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Autism: Overload

An essay by Shayne Holzman, a 19-year-old with Asperger's 


Jam-packed thoughts scramble in my brain. As I talk, speech disrupts my thinking, and I cannot control how fast my brain works. Taking in too much information is an overload, as if listening to too many songs at once. Looking at windows and walls helps calm me down. 

When I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, I was 16. When the doctor told me I had ASD, I thought of myself as someone who could not function properly in the world, but now, at 19, I think of myself as a regular person with a different thought process.

Asperger’s is the worst name in the world. It just sounds strange. I demand a change, or for the label to have a new name. Sensory overload disorder would be better. It would bring with it less of a stigma and would make it harder to stereotype people with my condition. When I hear the word Asperger’s, my self-esteem drops ten degrees and my brain accelerates to overdrive. When people stereotype me, I feel like I have no life and no one knows who I am. They only reject me because of the name. It’s one thing to dislike someone and another to dislike someone because of their label. The only reason people label themselves is to find a new identity. Searching for my identity is like lurking in a cave waiting to see light again.

I have to get out of my head and stop torturing myself with anxiety. Overcoming challenges will take time, but when I can get out of my shell, I will know I am ready for the world to take me beyond my fears. It was easier for me when I was younger because I was not self-conscious and not self-aware. Now I find myself engaging other people in conversations, but sometimes I have pauses. When I ask a question, pausing feels like a still photo waiting to be shot. The camera is clicked when the picture is at rest.

In high school I was trained to socialize. Just like people are trained in school to learn a certain way, I was taught at Village Glen School in Culver City to interact with people in a certain form and style.  In class I learned to start and exit a conversation as well as slip into conversations. Typical teenagers hang out with friends without even thinking about it, and it is easy for them. I have to remind myself to hang out with people, and sometimes it becomes aggravating and boring to engage in a conversation.

Socializing is a craft. You have to learn the rules, like learning how to maintain eye contact. That was difficult for me because I could not concentrate when looking at the person face-to-face and eye-to-eye. An invisible wall stood in front of my brain, as if I had writer’s block and could not get my thoughts down on a blank page. I felt caught between two walls, like a turtle in a shell. In PEERS, a socializing class taught by developmental psychologists at UCLA, I gained a lot of confidence in knowing that I am able to talk to anyone with less hesitation.

When I listen and talk, people's faces distract my attention and focus, and I become distant from the conversation. Immense anxiety and fear sometimes make me misunderstand what is being said. In class I follow the teacher differently than others, because when given too much information, I get easily overwhelmed if I do not understand a word problem or a story correctly. When I freak out due to misunderstanding, my ability to process gets blurry.

Since I have learned some of the mechanics of “how” to socialize, I can tell the difference between someone who doesn’t have socializing problems and someone who does. It’s awkward to start a conversation and only have some questions in my social toolbox, and the person I am talking to has many. I have learned to talk about common interests and ask about what the other person likes to do. It feels as if I am writing a story.  I have to ask myself questions in order to get to the next question. I have to know where I am going before I start to try to get there.

ASD is all about perception. I perceive social cues in a different way, like secret messages hiding in a mirror. I can talk to people clearly and in broad terms and understand unique and complex ways of thinking, but I misunderstand basic social cues. When I talk to people, I look at their faces and fixate on how they are speaking. I pay very close attention and only need a few aspects of the conversation to get the whole picture. Sometimes I will have anxiety attacks that are very stressful, because I can worry myself sick about all the different aspects in life that I interpret differently than other people.  When having an attack, I will become very restless, as if I have no way to escape, and my body will feel very light and spin around. If I take a walk and talk, I can sometimes calm myself down. 

Remember that invisible wall I told you about that seems to divide what people say and what I think? Well, sometimes I feel like walls cave in around me as I sit at a brown desk in class. When the teacher explains what is in the book, I contemplate really hard and realize the feeling of taking in too much information at once. With practice, as the days go by, I train my brain not to panic over how well—or not well—I am doing. Learning about the world still seems a complex tangle of information, but my brain is able to handle instruction because I am learning to soothe myself. Music helps me relieve tension, stress, and overstimulation when my brain runs like a motor unable to stop.  

Sometimes I do not see the logic in the way other people think. I don’t see learning or life in steps. I have a very abstract and creative mind, which means I see the whole picture and forget to break it down. I do not like thinking slow—I’d rather go fast when writing down thoughts. My brain is like a tornado whirling around in a circle.

Sounds in my head become louder than usual. My head starts to hurt. I take deep breaths. Afterward, little by little, I have to remember that my brain will keep me safe and that I am OK, but sometimes I cannot trust that part of my brain because anxiety has already become too high. 

The world does not know who I am yet, and I have yet to explore who I will become. That process will take time, communication, and passion. Everyone interprets life differently. I see the world as if life is one big block containing broad amounts of information. I do not see life separated in different particles. 

Now I wish to go forward and let life’s structure tell me how far I can turn to follow my dreams and path. When the world’s identity gets to be too strong, I stare at what is wrong and what is right and am locked in. It feels like I am blinded by light and there is no place to hide.

As a college freshman, I’m at a point in my life when people sometimes look at me awkwardly, as if through a cracked mirror, and sometimes stare at me nicely, realizing who I am and who I have become. I will not be scared. I will walk away when the time is right and stand still when the time is wrong.  Confusion is all in my head. I just need to keep singing that pretty old song and I’ll get through. It won’t take long.

For a glimpse into Shayne Holzman's Facebook life, read The Teen Age