Personal story about Autism: substituting intellect for emotional empathy


My name is Guillermo Gomez. I live a life of solitude, in an upstairs apartment, living on Social Security, paying $140 per month in rent. I work part-time at a video editing suite -- a very easy-going job. Some would call me lucky in that sense, but all my life I have felt far from lucky, for I have been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome.


I can't guarantee that everything here will be of use to you, but it's a start.


Making friends has never been easy for me -- mainly because I'm not good at starting friendships. It feels like so much of an effort for me to walk up to a person, introduce myself, think of a hundred conversation topics, and make that person like me. The thought of doing so leaves me exhausted, and makes me feel more like being alone. The fact that I live alone is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, I can stay home as much as I want, watch TV, surf the net, talk on the phone, create animation, or anything else I feel like. I have so much freedom that I often have trouble deciding what to do next. Although I am 24, my emotional maturity is at least 4 years behind my physical maturity. I'm higher-functioning than most people with AS, but no matter who you are, a diagnosis of anything will damage your psyche and your self-esteem for the rest of your life.


How I learned I was different

In 1988, my parents took me to a diagnostic school. I didn't ask them why, because I was only five, and I thought they knew everything. I don't remember a whole lot about the experience, except staying in a hotel bedroom with my parents and reading a book about cats. At that point I felt just like a normal kid my age, with normal interests, normal curiosity, and normal behavioral problems. I didn't know that I was being diagnosed, because my parents never told me why they were taking me to the school. What made the diagnosis even more difficult was that Asperger syndrome wasn't recognized until 1994.


My observations were heightened when I entered the second grade at age eight. I was one year older than most of the kids in my class. But I didn't really mind much about it at the time, since I was pretty much learning at the same pace as my classmates.


Then, in 1993, an incident happened in this extracurricular course I was taking over the summer. I don't remember all of it, but I do know it involved the other students goading me into going along with some troublesome activity, resulting in the teacher getting very upset with me. After class on that day, my mom told me that I had autism. I had heard the word before, but I didn't know what it meant. Now I knew that it referred to my habits I couldn't control. I learned that in preschool, I used to poke other kids' arms with push pins, which to this day I have no memory of whatsoever. I also learned that, in kindergarten, I used to nonchalantly wander out of class and go outside whenever I lost interest in something. I can sort of remember that.


Sooner or later, a kid with AS is going to know that he has it. He's also going to learn whether it's a good thing or a bad thing. When you tell your kid about what he has, make sure you say it doesn't mean you love him any less. You're just curious about why he behaves unusually, especially if he is unable to give a good answer. Emphasize his good qualities, but don't be too hard on him for his bad ones.


My weaknesses

I've noticed that I don't function well in large groups. There are so many people in them that I don't know what to say unless I'm spoken to, and I have trouble following everyone's lead if I disagree with it - which I usually do.


I find I'm more comfortable introducing myself to females than I am towards males. In grade school, the lunch tables were separated between a boys' table and a girls' table, and since all the boys picked on me, I always sought refuge at the girls' table, knowing they wouldn't hurt me. Like most women, I'm sensitive, caring, and honest about my feelings, while most of the men I've met choose to hide theirs. Many of the men I've met who are around my age are either more mature than me, and thus condescending upon my self-esteem, or just plain stupid. The only men I talk to are older than me by several years, so I know they won't judge me. Another factor that prevents me from introducing myself to other men my age is, I don't want to come off as gay.


I have a tendency to be tactile towards women, but only if I know them well enough to know that they accept me for who I am. This doesn't always make them feel comfortable around me, however, and it's that kind of communication I find hard to read, unless they tell me explicitly how they feel. I think there is no greater sensation than a hug from a woman, and not in a carnal context: it's a sign of mutual respect between us, and it brings me one step closer to understanding the way her mind works - which can be a challenge for anyone.


I'm also not very good at making eye contact, which puts some people off. Eye contact embarrasses me because it brings back torrid memories of confrontation that will haunt me for the rest of my life. It is also impossible for most men to admire a woman's body and listen to what she is saying at the same time. I have found a way to do both, but everyone agrees that the eye contact could be better.


