After Party Chat

A fresh look at addiction and recovery

What Does it Feel Like to Have Aspergers?

A conversation with a 22-year-old about what it's like.

Studies show that there’s a connection between Asperger’s and video game addiction in that those with Asperger’s may “find it easier to empathize and relate to computers than they do other people.” And some with Asperger’s talk about turning to drugs and alcohol in order to help ease their social anxiety. But the fact of the matter is that the majority of the population doesn’t even understand what, exactly, Asperger’s is. They know that it’s a form of autism that has started to receive a lot of ink in the past couple years but haven’t a clue about how to identify those who have it (or if they themselves have it). Is it awkwardness? Speech delays? A lack of a sense of humor? While it’s easy enough to say that a person seems like they have Asperger’s when they don’t seem properly socialized, we rarely hear from those who suffer from it about the actual day-to-day experience. That’s why we talked to Shayne Holzman, a 22-year-old LA resident who was diagnosed with Asperger’s at the age of 16 and whose experience has been chronicled by Los Angeles Magazine. Holzman is doing everything she can to try to help people understand this misunderstood condition—including talking to us about it.

When did you first realize you had Asperger’s?

It was several years ago, when a doctor at UCLA diagnosed me. I was admitted to the Neuropsychiatric ward because I felt traumatized by the fact that I’d had a crush on a guy in high school who turned out to really be a girl. It caused me a lot of anxiety because I didn’t understand the proper social cues from the person I had a crush on. I thought I was attracted to a guy, but the guy turned out to be a girl, and that confused me. I wasn’t sure how to tell if the person liked me, and that left me insecure. I felt sorry for him and myself.

How does having Asperger’s impact your life?

According to Stanford University Medical School, people with Asperger’s have an inability to make friendships and lack an interest in doing so, as well the ability to start friendships with peers. The Mayo Clinic holds a similar view and socializing does not come naturally for people with Asperger’s. I don’t consider myself an extrovert, and I don’t think I have an easy time in social situations. But that can be worked on one step at a time. In a way, I’ve felt surrounded by empty company. I’ve struggled with communication difficulties, and I had trouble learning the right social cues in conversations. Still, before I hit high school, I never experienced any social stress-related problems. Then, in my freshman year, I played bass clarinet in marching band, and there were 100 people in the band. Everyone had friends except me.

Do you think the experts understand Asperger’s?

From my perspective, Asperger’s disorder is more of a social difference than a disorder. Some mental health providers don’t treat me like I have a social difference. Instead, they make me feel like I’m ruined, beaten and unable to change. If possible, I’d like for some of my health providers to treat me like I’m normal. Some doctors who work with me seem to look at me as though I can never overcome my social difference, and that needs to change.

How do you deal with that?

I believe—and act like—the category or label I fall under doesn’t matter. I think the fact that I have Asperger’s doesn’t matter. What matters is my life experience, not a problem that invades my life. I might talk to someone who says he feels sad, and the person might look sad, but I won’t be able to gauge it as a sad expression or a happy expression. But the fact that I can’t tell the difference between a happy and sad facial expression isn’t final. Someone could tell me that I can’t understand how to read people’s facial expressions as accurately as most people, but that doesn’t mean I’m impaired in that area. For instance, I’ve learned to listen to people’s tone of voice, and that helps me understand how they feel. 

What else do you do to try to overcome this obstacle?

Well, my parents tell me that I talk about myself too much, which I do, and fixing that quirk is attainable. My social difference can be worked on by repeatedly engaging with others. For example, I know that I have a hard time jumping in on conversations when I am with my music friends. But I can ask people about their interests until my social skills come as naturally as possible. Three or four of my friends will be talking about music and I don’t seem to know how to jump in and participate. I’ve decided to work on my difficulty by just being who I am, and making sure that I take deep breaths before I enter a social situation so the anxiety subsides. I’ve learned how to socialize properly by attending social skills training. Once I learn the rules, I won’t be awkward.

What does that anxiety that you talk about feeling in social situations feel like? 

I feel like there’s a trap between my mind and body, and I can’t escape. The trap resembles a form of anxiety that I feel in most social situations. When I force myself to socialize, that’s when the depression kicks in because I wish that socializing would be more of a natural habit. I feel the need to talk, but there are offbeat pauses in between sentences. In between the pauses, I try and think of what questions to ask about the person instead of talking about myself. The exercise is hard because even when I’m with my music friends, I’d rather play my guitar in a corner behind the coffee shop where I can be secluded from the group. But if I want to make friends, I’ll have to have to climb out of my hole, and step into conversations and participate even if I don’t feel comfortable. Even though some mental health professionals can’t fully understand me, I can easily say that I can understand myself, and that’s all that matters. In other words, don’t tell me how to feel, tell me how to heal.

This post originally appeared on AfterPartyChat

Anna David is the author of two novels and three non-fiction books and frequently speaks about addiction and recovery in the media and on college campuses.

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