The (Not So) Unusual Thing About Me
It was the 9th grade. I went to a Catholic school and we had a bulletin board anyone could post prayer petitions to. One day, I noticed one anonymous petition that said "For all the cheerleaders, that they will stop making fun of Rachel Wilson." I was a cheerleader at the time, so at first I thought, "That is absolutely ludicrous. Why would my fellow cheerleaders be talking about me behind my back?" But then it made me wonder, "What if people are talking about me and my behaviors?"
This is just one of many unsettling stories from someone with Asperger’s syndrome, a developmental disorder on the mild end of the autism spectrum.
I was diagnosed when I was three years old. Growing up, I didn’t feel like I had a group of friends or even one person who I felt comfortable around like all my peers seemed to have. Even when I was around other children at a birthday party or on the playground at recess, I felt like a loner. Because I was by myself frequently, the teacher sometimes assigned kids to play with me.
My symptoms diminished as I got older, but I still had trouble making friends and even more trouble keeping them. Despite being a cheerleader, tennis player, and honor student, I didn’t feel at home anywhere. People were not as knowledgeable about Asperger’s in the early and mid-2000s, so I think that some kids thought I was just weird—period. In the 8th grade, I began to feel like something was wrong with me. My self-esteem dropped and suicidal thoughts rattled around in my head.
Throughout middle and high school, I saw a therapist regularly and visited the guidance counselor’s office quite a bit because I didn’t know how to deal with the mounting pressures of school and social life. Because of my Asperger’s, I have mannerisms that appear slightly awkward to others, even though they feel completely natural to me.
One day during senior year, I was trying to ask my teacher a question while the mean girl was acting up (as usual). When I got to ask my question, the mean girl abruptly shouted, “Shut up Rachel! No one wants to hear your ugly voice.” Not only did this incident leave me in tears, but it made me wonder if my voice truly did sound weird. I hadn’t ever noticed anything off about it.
By the second half of senior year, I cried almost every day wondering when it would be time for me to go to college. I was ready to put high school aside and become a successful overachiever in a new school. Deep down though, I just wanted to be loved and accepted for who I am, quirks and all.
Outside of school and extracurricular activities, I spent most of my time on my own. As a teenager, I went to some birthday parties and occasionally had people over, but I didn’t really go out a lot. I would spend most weekends having one-person dance parties at home pretending I was in some swanky club in LA or New York (the power of imagination!), or I would teach myself different dance moves from the latest hip-hop videos. At least that gave me just a little bit of confidence just to get through it all. But even though these moments, I still wished I was hanging out with people outside of school on a regular basis.
The one thing that truly made me feel like myself was acting. There was something magical about being on stage where I could be whomever I wanted. I was in a few plays in middle school and one in high school, but because spring plays usually conflicted with tennis, I couldn’t do as much theatre as I wanted. When I suggested to my parents the idea of me majoring in Theatre, I was of course met with a resounding, “No, please study something you can get a job in.” I settled on Management and Spanish.
High school finally ended and I went to college at The University of Alabama where I joined a sorority for which I am still grateful to this day. I also joined an autism spectrum group to help me deal with the transition to college life. I kept this part of my life a secret though. I felt like I had to keep my Asperger’s and the transition group hidden from everyone on campus for fear of being ostracized. I couldn’t go through high school again.
I tried getting involved with numerous groups on campus, but it didn’t always work out. I was accepted into the Student Government Association and rejected from several honors societies I was more than qualified for. I had almost no real friends in the organizations I did get accepted to, and I was losing who I really was amidst all the titles and groups. I overextended myself and the stress prompted some serious self-hate. I kept thinking I wasn’t good enough for anything.
I guess you can say I finally found salvation in 2012, when I decided to get a second bachelor’s degree. When I was coming near the end of finishing my first degree, I felt an attraction to broadcasting. Perhaps it was rooted in my love for acting and the desire to be on stage or screen, but I started studying Telecommunications and Film. Most of my sorority sisters got married or moved away, so I had relatively few friends left after I earned my first degree, but I decided to get involved with my campus ministry. After four years, I finally felt like I had a home at The University of Alabama.
Things have gotten even better since college. In December 2013, the day before my graduation, I got a job offer in Birmingham for a TV network, which I graciously accepted. In January 2014, I packed my things and never looked back.
Moving to Birmingham was the best thing that has ever happened to me. I can be more myself now than I ever was growing up my small, college-oriented hometown. I have returned to my creative roots and have been fortunate enough to get a few acting opportunities, both on stage and screen. I also have found a few friends who truly accept me for who I am.
My progress was only made possible because I’ve chosen to accept myself for who I am, too. When I was younger, I was self-conscious about having Asperger’s and was afraid people would think I was a weirdo. As I got older, that stuff seemed to not matter quite as much and I stopped caring about what others thought.
The thing that prompted my confidence gain? Opening up. Talking. Revealing myself. When you open up to others, they are typically a lot more understanding and compassionate than you might imagine.
As for the bullies in high school, the people who refuse to understand you despite your reaching out—screw them. It’s your life, not theirs. It’s no one’s job to tell you who to be but yours.
As for me, even though I’m doing better, my life isn’t perfect. I still have hard days where I feel unsuccessful or lonely or just want to give up. However, knowing that I have people who do support me and outlets to express myself creatively makes it a little easier.
So open up and tell your story. There’s a listening ear somewhere out there.