My Life With Asperger's

How to live a high-functioning life with Asperger's.

Asperger's and sadness

The isolation of Asperger's in tough times

For much of my life, I've carried a burden of sadness. It started when I was three or four, with my failures to make friends with the kids around me. At that age, I was a monkey face and a retard. As I got older, the name calling faded away, to be replaced by something else. I became the kid no one chose, when choices were made. Other kids were picked for the baseball time, the debate team, the glee club, or even the journalism club. I watched it all from the sidelines, a member of nothing; an observer of it all.


All kids suffer social setbacks, but for those of us with neurological differences like Asperger's, social failure often proves to be the norm. Through it all, I paid close attention in an effort to unravel the cause of my social failure. I learned to look aloof, and set myself apart, and I made myself popular for brief moments with my practical jokes. I learned enough social skills to get along, though I never really understood other people. In that way, I made it through childhood.

School was an ugly place for me. It was an environment where my failures and disabilities were obvious, and my talents were rendered invisible or worthless. I couldn't wait to leave, and I did so at the first possible opportunity. Some of us are lucky enough to find gifts among our various traits, and as we get older, those gifts can lead to some degree of academic or commercial success. That's what happened to me, as I achieved success in the music industry and later in the business world.

Social acceptance often follows success at work. It did for me, and I found myself possessed of friends as an adult. I've observed the same thing in other Aspergians. To some extent, success breeds success. My first friends gave me confidence and allowed me to improve my social skills. That led to more friends and indeed I'm actually fairly popular today and until recently, I'd have said I was fairly successful too.

When times are good, I can derive security from my work, and enjoyment from my friends. There have been moments when life seemed pretty good. But for someone like me it's all an illusion, as the economic events of recent months brought home in a most disagreeable way.

I realize that what positive self-image I possess is founded on the things I've done. I am, to a large degree, my work and my accomplishments. My self-image certainly is not founded on who or what I am, because the worthlessness of that was made abundantly clear to me from the very beginning. Intellectually, I suspect that worthlessness is false, but I've never been able to shake the feelings. I can't really be sure.  I read about positive self image, and how such a thing is desirable, but it's always eluded me.

People are full of well-meaning but useless advice. They say, You must learn to love yourself, and Happiness comes from within. How does that happen? I wonder. How does a retard who's destined for prison or a career pumping gas learn to love himself? I've heard that advice thousands of times, and the answer still remains a mystery.

Here's another bit of trite advice I've heard: You are a human being, not a human doing. You are more than what you do at work. I have a very hard time with advice like that. It's the doing where I've been successful in life. The being part places me back on the playground, by myself, at three years of age. I don't want to be there.

I've thought quite a lot about the reasons for this, and I think in my case they are probably founded in neurology. Thanks to my Asperger's, I have a remarkable insight into machines. I can see what I do with machines, and I know it's real and it works and it has value. The machines may not thank me, but I know I've made them last longer and run smoother. I've made them, in a sense, happier and healthier, and it's something I can feel good about. I feel a sense of accomplishment from my work with machines.

But I also know I am part of the community of humans, and therein lies the problem. I cannot see into people like I see into machines; like a neurotypical person. I cannot sense another person's joy or acceptance. Instead, I must deduce those feelings from careful observation. Most of my opportunities to deduce such feelings with respect to me are in the context of my work. Unfortunately, other people's responses to what I do are driven by more than just me. They are driven by a person's own emotional state, their ability to afford my work, and their own self image. All those things are unknowable to me.

Yet I want to know them. I want to be part of human society.

All I see is this: as the economy collapses, machines are neglected and many humans fade away or turn ugly.  I'm fairly blind to individual expressions of emotion, but I now sense new feelings of unease, fear, and worry in the world around me.  Today's humans make choices that are bad for machines against my best advice. They become critical. The acceptance that was observable six months ago vanishes. At the same time, my own economic security evaporates, and I find myself terrified and anxious in response.

What do I do about it? I cannot derive comfort from other people in the way neurotypicals can, because I can't read their emotions or share my own. That's not totally true - I can share them in writing, here, but I can't exchange them in the ebb and flow of actual personal interaction.  Some people say, take antidepressants, but medication does not change the issues for me. Rendering me senseless won't bring me acceptance and it surely won't bring financial security.


It's times like this that I realize how truly alone some of us really are. I see my friends support each other, and as best I can tell, it works. But it doesn't work for me, because Asperger's prevents me from receiving or exchanging the messages of support that keep the others going. It seems unfair at times, because people tell me that my calm and logical demeanor is comforting to them, yet there's no comfort for me.  Suspecting that people like and support me is not the same as feeling it, when times are bad. I wish it were, and I hope it all works out ok.

John Elder Robison is the author of Look Me In The Eye: My Life With Asperger's, and Be Different, Adventures of a free-range Aspergian.

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