Let me ask you a question: Do you ever feel like you don't fit in? I felt that way when I was a kid. I was the twelve year old that was happy browsing a forum about a video game. That was my idea of a fun time. Obviously, I didn't have many friends. I didn't go out and do many things. I stayed in and was on the computer.
My world was the computer, and if you took me away from what I knew, I was really sad and really depressed.
As I said, I was diagnosed with Asperger's when I was twelve and people always ask me “What was it like being diagnosed with Asperger's?” Well, one day I was playing computer games, and then the next day my mom came in and said, “Hey, you have Asperger's.”
I just thought, “Can I get back to my computer game now?” But underneath I was so confused and scared about life, my future, and my ability to “succeed.” There was nobody to say, “What you're feeling is real.” There was nobody to say, “It’s OK to feel this.” There was nobody to say, “Here, let me teach you how to do life.” All they cared about was what year Rome fell and different types of verbs. The stuff that, to be honest, I couldn't care less about. See, when you are trying to survive and get through the day, you don’t have the time or emotional capacity to care about different verb types or really anything else that is in the school system.
That was the start of the decade of my life where I was shut down. I was defensive. I was disconnected. Defense Mode robs you of your humanity, because you feel like you want to connect to people, but you're so internally scared of every single sensation that there's this gnawing emotional hole and all you can do is constantly try and compensate for it, avoid the world, and defend against anything that comes near . . . even things that you wouldn't normally need to defend against, such as a pen. If it makes you uncomfortable at all, if there's any uncomfortable sensation, you want nothing to do with it.
So this is what I was like for a decade of my life. I was in this defensive state. I was in this stuck state, and I was scared.
Defense Mode affected me on more than just a fear level. It affected me biologically, psychologically, emotionally, and prevented me from having a full life. As someone with Asperger's, you can try to do life all you want, but you're never going to flourish and thrive until you are out of Defense Mode.
The answer to getting out of Defense Mode isn't complicated. Defense Mode is a state where you are extremely stressed out. The way to get out is to reduce that stress. The concept is simple. The implementation requires consistency, similar to working out. The concept of a push-up is easy. The magic lies in the consistent implementation.
By the way, there is no permanent state of "out" when it comes to Defense Mode. Sometimes you are out, sometimes you are in. The goal is to minimize the time you are in and be able to get out quickly.
As far as I'm aware, the only way to permanently avoid stress, anxiety, and emotional intensity is to be dead. That isn't our goal. Our goal is to be resilient against stress so that we can deal with it effectively and efficiently when it shows up in our lives.
So, I progressed through middle school (somehow), and then I started high school. Sometimes, my high school teachers would take me aside and say, “Danny, you really need to stop asking questions, because in the real world people won't accept that, and you aren't going to go far in life.”
Once, during one of my IEP (Individualized Education Plan) meetings, the special education director sat down with us and said, point blank, “Danny's probably not going to do much in life. He's probably just going to go to City College. And he's probably just going to go work a part-time job and live at home.”
So first of all, screw him. Who is he to dictate what I will and will not do in life? It really frustrates me when someone takes away another person’s hope like that. I’ve heard countless stories from our community like “When my kid was five, the doctors told me he would be retarded and never even learn to walk or hear us.”
I’ve also seen a few TV specials that claim that people with Asperger's don't have empathy or emotions, and therefore, they're just an automaton. So I checked out. I decided I was done. So done that in my senior year of high school, I actually ended up just working in a computer lab that, fun story, I didn't even get assigned to. It was there, it needed fixing, and no one else was doing it. I ended up being a self-proclaimed IT guy and setting up all the things. I was in that computer lab every single day of the week, sometimes on Saturdays, too, just fixing things, configuring things. It was this giant mess. There was a Mac OS X 10.5 server sitting in the corner that nobody was using. Students didn’t have a good way to login or access their files. So some days, instead of going to English class or chemistry, I ended up working in that computer lab, and no one stopped me because at that point all of my teachers realized that soon I would be out of their hair, and it was easier to let me do my thing as long as I maintained my grades.
Want to read more? This was an excerpt from our book "Surviving & Thriving With Asperger's". Get the whole book here.