In California, it's very hard to meet other people, unless you're a social drinker, an anime fan, or a swinger. I've tried to be two of the three, and none have worked - I have no desire to consume alcohol.


Bad Habits

My bad habits are numerous, and I can't remember all of them, although I'd like to. Since I hate making mistakes, I have a bad habit punching myself in the head when I get really frustrated (though I haven't done that in awhile). I also like drawing on the walls of my apartment, as well as on classroom tables. Some people think of this as vandalism, but I enjoy it because there is something different about drawing on wood as opposed to drawing on paper.


Tell your kid it's perfectly okay to have certain habits, but first you yourself must weigh them on a scale to balance out which habits should and shouldn't be controlled. Also tell him to ask others if anything he does bothers them. It might also help if you inform others about his condition in advance, so they'll know enough beforehand to ask him nicely to behave.


Getting in trouble

I have never been comfortable with getting in trouble. In school, I always tried as hard as I could to follow the rules, but somehow I have always ended up getting caught for doing wrong. And even when I didn't get caught or punished, the guilt still ate away at my conscience. Even though I strived to be a good kid (and the teachers knew that), I always got punished harshly whenever I violated school policy. I remember one particular day in second grade when I was to sit in detention with some other kids, for a rule I didn't remember breaking. During our time in detention, we were supervised by an assistant principal, who gave us a stern lecture on how bad we were, and how we could end up in juvenile hall if we didn't shape up. I couldn't believe I was hearing this, because I didn't think I deserved to be talked to in that way. But slowly I accepted the impression that I was a bad kid, and that impression comes back to haunt me to this day.


Whenever your kid gets in trouble, let him know that he did a bad thing, but always make it clear that he is still good people and that you respect him. "Love the sinner, hate the sin."


My strengths

Besides my grammar and typing skills, which are evident from this article, there are a few other things I'm good at.


Living on my own

For the past few years I've been living by myself in an apartment. I do everything I can to take care of myself, which includes cooking, shopping, managing money, and cleaning house (though the last one isn't my favorite). Many think it's amazing that I can be that functional, but I don't think it's anything to make a big deal about. Sometimes it feels like I'm getting complimented for doing something anyone could do, which doesn't seem fair.


Expressing my feelings

I'm straight-forward when it comes to the way I feel around someone. (And yet, I come from a family that usually keeps their feelings hidden in favor of not spoiling the party. More on them later.) Yet, I am still unsure whether this fits in the category of strength or weakness, because saying how I feel can be helpful to others, but at the same time it can also be a deal-breaker.


My junior/high school life

From sixth grade onward, I lost my innocence. Everything I had learned about life so far had been proven to be wrong. The things I went through made me feel bitter, more repressed, and less eager to get to know people.


I went to high school in Aptos, which is located in Santa Cruz County. The population consists of surfers, skateboarders, wannabe models, real estate developers, pot smokers, spoiled rich kids, musicians, drama queens, environmentalists, and other degenerates. Everyone knew each other since they were little, but I didn't know as many of them, so throughout the entire period I always felt like "the new kid," and was treated as such. I always made an effort to be nice, especially towards the girls, but I was so nice that many of my peers had a tendency to walk all over me. The boys would often call me "gay" because of my nickname, Guille (GEE-ay), and I never understood why they got more dates than me. (Another one of the nicknames they gave me, though not out of hatred, was "Mullet" because of my hair, which was long, but was not a mullet.) On the plus side, I effectively grew more skeptical towards many of the "advances" made towards me.


If you can, home-school your kids, or put them in a private school. Don't force them to want friends. If they want friends, put them in a situation where they might be able to find some, and they'll learn the ropes on their own.

Students from all walks of life would tease me, from the dumbest punk rockers to the occasional honor students. Even several students whom I thought were my friends would be hard on me. And when I objected, they laughed at me further and accused me of not being able to take a joke. It was so bad that I became used to not defending myself, knowing that talking to them wouldn't make them harass me any less. I would retaliate sometimes, but in retrospect, that probably wasn't the best idea.


