They Told Me I Had No Emotions. Then a Movie Set Me Free.

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Google a list of Asperger’s syndrome‘s characteristics, and chances are you’ll find one that reads something like “lack of empathy.” That’s what the 20-page report that made my Asperger’s diagnosis official, based on observations from one six-hour testing session, told me. I’ve heard the whole “lack of empathy” thing numerous times in my 21 years of existence, and let me tell you this: based on firsthand experience, that statement is absolute crap. 

I’m not sure what started the myth that people with Asperger’s lack empathy. Is it the Asperger’s face, seemingly eternally locked in one position? Is it the Asperger’s eyes that find it too hard to make eye contact or that seemingly always stare off into space? Or is it the inability to read social cues that seems to come so naturally to neurotypicals? People think the way you look on the outside directly influences what you feel on the inside. With this logic, if you have a blank face, then you don’t feel anything at all.

I don’t believe this logic to be true. I’m an intuitive person, and I can usually tell how someone feels, even if his or her face reads otherwise. Make no mistake — people with Asperger’s are humans, too. And like all human beings, we have emotions and feelings. When someone thinks otherwise it’s like a knife to my heart. The truth is, I’ve always felt emotions but hid them for years because I was terrified of looking stupid or dumb. 

From a young age, I was ashamed of my own emotions. I didn’t hold back on anything, be it sadness or happiness or frustration, and I was in trouble regularly as a result. When you have Asperger’s, your five senses are more heightened, so overstimulation happens on a regular basis. I was told “normal” people didn’t act that way, and I would be rejected if I kept up my shenanigans. So for years I suppressed my own emotions, to the point that one day, I couldn’t feel anything. I would try to feel a certain emotion and nothing would come.

But in November of 2012, I broke the spell. My mother and I were at a movie theater watching Dreamworks’ “Rise of the Guardians.” I found myself relating to the character of Jack Frost who, after being invisible for his entire 300 years of existence, just wants to find that one person who believes in him. It finally happens in the form of a little boy named Jamie. The moment is heartwarming, and I found myself sobbing hysterically. It was as if someone had taken a pick and sent it flying through the rock solid ice that encased my body, shattering it and setting me free. I had never cried so hard in my life. 

The most important part was, I didn’t feel any guilt or shame in my emotional expression. For the first time in forever, I felt alive. I felt present. Ever since that day, my emotions have felt more readily accessible. I express my emotions and don’t feel like crap afterwards. My emotions remain high energy in their expression, but I’m no longer faking it or half-assing it. If I feel something, I will let it out because I’m just so grateful to be alive.

I still get the occasional person who will tell me to calm down, but I’m so sick of the double standard that says neurotypicals can lose their cool or get giddy while people with Asperger’s can’t.

As a human being, I have the right to express myself. My brain might work a bit differently than yours, but other than that, I’m just like you. I want to enjoy this adventure of life to the maximum, and I refuse to settle for anything less.

A version of this post originally appeared Syracuse University’s Active Minds blog

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When the Sirens Went Off, One Thing Scared Me More Than the Incoming Tornado

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Panic flooded my body as the tornado sirens went off in the Denver International Airport.

I’d never been afraid of tornados, as I had grown up in Tornado Alley and responded to many a tornado warning. But ever since I’d been diagnosed with a debilitating pain condition I’d continually fought with my doctors on the issue of using a wheelchair. I didn’t want to use one because I thought it would just make life harder.

The source of my panic was the five flights of stairs I would have to descend then ascend later on in the company of hundreds of other people. On the way to the basement, I slowly inched my way down the stairs, fearing I would be knocked over, or worse — I would fall and knock someone else over. Once I made it down the stairs, I found a place to sit and started to cry. I just kept thinking, “How am I going to get back up all those stairs once the tornado passes?”

I was all by myself. Everyone else was trying to find their families and stick together, but I was traveling alone. Finally, when the time came to go back upstairs, I froze. I didn’t know what to do. All I knew was I couldn’t climb those stairs. I would never make it.

