Watch, observe, never learn: Living college with Asperger’s

By Russ Davis

For anyone who’s curious about Asperger’s, a primer of sorts is Ben X, a 2007 Belgian film centered on a teenager with the condition. At one point in the film, protagonist Ben Vertriest (portrayed by Greg Timmermans) is walking between home and a bus shelter, and the voiceover informs us what’s going on in his head. As he walks through the crowd at the bus shelter, his thoughts are thus: “People are strange. They talk and talk and talk.” When he sees a teenage couple in the throngs of high school romance, he thinks, “And they drink each other’s saliva. All I can do is watch and copy them, imitate them. Everything I’ll never learn. Because there was always something the matter with me.”

This is Asperger’s Syndrome, with its whirlwind ingredients, condensed into one sage observation. Okay, so maybe I’m not confused to the extent that Ben Vertriest is, but everyday settings still puzzle me.

When I sit in a classroom, I can’t help but feel like… Well, like something’s missing. Everyone’s functioning, for the most part, pretty flawlessly. Conversation in the room flows smoothly, and most of the students are turned out in nice, often designer clothes. And then you have awkward Russ. I sit there, doused in insecurity, nervously scanning the room as if someone from the NSA is nearby.

I’ve taken three political science classes taught by Kimberly Earles (this shout-out’s for you, Dr. E), all of which were heavily discussion-based. I was amazed at how the other students were able to contribute to the discussion with consistent, steady speech, never skipping a beat as they talked about the need for universal healthcare, greater regulations on whaling, redistribution of wealth, and whatever else it is that animates us idealistic college kids these days.

Then I would raise my hand and attempt to offer my two cents–––after all, the whole reason I have this job as a columnist is so I can offer UWT students my spin on policy and current events. But when I try to do the same in classroom discussion, I realize I can’t get my point across without stumbling over my own words a few dozen times. I’m sure I sound like an idiot, although I’m not sure. This is compounded by the fact that most of the students in my poli-sci classes disagree with where I stand on policy.

Then I leave class. When I walk through campus, I can’t help feeling a twinge of sadness as I watch everyone else getting on with their day in happy surroundings. I can only observe as couples kiss, huge groups of people laugh, and competent people brag about the awesome weekends they had.

For my part, I feel like I’m just moving from one building on campus to the next, trying to get on with my day so I can finally throw my bag in my trunk and get on home. It’s as if college is meant to be enjoyed by other people (competent people), and my access privileges only allow me to observe as they go forward in life while I stay in neutral.

Like Ben Vertriest, I can only watch and copy everything I’ll never learn.