Our awareness of autism and other neurological differences has grown tremendously in recent years. But what does that mean for someone like me, a grownup with mild autism? I'm a fifty year old male with Asperger's syndrome, a high functioning form of autism. I've had autism all my life - I was born this way - but I only learned why I act the way I do ten years ago, at age forty. Understanding my autism has changed my life. It's made my life better and richer in more ways than I can say. For forty years, I muddled along, never understanding what people really meant when they said things like, "Look me in the eye when you speak, young man!" As simple as that phrase sounds, I spent the first half of my life not understanding its true meaning. Now, with my new knowledge, I understand that some people - the neurotypicals - instinctively look others in the eye. In many interpersonal exchanges, there's a whole non-verbal conversation that takes place, a conversation that I am completely blind and deaf to. The whole subtext of body language and facial expression is totally invisible to me, while it's instinctively obvious to most others. I never knew any of that was going on. I now know that there's a whole range of human behavior that 98% of the population interprets totally differently from me. There are things they see that I am blind to, and can never understand. Other things grate on my nerves like chalk on a blackboard, but neurotypical people don't even notice. It's as if we live in two different worlds with two sets of rules. But the thing is . . . I did not know there were two worlds, and two sets of rules. I assumed I was like everyone else, and I never could figure out why so many of my social encounters went all wrong. I never understood why people made fun of me, or shunned me when I tried to make friends. I could never figure out what I was doing wrong. It was very distressing, and I wore a mantle of sadness for many years. All that changed when I learned about autism and Asperger's. For the first time, I understood WHY other people responded as they did. I learned what I was doing that people didn't expect, and I learned what I wasn't doing that people expected. With that knowledge, I was able to change my behavior. It wasn't easy . . .it was thousands of little steps over a ten-year period. It's been one of the hardest things I've ever undertaken, but it's also one of the most rewarding. The process will probably continue for the rest of my life. But the results were immediate, and dramatic, and I find new benefits every single day. People began offering their friendship - a strange and wonderful experience. All of a sudden, new people asked me to lunch every day. I found myself invited to join clubs, committees, and boards. All of a sudden, my opinion was sought and valued. Why? I wasn't any smarter. Then the answer hit me . . . I had learned how to act normal, and this was how normal people were treated. I cannot even begin to express how my life has improved as a result of my newfound insight. It's as if a veil was lifted from my eyes, and I can see clearly for the first time. I wrote a book about my experience, Look Me in the Eye - my life with Asperger's, and it's been a huge bestseller. Now, at age fifty, I find myself called to speak to as many people as possible, to spread the word and gives others hope and inspiration. I know there are hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people like me out there. Grownups who've lived a big part of their lives not knowing why they don't fit in. And there are young people who wonder, will life ever get better? I do my part to spread the word, but there's still a huge unmet need in our society. People who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s did not have the benefit of today's neurological and psychiatric understanding. As kids, we were called retards, or just lazy. Most of us grew up with no diagnosis, or a wrong diagnosis. As a result, we never knew where to turn for help when we encountered problems. We never even know help was available. As a result, countless people of my generation and the one before grew up and old without ever finding their true potential. Some of us suffer from drugs and alcohol addiction as we try and self-medicate our sorrows and frustrations. Some of us suffer from depression and other chronic conditions. Many suffer in silence, not knowing why they struggle, or that help is available. Almost all the focus on autism recently has been on children. It's time to recognize that there's a significant population of adults on the spectrum, as we can benefit from help too. And that's the next frontier those who work to help people with autism. The attached photos show my book jacket, me as a successful adult and me at age two, a lost autistic child. Visit my blog at http://jerobison.blogspot.com
Look Me in the Eye is available online and from booksellers everywhere.