Make sure your kid is able to distinguish between what is teasing and what is not. Don't describe it in black-and-white terms.

Another thing that made me unpopular was that I got a kick out of getting other kids in trouble, whether or not the conflicts had to do with me. I wasn't trying to be mean -- I was just making sure everything was right. (It seemed that everyone else had a different definition of "right.") Moreover, I was so concerned about getting in trouble myself, that I did the best I could to uphold the rules. Thus, in a very small way, the school system was responsible for my pushover disposition, because they always told me to report anything to them that went wrong. They knew that since I was disabled, they didn't want to look bad for letting mistreatment of me slip by. Along with my parents, they made such an emphasis on my education that they didn't give me enough advice on how to defend myself. They didn't tell me to say things like, "I'm a person too, and you have no right to harass me."


If your kid gets harrassed, teach them how to deal with it. Show them how to be peaceful and nonviolent, and make sure they can determine when it is necessary to ask for help.

Eventually, I too became more focused on my education to the extent that I took summer school, so I would have the chance to graduate a semester early and get the hell out of school -- especially since I was at least a year older than most of my peers, which was ironic to me, because I was older, but not wiser, than them.


To this day, I still have a bitter attitude towards people in general, with the impression that everyone thinks they're better than me. I am reluctant to set foot in Santa Cruz County, but whenever I do, it's usually to see my parents or my small group -- which I will discuss in another chapter.



Once puberty hit, the girls became so attractive and beautiful that I was at a loss for words. The most I could do was say things like "You look pretty today."


From the end of 7th grade onward and throughout all of high school, I had a huge crush on a girl named Meghan. She was the most beautiful thing I had ever set eyes on at the time, and she was also nice to me. I would become smitten when she greeted me with that smile, and asked me how I was doing. She would even defend me against harassment, albeit lightly, by telling others to "be nice." But the more I tried to get to know her, the more I stumbled, and a budding friendship that could have grown into a bigger one ended up being pushed further back. It started when I called her on the phone and talked to her regularly, since I thought that was what friends do. Then one time when I called, her mom answered the phone and told me she didn't want me calling her daughter anymore. I couldn't figure out why. I tried talking to Meghan in person whenever I could, but she was always talking to someone else (usually one of my dominant-type male enemies), and I didn't want to impolitely interrupt, so I almost never got my word in edgewise unless I approached her when she was alone. (One time I even had to arrange a time with a counselor for the both of us to talk.)


One night, my mom had the perfect opportunity to meet Meghan's mom. It was a ceremonial reception for the California Junior Scholarship Federation. My name was to be called, and I was to be given a medal (or certificate, or some other prize). But somehow, my name wasn't called. This angered my mom so much that, during the intermission, she decided to approach the principal and assistant principal to talk to them about it. I tried to tell her that Meghan's mom was also here, but she didn't seem to care. She was more focused on my educational achievements than on my love life.


If your kid develops a love interest in someone, talk to him regularly about it, for yours and his sake. Ask him questions about how he shows love, what he thinks will happen, and what usually does happen, before you give your own input. Talk to the parents of the girl, if you can, to clear things up.
Everyone seemed to know that I had a crush on Meghan, and had a tendency to accuse me of stalking her. It felt so unfair not getting a chance to learn about this intriguing girl. But I tried my best to show how I felt through ways like cards and dumb poetry. Finally in junior year, I told her I loved her. She said I could talk to her any time, which at the time I thought was great to hear. However, even though she seemed eager to keep in touch with me after high school, I have had little luck doing so. And since I gave more kindness than I received, I now begin to question whether she really liked me. To this day, unless she and I get a chance to talk things over about what all happened, the respect I once had for her continues to diminish.


Teach your kid that true love doesn't come easy, especially at this age. If he is accused of sexual harassment or stalking, listen to both sides of the story. Try to arrange a meeting for all involved and resolve the conflict maturely.