Everyone just seemed to be passing by me in a rush to get to where they were going. As I sat watching the basement empty, one woman came up to me and noticed the panic, terror and desperation on my face. She calmed me down and then flagged down an airport agent who helped me into the employee elevator system. From there, I was transferred to an airport transport vehicle to my gate.

Just before I was to board my flight, my savior returned with a bundle of flowers and some juice and told me even when I felt alone, there would always be someone there to watch out for me. I never got her name, but I so wish I had.

I will be forever grateful to her for the help and support she gave me while I felt terrified, trapped and alone.

The Mighty is asking its readers the following: Share with us the moment, if you’ve had it, where you knew everything was going to be OK. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio.

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To the Veteran Who Held His Hand Up to Me and Whispered, ‘Please’

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I met him two years ago, in Washington D.C.

Within the shadow of our nation’s capitol, people bustled past, unnoticing. I was among them. We moved across the sidewalks and crosswalks as fish swimming in a school, fluid and fast. He sat against the side of a brick building, alone, clutching a worn backpack.

Our eyes met.

I stopped.

“Please,” he reached up his hand and whispered, “I’m so hungry.”

I stopped because he whispered, gently.

“Have you had lunch today?” I asked, reaching into my pocket.

“No, Ma’am. God bless you, Ma’am.”

My own lunch money weighed on me heavily. I had restaurant plans. The $5 bill I handed to him seemed, suddenly, grossly deficient. I switched pockets, knowing that five bucks wouldn’t buy him much lunch at Burger King across the street.

“Where are you from?” I asked. I wasn’t accustomed to being called “Ma’am.”

“What’s your name?”

“James. I’m from Mississippi,” he began. “Then came Vietnam. Then just drifting… I did some coal mining.” He began to unbutton his shirt, revealing two large, mirrored scars on his dark chest. “I just got too many problems at once, so I come up here… I got kids, too. I don’t see them anymore. I figure life’s gotta be better in the city.”

We talked for a few more minutes. He told me my daughters were beautiful, just like their momma.

I gave him my lunch money.

And that was that.

It was time to move on. But before I left, he asked me for something more.

“You pray for me, Ma’am. And I’ll pray for you.”

“I will, James. I will.”

Then I walked away.

I walked away, but something about my conversation with James had changed me.

He was a vagrant. A miner. A veteran. A father. Somewhere, someone loved him.

He told me that someone was Jesus. “He’s with me, right out here on the street,” James had said.  “He’s the one who sent you to give me lunch today. He brings me joy every day. And he loves you, too.”

Oh, James.

You — the Forgotten, the Hungry, the Abandoned, the Alone.

You have Joy?

You have Love?

You told me you also have Peace.

You, James, Unknown Soldier, have the three elusive riches the Wealthy World strives to find and cannot.  You have nothing, and yet you have everything.

Well, James. Today while back in Washington D.C., I went looking for you. I wanted you to know you changed how I see people, James. You helped me to find Love, Joy and Peace in my own little world. I wanted to remember you in a real way, and say thank you, James.

So I went to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

I didn’t find you. But you know what I did find, James?

I found hundreds and thousands of you…

Your fellow veterans were there for you, James. They came in massive caravans of motorcycles, swarming the National Mall, slowly making their pilgrimage to Arlington National Cemetery across the bridge. They rode, they walked, they held each other up as they climbed the hill. They brought their families. They brought flowers. They came with children. And burdens. And tears.

They wore leather and white ponytails and grizzled beards. They wore crisp military uniforms and brass buttons and crew cuts. They wore baby packs and held on to strollers, walkers and canes.

Though they came to the cemetery, they also came to give respect and honor to the Other Unknown Soldiers… to the veterans whose lives are still a living sacrifice. They honor the veterans who are still fighting, who are living with disability, wounds and post traumatic stress disorder.

Like you, James.

This day is for you.

Thank you.

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This post originally appeared on MichelleMahnke.com.

