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August 14, 2017 | by  | in Features |
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Aspie on Campus

It is estimated that one in every 66 New Zealanders has an autistic spectrum disorder, such as the high-functioning Asperger’s syndrome. I have Asperger’s, which directly influences my view of the world.

Here’s how a typical day usually goes for me.

I arise from my slumber to the squeal of my phone alarm, groggy but thankful that the dose of quetiapine from last night has done its job. Even with lectures starting in an hour, there’s no time for a shower since the bus leaves in thirty minutes. Time to start the routine, boy.

Dressed in the usual outfit of a black letterman jersey and Adidas trackpants, I gulp down a capsule of fluoxetine with a glass of water while one of my flatmates fixes her needlessly complicated breakfast of assorted fried vegetables and protein supplements; it smells pretty nice, but I’m happy with some peanut butter on toast. We say “good morning” to each other, in that way that barely acknowledges each other’s existence. I’m pretty sure she doesn’t hate me, but since she’s one of those people that uses text slang in her social media posts about how awesome her life is despite being a law/commerce student who can barely keep her internalised anger under control, I know we’ll come to blows soon enough, probably over the pile of dishes in the sink (we do).

The bus ride to university is probably the moment in the day when I feel the most lonely. Even though I’m surrounded by others, no one is talking to each other or making each other feel welcome. Everyone’s caught up in their own vision of the day ahead, a transient moment of transition where the destination is ultimately more important than the journey. Nothing could possibly be done to spice up the trek to Kelburn, save for some sort of accident. I clutch onto my bag, hoping that it won’t come to that, since I’d be late. I dutifully give my thanks to the driver as I tag off.

The lecture theatre helps to make me feel a bit calm since I’ll be surrounded by the familiar people who happen to share at least one of my interests, even though I know I’ll never talk to any of them in any sort of casual, non-academic context. At this point I’ve pretty much just given up on the concept of friendship and started doing what Tyrion Lannister does: acknowledging them with a bit of wit, since you never know when you’ll need them, even if they don’t know or care who you are. Perhaps not the wisest strategy, but it’s worked well so far. I do my best to pay attention, but sometimes when my laptop is in front of me I can’t help but drift away in the realms of the internet. Someone confronted me about that and said it was too distracting, and I keep that in mind whenever I stray too far away. Besides, I can usually get the notes off Blackboard.

Sometimes in between classes I go through the bowels of the Student Union Building to see my counsellor, where I can vent my frustrations, get some advice, and just have someone to talk to who will actually listen. Really, all I need is a bit of help to deal with the stresses placed upon me by the necessities of student life. I know my degree, as useless as some people may believe it to be, is my best chance at living independently and productively, but without this kind of assistance I’d probably be back in Napier leeching off my parents and on the dole with no hope.

Thank goodness I have games to keep myself distracted from this prospect and any other worries. I even make something of my hobby by writing about it each week! Then Mum calls, asks how I’m doing, and even if nothing is going right for me, I have the nerve to say: “pretty good, yeah.”

That’s how things usually go. If I don’t have a panic attack, of course. Thankfully I’m at a point in my therapy where those are a rare occurrence. Nothing, however, is truly certain, other than the fact that I just don’t know how to deal with other people, though most probably they don’t know how to deal with me.

*

At its most basic, an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) describes conditions that relate to an impairment in the development of three areas. The first concerns language skills; a person with ASD can have trouble understanding and/or using spoken language and non-verbal communication, such as facial expressions. The second relates to social behaviour, where someone may have difficulty interacting with others, no matter the context. The third relates to cognitive skills, where a person’s flexibility in thinking is restricted and they engage in obsessive and/or repetitive behaviour.