Track and field

One of my most troubled experiences was being on the cross-country team in 8th grade. I didn't see why my mom signed me up - I wasn't into sports at all. I only ran for protection against an assault. But my mom thought that being on the track team would help me make friends, get exercise, and feel better about myself. (She later recalled that she wanted to "leave no stone unturned.")


Instead of happy, the track meets left me exhausted, looking forward to going home. Plus, the kids were too competitive, saying they could run faster than me, which didn't feel good to hear. There is also one event I will never forget. At one track meet, I was in a race, when I got so tired I had to slow down, or my heart would burst out of my chest. My mom was nearby as I passed, and she had an unforgiving look on her face. She desperately wanted her son to be normal, and I had failed. There was nothing she could do but give me the finger. Later on that night, she talked to me about it, and apologized, saying she came to the realization that, if sports didn't make me happy, they were definitely not for me. She concluded that drawing is my thing, and said I should stick to it.


If your kid doesn't like something, there's a good chance he never will, especially if you keep pushing it upon him. Leave him to find his own interests and he'll be happier about himself.


Peer counseling

My experience with the peer counseling staff began in my freshman year. Robbie, a senior, was to be my counselor. We talked a few times about stuff I was going through. Since he was so easy to talk to, I eventually invited him to go see a movie with me. He declined, saying it would be "out of bounds." That's when I realized that ... People with AS don't need counselors. They need friends. A counselor can't be your friend. True friends can't be hired.



Even though I was stepped on, I still had things to say. And I expressed them in the best way I knew how: a newspaper comic panel called "Here to There." I described it as Boy Meets World meets "The Far Side." Much of the humor was based around the foibles and farces of high school life from the students' point of view. It was more of a labor of love than an actual requirement, because my cartoons, while respected by the student newspaper staff, rarely got published. Whenever they were seen, they got people talking. Some understood my sense of humor (adults especially); others didn't. Some of my jokes, including one about pimping the cheerleaders, offended a few people, but I didn't care. Through my art, I was becoming recognized as someone who deserved respect. (In one of my yearbooks someone wrote "Keep telling it like it is.")



My parents noticed how hard it was for me to make friends once I entered high school. In grade school it's different: all the students still have a bit of innocence left in them, so it's easier to relate to one another. From high school onward, it's easier to become more vicious and unforgiving towards those who are different.



You might say my diagnosis of AS expanded the social horizons of my parents more than mine. They got to meet other parents of kids with AS, and thought it would be good for me to be with them. I wasn't too comfortable with this idea for the most part, because most of them were even more severely affected than I was, so I still felt different in a bad way.


People with AS may not like to be around their own kind. They want to feel as if they're one with everyone else. I also participated, for less than a week, in a class of disabled students during the first part of my sophomore year. I felt like I wasn't being challenged enough, so i quickly switched over to a PE class, which wasn't much better, but at least I got it out of the way.


College students

There were several occasions when my parents would hire university students to instruct me on how to interact with people. And that was all very well, but I still felt socially inadequate compared to them. They weren't treating me as one of them. And at the same time, I didn't really have much enthusiasm for the activities they helped me take part in. For these students were from UC Santa Cruz, haven for environmentalism and open thought - two things which were not applicable to my narrow psyche at the time.


Online forums

For the most part, I do not consider the internet a good place to meet people. The main reason I started posting on online forums was to expand my media collection, and catch up on the TV shows I had missed out on (I grew up without cable).


In 2003 I joined a Muppet fan forum called "Tough Pigs," which is run by Danny, the creator of this and other fine Wikis. Many of the members there are based on the east coast, and have known each other for over seven years - some even longer. Danny refers to them, good-naturedly, as the "StupidFriends" because many of the people in this group have a tendency to laugh at anything. The group is so tight-knit that members have made cult hobbies of joking about anything posted on the forum, playing with cheap puppets or dolls, and drawing kid-like drawings with crayons. As hard as I try, I can't make heads or tails of such activities. And I can't be funny online, except occasionally in AIM. Every time I try to be funny, I wind up having to apologize for it. Most of what I post about on that forum has to do with history, or sharing a hard-to-find artifact, or something in the news. Apart from those things, there are times when I can't figure out what they like about me. Compared to them, I feel so boring.


