoppable Brilliance' where he made a convincing case that many of our great geniuses, from president Eamon de Valera to Nobel prize-winners WB Yeats and Samuel Beckett, may well have been diagnosed with the condition if they were alive today. While society would be quick to think they were geniuses who had Asperger's, they were in fact geniuses because of their condition. However, having these few figures in history in and of itself is not enough. Many self-advocates adopt the line "Not weird, just wired differently". Traditional thought and prevailing behaviours and viewpoints are important in providing stability but if everyone held them our society would never have advanced! Indeed, it is the very action of the outsider who thinks differently, which creates inventions, changes accepted dogmas and pushes us forward as a society.
While the "Asperger's geniuses" may be important poster boys and girls for our movement, they are being followed by many thousands of unrecognisable names. We live in the "computer age" and it has been widely reported the important role people with autism are playing in these companies – their focus on one area, their commitment to the task, their ability to recognise patterns is driving companies where being "a little different" is the order of the day. While not every person with Asperger's or autism is a genius, neither are the majority of the neurotypical population and yet this population is able to hold down jobs, have families and fully participate in society. Why not every person with autism and every other disability too? Regardless of how great the disability, just by being a person and being alive everyone has something to contribute. As we move towards our second century of independence, we must challenge ourselves with a key questions: "Where does the disability a person is born with stop, and the disability a society brings to those who are different begin?"
Friendship, relationship, employment, equal opportunities – these are things we should all be able to aspire to and these are things so many with autism can achieve if we take the time to learn about the challenges people with the condition face, build supports for these challenges and, most crucially, look at the person behind the label.
Adam Harris is founder of AsIAm.ie