'I Have Asperger's, Here's What Everyone Gets Wrong'

In the 27 years I have been alive, people have stared at me, teased me, called me names, yelled at me, followed me, run away from me, and, on the internet, begged me not to have children because the world doesn't need more "weirdos."

I have Asperger's Syndrome, known as a "mild" form of autism. This means that in social situations, I might stand in an awkward-looking position as my head feels like it's spinning. Other times, I visually appear uninterested in what people are saying or doing. In meetings, people sometimes ask me if I'm falling asleep. It's frustrating, as I am engaged with what others are talking about, even if it doesn't look like it.

I have difficulties with my concentration, too. Simple tasks like reading or organizing my thoughts might take me longer. Several years ago, I used to talk under my breath during long walks, to help me clear my mind and organize my thoughts.

Strangers might assume that I am drunk or on drugs because of how I walk and talk. I walk at a leisurely pace, often gazing off in different directions, and my words can get a bit jumbled. I also experience what I call "tactile sensory overload," which means I shrug my shoulders to rearrange my shirt or jacket if they are rubbing my neck uncomfortably. To an outsider, this quick gesture might make me look like I am hallucinating due to substance abuse.

Because I act differently to other people, I believe others assume that I am unfit for society. There is a misconception that autistic people won't amount to anything. But I am one of many who are proving otherwise.

Growing up with Asperger's Syndrome

I was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome when I was six years old. At the time, I had a speech delay, which meant it was difficult for people to understand what I was saying. Phonetically, I got some of the letter sounds mixed up, such as f with th, and th with s. I had speech therapy throughout school, which helped with this impediment.

In kindergarten, I did not always understand why my classmates thought certain activities were fun, like playing with toy dinosaurs or pretending to be dogs.

Even so, one day I jumped out of my comfort zone and joined in with kids who were pretending to be dogs. The "dog leader" initially welcomed me but a few days later, for whatever reason, she told me, "No! You're not playing with us!" In that same academic year, I was walking by the swing set and two of my classmates yelled at me, "Go away, Matthew! You're not our friend!" Both of these experiences have stayed with me.

Matthew Kenslow
Matthew Kenslow, aged 26. Kenslow has experienced prejudice as a man with Asperger's Syndrome.

I was in special day classes as part of the Preschool Intervention Program up until second grade, although I would spend an hour or two in a "normal" class every day. After three years of being observed, I was mainstreamed in third grade. I was excited to be in a class with three times more students.

But I still faced harsh discrimination in a normal classroom setting. Kids called me names, gave me weird looks, and one even chucked a handball at my face.

Towards the end of elementary school, I made friends but I rarely spent any time with them outside school. This continued in high school. I was shy, but I also didn't want to get in the way or intrude on my friends. I feared that they would soon feel annoyed by my presence, especially if I nonverbally expressed my disinterest in what they were doing or talking about. My interests are more traditional: I like neighborhood hikes, puzzles and board games.

By my high school graduation, I had made tons of friends but it was rare that I would be asked to join them anywhere other than the school canteen. They were nice to me but I felt a perpetual sense of loneliness. I felt left out all the time but I didn't tell anybody what I was going through as I found it hard to articulate my emotions. I have since built up my confidence in that area.

I have found it easier to make friends as an adult. I met people at community college, university and at the local fair where I worked for two summers. I am still shy but I have become bolder over the years. I now go up to people and initiate conversations.

Ignorance and abuse

Over the past several years, I have witnessed ignorance around autism. Some people believe that we cannot feel emotions, such as empathy, or that we hate socializing. Others believe that we lack intelligence, that we don't have a sense of humor, that we should stop stimming and that autism is caused by bad parenting.

I am living proof that these claims are not true. If I lacked intelligence, how could I have obtained two science degrees? All my life, I have made friends and teachers laugh out loud because of my sense of humor. And I would not be here today if it were not for my mother, as she has always been my number-one supporter.

I want people to understand that having Asperger's does not mean you are an alien from some exoplanet. We have feelings, such as pain, sadness, hurt and loneliness, and we perhaps feel these more strongly than the common neurotypical person due to the discrimination we face.

People stare at me in public because of the way I walk and talk, and how I look. I try to mask this while out in public and make sure, for instance, that nobody is watching while I'm rearranging my jacket to get comfortable.

Even so, people look at me with anything from perplexity to confusion or even anger when I am out in my neighborhood. Some people look at the ground and speed-walk past me, while others look at me and whisper something to their companion.

As well as confused looks, I have received abuse. I have been followed by a pick-up truck and had to run home when I haven't felt safe. Recently, a man yelled at me from his car while I was walking through a parking lot. He looked right at me and he seemed really mad. I felt shaken but also numb, because sadly I am getting used to this after 21 years.

Living well with Asperger's Syndrome

Despite my diagnosis, I believe that I am living a full and rich life. I have fought for my dreams—big and small—insofar as becoming a royalty-published author, an accomplished juggler, a piano player, a recipient of two science degrees and a professional YouTuber.

I am currently qualifying as a mathematics teacher and I feel I have found my passion and purpose in life. The vast majority of students have been nothing but kind, accepting, and respectful towards me. I have truly appreciated that, especially with my background where not everybody has accepted me for who I am.

Through perseverance, people with autism can accomplish incredible things, and we have done so throughout history. There may be day-to-day tasks that we find difficult, but there are others that might be easier for us, such as retaining information. We are not lost causes. We can do anything that we set our hearts and minds to, regardless of the prejudice we might encounter. However, it helps when people recognize and accept us for who we are.

Matthew Kenslow is the author of Juggling the Issues, which is available to order now. He also runs the YouTube channel Matthew Kenslow.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

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