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3 Reasons We’re an Open Book About Our Son’s Autism

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I know many parents struggle with whether or not they should openly reveal their child’s autism diagnosis. Since autism is often a hidden disability, many limit who knows to the immediate family and the professionals working directly with their children.

That’s not the decision we made.

And when I say decision, I mean that we never sat down and even talked about whether to reveal or not to reveal. For us, talking about our son’s autism diagnosis isn’t an issue.

Now we don’t just blurt it out like, “Hey, nice to meet you, my son is autistic.” But it’s OK with us if it comes up in the natural course of a conversation. In fact, I love it when it does because it’s my opportunity to give someone a perspective on autism they haven’t been exposed to before.

For our family, it comes down to three reasons why we openly discuss our son’s autism:

1. There’s no shame in being autistic.

Autism is a diagnosis and yes, for my son, that means he needs some special intervention and support. His life is definitely on a different path but there is nothing wrong with being autistic. There’s nothing wrong with having any kind of disability for that matter.

When my son was diagnosed with Aspergers syndrome, we finally had the last piece of the puzzle. Finally, we were looking at the full picture of who he was. It helped inform us so we could make the best decisions for his education and future.

Autism makes Jonathan… Jonathan.

I do think that Jonathan struggled with his diagnosis for many years and felt shame about being autistic. He and I have talked about our being open about his autism and he’s said that it allowed him to grow into being comfortable with his diagnosis. Today, he feels good about who his is and I can see it in the way he carries himself. He smiles more often and enjoys being around other people.

2. If we want the world to accept autism, we have to accept it first. 

If we as a family can’t be open about autism, then how can we expect the public to be accepting and understanding? The best way to get to know autism is by being open about being autistic. Let questions be asked! We’re not afraid to answer. We modeled that attitude for our son and he’s been such a positive advocate for himself. I believe that our unconditional acceptance of him is a catalyst for acceptance from the community.

Yes, there is a downside to revealing. Sometimes people are not understanding and even afraid when they hear “autism.” I’ll give you an example: My son had a job interview that was an audition for a traveling theater company. When he came home from the audition, he was really happy with how he did and he said that he felt comfortable enough to mention he had Aspergers syndrome. “Wow,” I thought to myself, because it’s not something you typically do (or need to do) on a job interview. I was so sure he’d get the job because it was a perfect fit for his talents and he had a resume of past work experience and recommendations to prove it.

He didn’t get the job and I suspect that it was because he revealed his autism. He was disappointed and I was heartbroken. But I realized that it was better in the long run because if he hadn’t revealed and gotten the job, it may not have been a supportive work environment.

3. We don’t want our son to be afraid of autism.

When you have a secret, you always live in fear that your secret will be exposed. It would’ve felt like a family secret if we had kept his diagnosis to ourselves. We don’t ever want our son to have to hide who he is or to live in fear that someone will “discover” his autism.

I respect your decision if you are a parent or an autistic adult who chooses not to reveal. I trust that you have made the best choice for your personal circumstances. Continue to do what you need to do for your child or yourself. For us, that means we’ll stay an open book. It’s not in us to live any other way.

A version of this post originally appearer on Geek Club Books.

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How My Parents Showed Me I’d Be OK in the Dark if I Lost All My Vision

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When I was in preschool, my dad came home from work one night, walked downstairs to the corner bedroom the four of us (my parents, my brother and me) shared and stood me directly behind him, facing the door.

He told me, “We’re going to play a game to see how well you can copy me. When I walk, you walk and when I stop you stop.” He took me all over the house, and when we made it back to the room, we repeated the game. At the time, I thought it was fun, and I really wanted to impress my pops as all daddy’s girls hope to do.

It wasn’t until about 24 years later, when I was just starting out in my current position at work, that I asked Dad about it. He paused for a few seconds and told me the reason we did that was because at the time, my eye doctors didn’t know if I’d keep or lose my useable vision. He wanted me to be prepared for being left in the dark.

As I sit here remembering all the amazing things my parents, brother and baby sister did to make me the person I am today, it gives me goose bumps. My parents weren’t experts in children with special needs. At the time, neither of them had even finished college. They didn’t read books or go to seminars; they just adapted as needed.

