By Amy Gravino, M.A., ABA
Amy Gravino is an Asperger’s Syndrome College Coach, Consultant and Autism Advocate.
I would never have known there was anything wrong with you until you told me.
You’re so smart.
I can’t believe you have autism.
The words swirled through my mind as I stood there, eyes glued to the sign on the door:
“OFFICE OF DISABILITY SERVICES.”
All the years of doubt and confidence, progress and decline, lurching forward and stepping back rushed out from my memory, and time seemed to grind to a halt. A thin sheen of sweat covered my palms and I swallowed hard, down into the pit of my stomach, where a knot of fear was rapidly growing.
I don’t need to do this. I’ll be fine.
When you have Asperger’s Syndrome, people expect things from you. You push yourself hard, and after enough time goes by, you get to the place where the result of that pushing is that you’ve accomplished things. That’s when you begin to expect things from yourself.
What you do not expect is to struggle.
I don’t need help. I can do this on my own.
“High-functioning” is a misleading term. You can be intelligent, understand things, know how to add and subtract and conjugate and construct a sentence; but if you can’t ask for help sometimes, then you cannot hope to function.
The voice inside my head told me that I could do it on my own, and that’s what I believed. People looked at me a certain way, of that I was aware, and my greatest fear was doing anything to inadvertently change that.
Walking through this world as a person on the autism spectrum, you are constantly under the lens of an invisible microscope. People are looking closely, and you become afraid of what they might see.
Most of the support services that currently exist for adults with Asperger’s Syndrome rely on the individual to seek out and utilize these services on our own. Yet this latter step becomes impossible when we find ourselves unable to even set foot in the door.
Many of us are college-educated, with degrees ranging from Bachelors to doctorates, and keenly aware that the world has set certain standards for us. The shame of not being able to live up to these standards can be crippling. A smart, seemingly capable person asking for help faces unimaginable scrutiny, and for many of us with Asperger’s Syndrome, that is what keeps us from accessing services: The overwhelming anxiety and fear of being judged.
Through trial and a whole lot of error, I have learned in my life that getting help does not equal weakness; it means having the strength to know that you need assistance and are doing something about it. It is my wish that all individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome realize this and understand that not being good at something is not a reflection of who they are. It simply means doing what is necessary to become better at it.
For service providers, I urge you to understand our fears and to do what you can to help temper them. We see your flyers and read your e-mails, but never want to think that they apply to us. One way of de-stigmatizing support services is to focus not on pointing out the weaknesses of individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome, but instead finding ways to use our strengths to remediate them.
It may not happen overnight, but through the alleviation of that anxiety and the decrease, if not complete removal, of the fears associated with asking for help, individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome and service providers can work together to make it truly possible for us to walk through that door.