Well, it was not easy to find, it required a phenomenal amount of hard work, and it was not achieved overnight, but I did manage to find it. I know that I’m not the only one with an Asperger’s profile who is happy, so if you are an Aspie and have not yet found happiness, why not join us? I have a few thoughts to share with you if you are considering committing to this endeavor:
First off, I have learned not to think in terms of “there’s me, and then there’s everybody else” or “I’m not neurotypical like they are” and I think instead in terms of “we are all human”. You will notice that I use the word neurotypical a few times in this piece and in its title, but only because I know it is a word with which many people in the Autism Spectrum community are familiar and can understand. However, as you read along, know that I extremely dislike this word because I feel that its use makes it too easy for people to categorize other people as either being “normal” or “not normal”, which I believe is divisive and wrong. Furthermore, it invites the “me vs. everybody else” comparison which I said at the beginning of this paragraph should not be thought about if you want to find true happiness. Society today is rife with too much divisiveness as it is. Why add neurotypical vs. Aspie to the mix? And what is “normal” supposed to mean anyway? There is no clear definition for that word. Instead, embrace who you are, celebrate what makes you special and recognize that everybody everywhere is human despite the differences that exist among us.
I have found, as an Aspie among neurotypical folks, that having realistic expectations of others is of critical importance in order to be happy. The higher your expectations are of the people around you, the more likely you are to feel let down by them at some point, even when they haven’t done anything wrong. I learned this the hard way, many times over, though one such episode from my childhood sticks out from the rest. While I was growing up, the family of a neighborhood friend of mine led me to believe that I could go away with them on their family trip, and I actually believed them and expected to join them despite knowing that I wasn’t a member of their family. The day I knew they were leaving, I got so excited over the prospect of vacationing with them that I ran up the street with a pile of clothes in my arms and ended up kneeling on the sidewalk, sobbing and in disbelief after realizing that they had already left. Somewhere along the line, I’m assuming that I had either misunderstood something they said to me about their upcoming vacation, or took literally a comment that they made in jest about me going with them, or maybe I heard what I wanted to hear from them rather than what they were actually saying about their vacation plans. One of these explanations probably fits, but I can’t remember which. Looking back in hindsight, who was I to expect to go on vacation with them, considering that it was a family vacation and I was not a family member! I find it remarkable that I had the nerve to have such an expectation. I also find it remarkable that for the longest time, I expected too many people I knew to always treat me well because I believed that I always treated them well. I expected too many people I knew to make time for me whenever I needed their attention, to cater to my sensitivities, to always see value in my good intentions even when my actions did not reflect these intentions, and to tune down their expectations of me because I knew I had a learning disability and I believed that they knew as well. For the longest time, my over-inflated expectations of others centered around one person: me. And I didn’t even know it! If only I knew then what I know now. Expect less.
So how did I manage to open my eyes, see the flaws in my attitudes about other people and in my expectations of them, make the changes I needed to make, and become happier? I did so by living my life, learning lessons as I went along, and getting help from family, close friends and clinicians. I discovered that I was better able to improve myself by making gradual progress in many small steps over a long period of time and by learning lessons the hard way, often more than once. Over time, all of these small steps and lessons learned resulted in me acquiring greater awareness of myself and others which in turn enabled me to improve upon many of the aspects of my Aspie profile that I wanted to address, among these, social skills deficits, difficulties making friends, self-absorption, and unrealistic expectations of others. For me, awareness always came first, followed by change for the better. I slowly became stronger, wiser and happier.
A formidable challenge that I have had to face as a high-functioning Aspie stems from the reality that I come off to most people as being neurotypical when they first meet me or don’t know me very well, that it is human nature to form opinions and expectations very soon after you have met somebody, and that people who don’t meet the expectations that are placed upon them are judged, criticized or mocked. As a result, I was always expected to behave and interact with my peers as if I was neurotypical even though I never was. It saddens me to admit this about myself, though there is a reason for it: I have learned to expect to be misunderstood, criticized, judged or mocked by others, mostly because holding this expectation has strengthened me to the point where I will not be phased by anybody who may treat me this way. I understand that I may be treated in this fashion because of the gap that exists between my Aspie identity and the likelihood of being perceived as if I am neurotypical, though I won’t let any of it bring me down, and so I am ultimately able to maintain happiness. Having realistic expectations of others is very important. As an Aspie, I have faced enough adversity in my life such that I expect more of it to come my way. I am ready for it!
