Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Free-Falling to End Bullying and Create Compassion

On Tuesday, August 9, 2011 I had the honor of crossing something off my “Bucket List” a lot earlier than expected.  It was my decision to deliberately jump out of a “mechanically-sound” plane at the rate of 100 miles an hour at a height of 13,000 feet.  Thanks to the expertise of the staff at Skydive the Ranch in Gardiner, NY…I gently glided into the arms of the community waiting for me down below.

It is easy to brag about one’s intentions to go skydiving.  All it takes is a phone call to a skydiving facility and constant Facebook postings reminding people of the looming day.  But the trick is to not flake out or make it almost impossible to cancel one’s jump without facing consequences.  I chose to publicize my jump to the community as well as the media and accept a $2,500 grant from Anderson Center for Autism to sponsor my event.  But there was something else driving me to keep the date aside from fear of being digitally “tarred and feathered” as a coward on Facebook.

Like so many schoolchildren of various abilities, I experienced too many nights of staring at the bedroom ceiling wondering if the day coming up would be worse than the day that just past.  Most of the eccentricities “provoking” the abuse revolved around a case of Asperger’s syndrome, which is the mildest and most misunderstood form of Asperger’s syndrome.  During my many speeches to middle school students, I remind my audience that I have not changed too much.  I am still as “weird” as the day is long.  Also, most of my life has revolved around failures.  My life has dramatically changed and people are much more likely to request an autograph these days than accuse me of being a psychopath.  But it took nearly three decades as well as a published book with Penguin Group (USA) to see things dramatically change.  I will work tirelessly to ensure that someone will not have to go through these extremes in order to experience better days.

My jump was widely publicized as an anti-bullying event revolving around my campaign, “Someday Has to Be Today.”  I wanted to do something that rages against the well-meaning, public service announcement encouraging young people to just hang in there and that things will get better.  Our intentions should be to create mercy in the present because only two more years of abuse seems like a lifetime for the average child.

You are probably asking yourself the question that everybody wants to know.  What does skydiving have to do with bullying?  The answer is simple:  Absolutely nothing.  And this, my friends, is the whole point!  The chances of getting killed in a skydiving accident are 1 out of 150,000 and only 24 people have been killed this year worldwide.  The statistics revolving around bullying are grimmer with many more than 24 individuals giving up hope in the worst way possible.  With these realities in mind…it was relatively easy to jump off the face of the earth as opposed to going back to those precarious middle school years.

As human beings, our natural instincts of self-preservation prevent us from stepping out of a plane with nothing between us and the ground over thirteen thousand feet below –  except a parachute that will hopefully deploy as soon as you pull the ripcord.  Various scenarios enter one’s mind that probably won’t happen, but could.  The tandem instructor could accidentally hit the back of his head on the edge of the plane and fall to the ground unconscious with me chained to his back.  I frantically fumble to find the ripcord, as the ground that once seemed so far away is growing more visible by the second.  There is also the fear of hitting a bird with such deadly force that its beak burrows into my brain.  But I just repeat the rare statistics and know there is absolutely no turning back.  The large door to the plane opens and the panic begins.  A flying plane is not supposed to have any open orifices!!  The man in front of you yells out a sickly-dry, “See ya!” and jumps out of the plane.  Skydiving takes what is natural and turns it upside down, which is the ultimate catalyst for fear.

It is difficult to describe the sensation of skydiving mainly because it is indescribable.  But it is the closest one will ever come to shaking hands with the heavens.  It feels like you are flying as opposed to plummeting at over 100 miles per hour with enough composure to make amusing (but appropriate) hand gestures in front of the camera.  I also mouthed, “I love this!” to the camera man who was also falling with me and the tandem instructor.  The chute opened as I shot upwards like a torpedo from the shock of deployment.  Seconds later, I was floating toward the ground for a soft landing while helping the instructor steer the parachute.  Or maybe he was steering it.  I don’t remember all the details except a feeling of comfort and knowing everything would be all right.

I appreciated all the families and bullying victims who came out to give a voice to their anguish.  It took an exorbitant amount of courage to tell your personal stories for the sake   Keep checking YouTube for my skydiving video in October by typing “Jesse Saperstein” on the search engine.  Always remember there is an enormous difference between having to fight a little harder for a chance compared to not having much of a fighting chance.  My jump and prior accomplishments occurred not from heroism, but when others took the time to understand there is more to me than meets the eye.  Always remember that when you take another look at misunderstood individuals…you may give them the power to fly.  Furthermore, I am not suggesting you also jump out of a plane unless you have your mother’s permission, which you probably won’t.  But try to find your own unique way to become heroic and give others the chance to do the same.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Power of Two Voices United in the Battle for Understanding.