Since every person with ASD is different, specific difficulties can vary wildly. Asperger’s syndrome is on the high-functioning end of the spectrum, meaning those with the condition are usually able to live in the community and be a productive member of society, in spite of the challenges they may face. In my case, I feel that of the three areas, social interaction is the one that affects me the most. I find it almost impossible to maintain eye contact whenever I speak with someone, which some might find impolite. As much as I might be paying attention to the other person, if they think I’m not paying attention to them, it ruins the whole conversation.

Of course, there are other symptoms. In my experience, Asperger’s is not necessarily a mental illness in itself, but it does contribute to feelings of depression and anxiety, since I’m constantly thinking about what others think of me and am thus afraid of doing something which makes me look bad. Whether it’s stressing out over an assignment I’ve left to the last minute, or throwing a calculator at someone who keeps annoying me (true story), any sort of instability is not good for me. I’ve often felt worthless and belittled because of my struggles, and suicide is something that has come up far too often in my mind as a result. Fuck that.

I do have to acknowledge that I’m in a rather privileged position. I’m a Pākehā cis male from a lower middle class background, and I can mostly afford to receive the help that I’m getting. I’m not asking that you pity me, just that you understand what I’m thinking and why I’m thinking it. I’ve never really felt discriminated against because of my condition, but I easily sympathise with those who have because of their own differences. We should embrace diversity, not just in the way we look or act, but in how we think. Autistic spectrum disorders may officially be a disability, but I don’t necessarily feel disadvantaged, because for me it’s ultimately just a different way of thinking.

*

Whenever I know that I need some help at university, I know where to find it, and thankfully I usually get it.

VUW’s counselling services have been somewhat maligned while I’ve been a student here, mostly because many people who urgently need them have to wait up to a month or more for an appointment. Any delay with mental health matters is unhelpful and potentially dangerous, and sometimes you just can’t wait. However, once you’re in the system and have seen a counsellor it’s generally easy to book a follow-up with them, and it’s always good to build a rapport with whoever you end up seeing. The support I’ve received from counselling has been invaluable, and without it I wouldn’t be continuing my studies.

I’ve also been quite lucky that the lecturers I’ve had in my English and media studies courses have generally been more than willing to give extensions when I’m having a few problems with my emotional state. The Humanities in general just seem to be filled with good people, which I appreciate. One of the first things you’ll come to learn during your degree is that someone being a good researcher does not always mean they are capable of teaching; a good lecturer is a good teacher that should be able to connect with their students, not just show up to give a spiel about whatever and hope everyone’s taking good notes. They don’t necessarily have to care about one student’s situation, but I feel lucky that most of my lecturers do. It’s all about empathy, a trait that doesn’t seem very common even though our society is seemingly more connected than ever. I’d love it if more lecturers did this and weren’t so eager to just let students go if they can’t seem to handle it, because they’re probably one of the causes of all the stress.

Speaking of stress, exams suck for everyone. I’ve always thought the worst way to get a gauge on someone’s intelligence is to lock them in a room for three hours and force them to write. As I qualify to work with Disability Services, exams are a little less stressful since I can have a smaller exam room and allotted break times so I can relax, regather my thoughts, and get on with the job at hand. This kind of service is vital to ensure as many people as possible can pass courses and get their degrees.

These kinds of services weren’t available to me when I was in high school. I was pretty much on my own, and it’s probably no surprise that some of my darkest moments were during this period. They say high school is supposed to set you up for bigger things, including tertiary study, and yet most schools are poorly equipped to do so if you are anything beyond the typical. These support structures are vital because they allow everyone to succeed, and a system that only rewards those who can hack it without help is one that shows no regard for the wellbeing of the people it’s designed to assist: the students.

*

Everyone has their own struggles, but you should never be made to feel that you don’t matter, for whatever reason. That’s where intolerance and bigotry stem from, the idea that one individual life can somehow be more important that an entire group of people. If you need help, speak up about it, because you might be surprised to find that there are those out there who are only too happy to give it to you. You just have to find it.

Also, don’t tell people to fuck off when you’re in a bad mood. I’ve found that only makes it worse.

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