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.