By Eric Zimmerman
Autism is misunderstood by so many people. I recently got the following remark from a customer who was visiting to buy some laptops: “Autism? You don’t look like you have Autism.” He then tried to have his driver concur with him on that fact. I told him in return “I have a great come-back for that statement: you don’t look ignorant either.” He laughed, agreed, and saw where I was coming from. Autism is on such a spectrum that it can show differently in EVERYONE who has been diagnosed. The misunderstanding of what autism “looks like” is profound.
I was diagnosed at 16 years old with High Functioning Autism. I grew up the majority of my childhood with other diagnoses (ones that usually accompany an ASD Diagnosis) but my healthcare providers and school system officials had NO CLUE that I was on the spectrum. I dealt with and was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, a mood disorder, and general anxiety. No one can deny that I dealt with any of these issues, or diagnoses. But, because of my late autism diagnosis, and how broad the spectrum can be in how it “looks”, I sometimes wonder about that diagnosis. The gifts and interests that come with ASD can vary, and sometimes it is hard not to questions why someone has a gift I don’t or vice versa. Sometimes autism comes with gifts people should be jealous of, not scared.
I have a friend (he will go by the name M) that has a much lower functioning form of Autism than I do; it affects him significantly in the areas of social skills and learning. But, M can tell you the exact date (and occasionally time) that something happened. He also easily memorizes future dates and times for plans and appointments. I have a great memory- but not what he has. I kind of envy him for this skill. He has such a GREAT work ethic because he is very prompt, and goes by an exact schedule. M, like many on the spectrum, has extreme interest: maps and geology. He can tell you how to get somewhere exactly; almost like a human GPS.
Another friend (I will name him P) is an amazing skier and participates in the Special Olympics. Not only is P an amazing athlete, he can also paint very well. He is a fantastic artist and designs greeting cards for the holidays. I definitely envy his skills as well. P’s extreme interest is skiing and the state of Maine.
I have met people who are amazing students, writers, musicians… Skills that vary across the spectrum. All of them “looking” different. So, how do I fit in with these individuals? What traits do I share with someone on the spectrum? What are my skills?
I have my extreme interests just like the people mentioned above. My extreme interests are trains, computers, car racing, GM cars, and South Africa. I also have my talents that I excel at. I am more of a mechanical person in that I can build or teardown a computer, just to do it. I am a very good driver and enjoy it so much that I have been told that I should drive a truck. However, there is a big difference in driving a semi than a sports car, and I would favor the latter. I really am fascinated with repetitive routines-specifically the routine through which businesses operate. For this reason, I am fascinated with surgery, not just for my interest in instruments and anatomy (the mechanical way I think), but how the Operating Room handles the flow of patients, from the decision to have surgery, to posting, all the way to patient discharge from the facility. This process fascinates me so much. Likewise, how an airline works: scheduling of flights and airport operations (i.e. the boarding process, and how passengers navigate an airline). The “Hub and Spoke” system really is neat. And facilitating events fascinate me: one is put on and handled. I enjoy planning events for my non-profit; The Buddy Project. We have planned several “Balls” and “Cake Auctions”.
Okay, so I do share these traits common in people on the Autism Spectrum, it just manifests in a different way than my friends. And, hyper-interests are just one small part of what being on the spectrum means. We all have similar struggles but are also so very different. So, don’t worry about whether you “look” like you have autism or question why someone can do something you can’t. Instead ask yourself: what are MY talents and skills? Because- like everyone on the spectrum- no one is the same.
Check out my website and eBook at www.ericdzimmerman.com
Eric D. Zimmerman is Founder and Chairman of The Buddy Project, and should know about technology’s ability to unlock some of the everyday barriers faced by the special-needs community: The 28-year-old has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism which hinders social interaction. From working with Best Buddies International, he grew to recognize that, unlike him, many of the disabled have little to no access to such commonplace household technologies as even their own email account.
Zimmerman, a graduate of Frederick High School, decided to take action. Officially, since 2007, his technological savviness (certified in computer repair and rehabilitation by the Career Technology Center’s IT program), united with his caring, altruistic drive to help others, has been brightening lives. That’s when, out of his Frederick home, he began The Buddy Project. And, ever since, his not-for-profit organization has acted upon its mission of providing free computers (and/or other technologies) to qualifying IDD candidates. It’s also a mission that the Frederick County Commission on Disabilities has duly honored by bestowing Zimmerman with its Distinguished Service Award. He also serves on the Board of Directors of Service Coordination, Inc. the largest provider in Maryland of targeted case management for people with developmental disabilities.
Zimmerman also has a special interest in Surgical IT and he spends one day a week at St. Agnes Healthcare in Baltimore where he learns about Surgical Equipment and Instruments as well as help the hospital work more efficiently by the adding of his volunteering.