When I was less than a year old, doctors told my parents that something was different about my interactions with the world. At age three, they suggested that I had Asperger’s Syndrome. Seventeen years later, my family dropped the news on me. While I’m glad my family waited until I was ready to hear the news, the revelation hit me like a freight train halfway through my second semester of college. I always knew I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin. I always knew I had a hard time connecting and relating to people, especially in large groups. Watching Abed Nadir, a character on Community who displays Aspergers’ characteristics, struck a nerve for me that I didn’t want struck. Looking back, I shouldn’t have been especially surprised. I have friends who also fell on the Autism spectrum, and in the back of my mind I knew we had more in common than I wanted to admit. Today, I both accept and embrace my personality, quirks, social awkwardness, naivety, niche interests, and all. While this was not an easy journey, I found that the student body at the Claremont Colleges is incredibly accepting, though not fully informed, of struggles that go hand in hand with non-neurotypical persons.
People often refer to Claremont as a bubble, for better or for worse. For whatever reason, the media’s irrational fear of ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) has not penetrated this bubble. I remember recently coming forward as being on the autism spectrum – my three friends listening assured me that, though they had always known I was a tad quirky and blurted things out for no apparent reason, no label would change the nature of our relationship.
For others, it’s a little more difficult to know how to respond when I tell them I have Asperger’s. Recently, someone with good intentions told me, “For a guy with Asperger’s, you’re super articulate and cool!” While I’m certain she didn’t mean any harm, the stigma surrounding ASD implies we’re not naturally articulate or cool. Since day one of orientation, Claremont students are groomed to accept their peers, regardless of income, race, orientation, gender identity, etc.
Perhaps we don’t talk about mental health as a community because we’re afraid of stepping on toes. Too often, we’re quick to associate mental health issues with weakness. So many view ASD – or any mental health issues, for that matter – as a death sentence. There is no doubt that I have faced struggles, such as not learning to tie my shoes until I was twelve, that other kids didn’t have to face. Asperger’s should not be viewed as a social death sentence, in spite of the struggles that may come along with it. Moreover, ASD in particular has other advantages. People with autism tend to excel at certain skills, such as “identifying patterns and memory recall,” which are particularly beneficial in the sciences. Like any trait, ASD comes with pros and cons, and to stigmatize it and tiptoe around the issue doesn’t help anyone. We’re perfectly okay with talking about inequality stemming from race, sexual orientation, and gender, and it makes sense to humanize people in the mental health community by including us in the discussion. It’s better to risk stepping on toes and subsequently correct any mistakes than to erase the members of this community.
Like many people, neurotypical or not, I want to be accepted by my community for who I am. Accepting me does not mean that you should treat me like I have a life-crippling disorder. For instance, the name of the “Mudd Goes Madd” party did not trigger anxiety, flashbacks, or other negative mental states for me. Between the event photo and characterizing Mudd students as mad scientists, it was evident that the party was not a jab at non-neurotypical people. When ASPC denounced the party for trivializing issues related to mental health, ASPC was essentially telling me that it equates any mental health issues with madness. It’s both patronizing and insulting that ASPC assumes that ASD cripples me and implies that I can’t handle the real world and its challenges.
What ASPC doesn’t understand is that the way to encourage inclusivity in the Claremont community is not to tell me that my Asperger’s is a death sentence. The way to include non-neurotypical people in the Claremont community is to engage with us: make us feel welcome. Invite us to your parties, wave to us across North Quad, and perhaps most importantly, understand that we want to be accepted and respected, just like you accept and respect all your other friends. I am proud of my Asperger’s – quirks and all. Students shouldn’t feel guilty about being neurotypical anymore than they should about being, straight, white, or male. To this end, treating peers in the mental health community with dignity and respect is the best way to foster an inclusive environment on campus.
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