Another lesson I learned regarding the connection between realistic expectations and happiness: after an eternity of emotionally beating myself up, I finally figured out what I should expect of myself. For quite a while, I expected way too much of the person looking back at me in the mirror despite others who were close to me repeatedly telling me to do otherwise. I expected perfection on many tasks for which perfection was an impossibility. I expected to make a good number of friends wherever I lived, and I expected to establish lasting, romantic relationships with women because of how much time I spent on dating and the efforts I made in trying to grow these relationships. As a serious musician, it was impossible not to thirst for perfection with respect to my technical abilities as a pianist and my creative abilities as a songwriter. I blew all of these expectations out of proportion, and in so doing, set myself up for disappointment and self-esteem issues. It didn’t help that I had no idea I had Asperger’s Syndrome until I was around 40 years old, and so for the better part of my life, I could not understand why I was often falling short of my personal goals, nor could I have known how to properly form realistic expectations for myself. As was the case when I was working on reducing my expectations of other people to reasonable levels, I was eventually able to become aware of how unrealistic my self-expectations were and bring them back down to Earth by living my life, learning as I went along in small, incremental steps, learning lessons the hard way, getting help, and by virtue of the revelation of my Asperger’s diagnosis. Awareness had to come first, after which I was able to make changes. Today, I can accept and have made peace with making mental mistakes, progressing more slowly than others probably would towards a goal, needing to invest more effort than others probably would towards accomplishing certain tasks, not being friends with everybody I meet, being alone as often as I am, tuning out from time to time, responding slower than would ideally be the case to changes in my environment, not being the greatest piano player or songwriter that ever was, letting my idiosyncrasies surface from time to time, etc. After all, most mistakes can be fixed, goals can still be attained, even when worked on slowly or with extra effort, I have enough good friends to be content, alone time is a good thing as long as I am not always alone, which I’m not, and my Aspie profile is what it is!
I would not be as happy as I am today had it not dawned on me how critically important it is to be surrounded by good, intelligent people. This type of person can lift you up and help you move forward while the opposite type of person can bring you down and get in the way of your goals if you allow him or her to do so. I have been fortunate enough to have had friends and loved ones who knew me well enough to see the good in me. I have had colleagues in the workplace and teachers who encouraged me to pursue excellence while setting high but realistic standards for me to live up to, and I have benefitted from the wisdom and guidance of many clinicians who helped me develop better social skills and a level of social awareness that eluded me before I started working with them. Not always was I able to avoid undesirable people, as was sometimes the case at school, at summer camp and at the workplace wherein you do not always get to choose who you associate with. In these situations, I simply learned to put up with these people, fight my way through, and not let them get under my skin, mostly by seeing them for who they were.
In closing, if you are an unhappy Aspie who is ready to make a change and do the work that is required to attain happiness, consider the following analogy: the American Civil Rights Movement. Though there is more to be done with respect to improving race relations in America, the Civil Rights Movement did achieve lasting results and positive change against all kinds of odds, and it did so without any help from the Internet or Social Media, after an eternity of slavery and in the midst of Jim Crow. Furthermore, it required the efforts, struggles and sacrifices of an immeasurable number of people, a multitude of individual acts of courage, protests, marches, government involvement, a now famous letter written from a jail cell and epic court battles in order to succeed. The key take away? Meaningful change is hard, slow to come, is often achieved in the face of adversity, and entails many small steps taken over a long period of time, but these are the ingredients of change that allow it to take hold and last, whether at scale or deep inside oneself. Are you up to the challenge, as I was? I think you are. Go for it!