I was one of the unpopular kids. I was never invited to birthday parties or sleepovers. I had no friends, and no one wanted to hang out with me. I was a social leper and I hated every second of it. High school was supposed to revolutionize my life.
“Students are more mature in high school.”
“There will be new kids; you’ll have a chance to start fresh.”
“No one cares if you were popular before because you’ll make new friends.”
These were just some of the things almost every teacher, counselor, and television show told me. These words gave me hope, a dream that I’d finally see the inside of another peer’s house so we could talk about the boys we liked. No more would classmates give me candy they’d stuck gum-tack in, “helpfully” suggest I use de-tangler for my hair, or say I was a teacher’s pet because I got along with adults better than my classmates.
For the first time in my life I thought I would be a “Somebody.”
First period, 9th grade history class was when I learned just how wrong everyone was and how foolish it was to hope. We were studying ancient civilizations and were given a group project. The teacher, Mr. Brady, split us into three groups, one for each civilization we were studying.
All of the girls in class, except two, were assigned to one group, while the second and third groups consisted of all guys plus one girl. I, of course, was one of the girls who got stuck with the boys. The other was a girl called Allison.
As one might imagine, she and I weren’t too happy with our assigned groups. The boys were annoying as they were more concerned with killing off the Aztecs with smallpox than doing the project. With heavy hearts, the two of us worked in our respective groups for the rest of the day.
The next day we were sent to the school library to do research with our groups. Some 10 minutes into the period I saw Allison get up and seamlessly join the group of girls.
“Finally,” I thought to myself. “The perfect chance to get away from this stupidity and be part of a group where I fit in.”
Confident that I had just been handed my first chance to start fresh, I walked up to the group of girls and sat down in an empty seat just as I had seen Allison do moments before. I had done it! This was great! I was so proud of myself for having the courage to break out of my shell and do what I wanted. Best of all, it’d been so easy.
“Emily, isn’t your group over there?” said one of the girls, gesturing vaguely toward my previous group. The message was clear: High school wasn’t a fresh start; it was the same old “shunning” I’d dealt with all my life. I was crushed; I went back to my group in tears.
I didn’t get it. What had Allison done that I hadn’t?
Ten years later, I get it. I’ve come a long way from the social leper I felt I had no choice to be. Thanks to the National Institute for People with Disabilities of New Jersey’s Asperger’s Skill Building Network (NIPD/NJ is YAI network member) I’ve learned the skills needed to relate to others, and, as a result, I finally feel like I belong.
For instance, before attending the group, I didn’t care about or understand why I needed to make a good impression on others. At the time I thought: “Why bother fitting in when I know they’re just going to tease me about what I like? That, or they’ll just ignore me. Talking to others is not worth the inevitable rejection.”
And I saw nothing wrong with this thinking. It never occurred to me that not taking an interest in others meant they had no reason to take an interest in me.
If I wanted friends, I learned, I had to put myself out there and tell people my interests while looking them in the eye. I had to listen to their problems and opinions rather than immediately decide that they were wrong and I was right.
I learned that I needed to make eye contact with whomever I was speaking to so they would know I was listening and interested rather than bored or lost in my own little world. Then, I was able to figure out whether I was supposed to respond with a smile versus a frown. Making eye contact can be difficult and uncomfortable to do, but I learned tricks to make it easier. For instance, I learned that you don’t have to look into a person’s eyes, you can look at their nose or forehead so as not to feel off-put by having to look someone in the eye.
I realized that I needed to face people with a smile when I spoke with them because that would make them more likely to want to speak with me. They’d then see I was interested in getting to know them and doing things they liked.
When I meet people for the first time, I now know to start a conversation by bringing up something I know we have in common instead of introducing myself right off the bat. For instance, if I were to meet someone in class I’d say, “So, have you heard anything about this professor?” instead of “Hello I’m Emily, nice to meet you!” because doing so could come off as aggressive, over-eager, and weird.
Now, when I go out with friends, I ask them how their day went, what they’ve been up to, and if they have plans for the weekend. I ask these things because they are safe questions that show I actually care, and they can lead to deeper friendships in which we can talk about our hopes, dreams, and fears.
Improvements to my social life aren’t the only ones I’ve made over the years thanks to the Asperger’s Skill Building Network (ASBN); I’ve also improved in my work life.
Through ASBN, I learned that even though I didn’t think clothes were important, most everyone else did, and since I wanted a job, it’d be in my best interest to dress well. I also learned that waiting around to be given work because I’d run out of things to do wasn’t OK; I looked lazy not working. Learning these things helped me realize I hadn’t been a very good worker, and that if I wanted a job I had to change myself. The world wasn’t going to change for me.
Now a days I’m putting both the social and working skills I’ve learned to use as an intern for ASBN. I get to work in the environment I was once a participant in. As an intern, I do clerical work, research media that can be used with the curriculum, and assist in group when needed. Sometimes, participants even come to me, the prior social leper, for social advice!
Most importantly, I’m also able, in an accepting environment where I don’t feel threatened, to work on improving bad habits that could get me laid off or fired in the future. Thus, not only do I now know the importance of calling in when I’ll be late, dressing well, keeping busy, and not arguing with my boss over criticism, but I have the chance to implement what I’ve learned. And, when I make a mistake, I learn more.
All in all, I’ve learned a great deal in these past four years and have grown from it. I’ve gone from social leper who wasn’t accepted among her peers to a young woman who peers want to get to know and even seek advice from. I’ve learned how to show people I’m a kind, easy going, and intelligent woman with a lot of great insight. I also know how to put that insight to use and do so every chance I get at my internship. Now, not only do other people know and recognize my value, but so do I.
Emily Kushner is an intern and alumnus of the Asperger’s Skill Building Network of the National Institute for People with Disabilities of New Jersey. She is also an avid writer and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.