I learned more about the group when I participated in a get-together three years ago, which took place in New York. I thought it would be fun meeting these people whom I knew by words but not by face. For the most part, it was fun, but I felt like a stranger at times. For example, one night I wanted to show everyone the DVDs I had brought with me, but they wanted to play "Muppet Party Cruise" on the Playstation 2 instead. I played some of it, but since I don't own a PS2, I felt like a disoriented tourist. I also didn't have much fun when we went out exploring toy stores, because I'm not a toy collector. Once again, I was the "new kid." But I also got to bring my video camera and be a fly on the wall for some of the duration we stayed in the hotel room, and that video became a widely-requested item which I was glad to share.


Last year, I decided to try going to an exotic dance club, not to look for sex, but just as a way to meet people. I went with my friend Christian. We both had a good time, and I was so excited about the experience that I posted about it on the forum. I got good feedback, but then someone (whom I'll refer to as D.R.) described his own similar experiences, which condescended mine, and he ended up getting his own praise, which offended me. It was supposed to be a thread about my personal growth, and he turned it into a thread of his own victory. What's more, it made me realize, to my detriment, that I was trying to be something I was not: a hipster. His words of "wisdom" made the idea sound futile and boring to me, which I realized the next two times Christian and I went. I told him as politely as I could that I didn't need to hear his story or his advice, and everyone accused me of overreacting. That's when I decided to stop posting on forums regularly. It didn't matter to me that he was trying to help - if D.R. wasn't going to see the wood for this growing tree, he wasn't worthy of being my friend. To this day I still communicate with some of the members through other ways, and I still think of Danny as one of my best friends.


How I've evolved

When I moved to Sunnyvale, my mind was still set in high school. Now, nearly five years later, I've matured in several ways. I'm better at solving problems, I'm more assertive, and I know what to look for in other people. Then again, I'm still silent, keeping to myself most of the time, just a fly on the wall. But I call this being "observant" - not necessarily secluding myself from everyone around me. I consider myself approachable, but I don't always look that way.


There have been a few things I've done which amaze even me, and may amaze you.


During my first regular quarter at DeAnza, I met a girl named Jackie. I would stop and talk with her whenever I met her on campus, and she seemed like a nice person. Unfortunately, that's pretty much the most I ever did with her, due to something I did that changed her life. I walked up to her one day and noticed she was writing something in a notebook, which turned out to be a love letter to this boy she noticed nearby. I suggested that she go introduce herself, but she was giddy and embarrassed, calling herself a dork. I told her she had her heart set on a good thing, and that she should ask herself why she deserves to be his friend in the first place. The next few times I saw her, I learned the two had hit it off, and were now dating. Because of that, she had little free time to hang out with me, even though I was somewhat eager to join her group. I know I did a good thing, but I find it hard to forgive myself for not being straightforward and doing the opposite of what I did.


onclusion: How I cope

Like most people, with or without AS, I am embarrassed by most of the things I did as a kid. In fact, I regret ever having been the age of 2 through 12. When I think of everything awful about me that my family had to endure -- not to mention my peers, the authority figures, and the bureaucracy -- it's enough to make me wish I didn't exist.


However, there are two major things I did during those years that I don't regret at all. The first one is watching Sesame Street. It's one of the best shows I've ever seen (especially since I didn't grow up with cable), and it's made me a better person -- even in adulthood. Through the process of "tape trading," I have managed to collect many episodes from the show's very beginning to the early 1990's. By doing this, I've recaptured 99% of my best childhood memories - and even discovered many that I'd never seen. It is still an ongoing hobby of mine to collect as many old episodes as I can find -- it's like going on a treasure hunt.


The second thing I don't regret doing is drawing. I've been doing it since I was seven, and I know it's the thing I was meant to do, because I always felt good while doing it. Even though most of my early age stuff is embarrassing for me to look at, I figure, hey, all artists have to start somewhere. I love sitting down at my animation table with a really good pencil, and drawing something in my own original way.


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