Saturday, July 21, 2012

"Psst! Look! There's someone with REAL problems!"

When I was growing up with undiagnosed Asperger's Syndrome, I felt like a freak. I knew I was different and I did not have an answer as to why. What I did know was that a lot of kids were mean to me, and a lot of adults-- including my own parents-- did not understand me.

Sometimes, in tears, I lamented about being a "freak" and having problems that seemed to have no solution. Sometimes my parents tried to help me put things in perspective, but in a very superficial and unhelpful way. For example, once we were eating at Chi-Chi's (a Mexican restaurant) and someone with no legs and hooks for where his arms should be was sitting in a wheelchair about ten feet away from us. My dad whispered to me, "Now there's someone with REAL problems." Another time, my mother (who is a high school teacher) said, "You think you have it bad? One of my students is pregnant." It wasn't just my parents who did this. Once, my best friend said, "Your problems are not that bad. At least you're not dying of AIDS or something!"

I bet if I told these stories to an auditorium of Aspies and asked how many of them have stories like this, every single one would raise their hands. I also am willing to bet that all of them would feel the same frustration I did. I was about twelve when my dad pointed out the limbless person in Chi-Chi's, and I remember that his comment didn't make me feel any better. Same thing when I was 15 and my mother told me about her pregnant student. Same, too, when I was also about 15 and my friend told me that at least I wasn't dying of some deadly disease. None of these comments made me feel better because I always knew that what I was going through was unheard of. Getting pregnant, dying from AIDS-related complications, and even having no limbs were problems that at least had names and explanations. In fact, I recall telling my friend that I would rather be dying of AIDS-related complications and have friends than be physically healthy and shunned by an entire society (which is what I felt like was happening). And this was not just something I said on a whim. I meant it.

In any case, just because someone complains about problems that are not as (superficially) serious as a deadly disease or the loss of limbs or teenage pregnancy does not mean that the problems are not just as real. With that logic, one could tell the person with HIV that at least he has all of his limbs, and at least he lives in a country where HIV can be managed for decades with medication and is not an immanent death sentence like it used to be. One could also, then, say that unless the person has problems that are not the absolute worst in the world (whatever that is) then he or she should not complain. By then, one has alienated the vast majority of the world, whose problems are suddenly not real.

Please, do not tell your kids or friends with Asperger's Syndrome, "At least you're not dying of some deadly disease" or something similar. It trivializes the very real anguish they are experiencing. Just because AS cannot be confirmed visually like the lack of limbs, a deadly disease, or teenage pregnancy, does not mean the problem does not exist. Furthermore, trivializing your kids'/friends' issues may make them feel like their problems are all in their minds and that they're crazy for feeling anguish. The last thing someone with AS needs is to feel even crazier than they already feel.

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