I remember that over several hot evenings one summer, my mom taught me how to jump rope by having the neighborhood girls swing the rope while she put my hands on her hips so I could feel when it was time to jump. She would say, “Listen to the rope,” and that’s how I learned.

When I was a little older, my dad built me this awesome light box to enhance the things I was able to see. My brother Jon and I promptly took it apart because we needed the lightbulb from it. Incidentally, I got splinters in my fingers from the wood, and we both got in trouble. More important — we got our lightbulb.

When our sister came along, Jon and I were 13 and 12 respectively. We were instantly enamored with our doll baby. He taught her how to dance; I taught her numbers and letters. I’d like to take the time to tell you that my teaching her these things wasn’t an effort to create a tiny genius… I just needed her to be able to spell out the directions on the side of the Hamburger Helper boxes so we could allude starvation while our parents worked late nights.

All of these little moments I took for granted were actually pretty extraordinary. Even now, I’ll whip out a skill and when asked how I know how to do it, I can almost always pinpoint how my parents used games or stories to show me. When I’m asked if we had adaptive equipment or physical therapists come over, I can honestly say no; my family just helped me figure it out. 

Tonight will be a late night for me. I’m going to class after work. It’ll be dark when I get back home, and I’ll walk into my cozy kitchen, put my stuff down, get ready for bed and turn on the light I leave on every night (as an afterthought).

Because I do just fine in the dark.

Danielle and Katie DC

The Mighty is asking its readers the following: Share with us the moment, if you’ve had it, where you knew everything was going to be OK. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio.

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Breast Cancer Survivors Rock ‘Flat Tops’ in Powerful Underwear Ads

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These three women have a story to tell with their bodies.

An underwear brand called Play Out, which makes and sells gender neutral underwear, has released a body-positive photo series featuring three breast cancer survivors. Each of the women in the series have undergone double mastectomies, and they all chose not to have reconstructive surgery.

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Emily Jensen and Jodi Jaecks. Photo by Candace Doyadfs.

In the photos, survivors Emily Jensen, Jodi Jaecks and Melanie Testa bear their scars to raise awareness and to challenge preconceived notions of femininity and what it means to be sexy.

Play Out created the images in collaboration with FlatTopper Pride, a new breast cancer support community dedicated to unilaterally and bilaterally flat LGBTQ individuals who choose not to undergo breast reconstruction or wear prostheses.

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Melanie Testa. Photo by Nomi Ellenson.

“A photo can have the greatest impact — it exposes people to the reality of a post-cancer body,” Jodi Jaecks told The Mighty. “I want to start a movement to expose and normalize these images of bodies and to hopefully support and motivate women who don’t want to have reconstructive surgery. I want them to feel like that’s an acceptable choice and to know that it doesn’t diminish their womanhood or their sexuality.”

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Emily Jensen and Jodi Jaecks. Photo by Candace Doyadfs.

“I see being breastless as liberatory,” Jensen said in the press release. “People speak of post-mastectomy bodies as being abnormal or disfigured, and that’s horrible. My body is surgically altered, but it is not abnormal, and it is still very sexy.”

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Melanie Testa. Photo by Nomi Ellenson.

“Living in a society that does not reflect the image of my body, breastless, scarred, affected by cancer, has great consequence and influence to those who are newly diagnosed,” Testa added.

See more of the powerful images below: 

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Androgynous model Rain Dove with Melanie Testa. Photo by Nomi Ellenson.
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Emily Jensen and Jodi Jaecks. Photo by Candace Doyadfs.
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Emily Jensen and Jodi Jaecks. Photo by Candace Doyadfs.
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Emily Jensen and Jodi Jaecks. Photo by Candace Doyadfs.
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Melanie Testa. Photo by Nomi Ellenson.
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Melanie Testa. Photo by Nomi Ellenson.
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Melanie Testa. Photo by Nomi Ellenson.

To see more of Play Out’s gender neutral underwear line, go here.

h/t HuffPost Women

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