ATYPICAL: My chance meeting with a remarkable young man with Asperger’s

This past summer, I accompanied my husband Read to his college reunion at the beautiful campus of Hobart and Williams Smith Colleges. While visiting the campus bookstore, I found a book written a autographed by a remarkable young man, Hobart graduate Jesse Saperstein, class of  2004. After reading the book in two sittings, I reached out to Jesse, who lives in Pleasant Valley, N.Y., via email and heard back from him right away. In addition to graduating cum laude from college, and writing a published book, this young man hiked the entire Appalachian Trail and raised 20,000 dollars for pediatric AIDS and Camp TLC where he has worked as a volunteer counselor. He told me of his next project, an anti-bullying campaign featuring a video in which he skydives as as demonstration of what is possible when individuals of various abilities are allowed to shine when society chooses to give them a chance.

I have asked Jesse to write a few paragraphs as our Let’s ACT Today! guest contributor.  And here it is below….

A Plea for Mercy, Understanding, and Acceptance from those Living with High-Functioning Autism

It is not everyday that I receive an e-mail from a beautiful and accomplished producer from Los Angeles who wishes to give me an opportunity to make a greater difference.  When we first began communicating via e-mail, Nancy told me there are no accidents in life and fate allowed our dissimilar universes to overlap.  I tend to agree and there is one similarity that binds us.  We are both affected by the autism spectrum.  I live with Asperger’s syndrome and Nancy experiences it through her amazing son, Wyatt.  Nancy; her husband Read, and their amazing child will ultimately become the veritable tripod propelling themselves through a nonsensical universe of obstacles. Their journey will be a roller coaster of euphoria; pain; hope; alleged false hope; and occasionally anger.  But that is all right because no parent or individual with autism should be forced to accept the unacceptable.  Embrace the fight with the Alspaugh-Jackson family and ask the rest of society to examine my plea for mercy.  I will attempt to inhabit the voices of so many of my peers who are not blessed with such a large venue to be heard.
Having Asperger’s syndrome is not an excuse to engage in behavior that is genuinely inappropriate and fighting for equality also means having to accept consequences for genuine wrongs.  We need you to tell us what we are doing wrong and give us the tools to correct it.  But punishment is grossly ineffective without the opportunity for redemption.  As a child, it was more common for me to be condemned for the bizarre or inappropriate behavior from four years ago as opposed to the leaps and bounds forged over the past few months.  More important than correcting inappropriate behavior is teaching my peers how to look into the mirror once in a while to give to themselves what will not always come from someone else.

Judging someone with Asperger’s syndrome on a first impression will always be a path toward doom.  Mercy shall never flourish unless we “impress” upon society there is more to those on the autism spectrum than meets the eye.  Those deficiencies that need to be corrected may germinate into successes when society chooses to take another look.  Weakness could turn into a strength under the right circumstances if an individual wants it badly enough.  I learned that I could not accept my tendency to blurt out inappropriate comments or grossly overstep boundaries.  It was impossible to “let go” of the brutal realities that were created and the threat of legal consequences for my future.  Therefore, I decided to work in a funeral home for a while where only four phrases would not offend people.  “Hello, goodbye, I am sorry for your loss, the bathroom is around the corner to the left.”  I trained myself to walk on eggshells laced with poison and became a valuable employee because I wanted it badly enough.  Never underestimate the power of “want” or the opportunity for someone with autism to justify a “chance.”

Many of us are incapable of letting go, which is one of the prominent characteristics of Asperger’s syndrome. I actually do not believe in ever letting go in the way you believe I should.  “Letting go” is found in those endeavors where you are unrestrained by the anguish forged by a lifetime of intolerance.  On August 9, 2011 I was able to let go while falling off the face of the earth at over one hundred miles per hour.  Literally.  I went skydiving in front of my entire community to try and end bullying.  My associates and I are in the process of turning the footage into a YouTube video that will be promoted to the nation by the end of September.  I will elaborate on this endeavor in a future blog entry.  In the meantime, we have a lot to look forward to in the near future.

People often marvel at the successes I have achieved since graduating college that would be considered outstanding even for someone without a social disability.  This happened not because of maturity, but due to one simple reality.  Society eventually showed me I had something to fight for and would reciprocate just a little bit when I made the effort.  But as I stated in my skydiving video…nobody should have to publish a book or jump out of a perfectly safe airplane to enjoy a fraction of the respect that is finally coming from mainstream society.  Fight with me to ensure this will not be the case for current and future generations of individuals who live with autism.  Let’s make the 2011-2012 school year one filled with mercy.  Wyatt and our peers may have to fight a little harder for a chance…but they will have more than a “fighting chance” to radiate their brilliance.