Monday, September 6, 2010

"I'm Sorry." Why?

Over the past weekend I was the assistant race director at the Rock Island Grand Prix kart race, the largest street race in America, and had a most unique, and sad experience.

Several months ago, I posted an article titled, "I'm sorry..." in which I describe some of the social issues I know I have and still have issues with. This, sadly, is not a sequel to that article. This time I was not the one apologizing.

The Rock Island Grand Prix is one of my favorite race weekends because of how close the audience is. I am not sure at the actual numbers, but the numbers are in the multiple thousands. Why so many? As my photo I took in 2006 illustrates, the RIGP is a street race ran on public streets.

I am stationed in turn three and after one of the early races a spectator called me over to ask what my blue flag with orange stripe meant. I explained it and then she asked me if displaying the blue flag at street races was my day job.

This woman was in her mid 30's, give or take 13 years as I am awful at ages, and I figured this was going to be a "typical" conversation people have. How fast a conversation can change.

I told this woman that I am a Community Education Specialist for a non-profit in the the autism field in Saint Louis. She asked what that meant and I told her. She asked what makes me qualified to be in such a position and I told her that I am an author and that I am on the autism spectrum.

Her response? "I'm sorry."

I'm sorry? For what? I was taken aback by that comment and I was unable to respond. I don't know if I was offended or saddened. Whatever I was, I was frozen because no one as ever apologized or expressed sympathy to me for being on the autism spectrum, and they shouldn't.

Is there that big of a fear of the word "autism?" I had my sunglasses on and was making partial eye contact and the look on her face was one of true pity; like I was a disappointment or a defect.

Words eluded me. I just stood there oblivious as to what to say next. I now realize that was the prime opportunity to be a Community Education Specialist. But how does one react when one apologizes for who I am? I reacted by simply returning to my post some 10 feet away and waiting for the next race to start.

I now know what to say and that's why I am writing today. There is nothing to be sorry about! I am going to be honest and say that, yes, there are challenges, but other things come easy. Most of the time I am happy as can be and have a wonderful time lost in thought. There are times where the only word that can describe my perception of social situations would be "confused" but I have grown to accept this and am always challenging myself to become a little bit more adept at the art.

It is because of my Asperger's Syndrome that allows me to write. I have one semester of community college to my credit and there is no obvious reason as to why I am able to write at the quality and quantity that I do.

It is because of my Asperger's Syndrome that I have all the race official positions I have. My reflexes and ability to hyper-focus allows me to excel at these positions.

I am who I am and a part of me has Asperger's Syndrome. I see it as a strength, most of the time, so please tell me why you are sorry. It isn't that bad and I would not trade it in to be normal even if I were offered an insane amount of money.

If this perception of autism, this need for this woman to apologize, is prevalent then my job just become more important. I never once had any event like this happen, and now it has. Next time someone apologizes to me I will be ready and I will simply ask, "Why? I am happy as myself. Do you think I am wrong for being me?"


  1. *applauds* Nothing more to add there :) "I'm sorry"... I've had that reaction to me being chronicly fatigued and it actually sucks to be chronicly fatigued, so I understand that. But to being on the Autism Spectrum? Never...

  2. Wow, that's harsh. She obviously isn't very familiar...maybe she was at a loss for words...or maybe saying sorry for asking "what makes you qualified for such a position?", but then again maybe she wasn't.

    I think asking "Why are you sorry, I'm happy as myself." would be great.

  3. After thinking about this a bit, it's really not that uncommon. To be honest, I've probably heard this at least 20 times...right or wrong, it's kind of a common "courtesy" that is uttered when you first tell someone.

  4. Aaron Likens
    Awesome! This blog will be of real help to me getting first hand information about Aspergers. I have so many questions in mind when I work with people with Autism.
    Congratulations for creating awareness to the public and still its a long way to go to make people understand what it means.
    Aaron I am a special educator working in India with all types of neurological impairments and Autism has always been too complex to understand because of the behaviour seen in the people which is not acceptable in the society.
    What do you think of Sensory Integration for that behaviour

  5. I hear this often when I talk of my boys and used to be offended as well. You are correct, this is the perfect opportunity for educating people.

    I actually think that people still perceive an autism diagnosis as something with no cure or hope. They perceive it in the same way as if you were to proclaim that you had hope. Cancer survival commercials are everywhere. Aids awareness is everywhere. Autism awareness, unfortunately, is just now being focused on because of the rise.

    I will never apologize or be sorry for you or either of my boys. I simply reply with, "Don't be sorry. My son has blonde hair, blue eyes, a beautiful smile and autism."

    But you asked a specific question. You asked, "please tell me why YOU are sorry" so I am guessing you want my (and other readers) response to this. I am not sorry for you Aaron. I am proud of who you are and even more proud to know you and even call you friend. But...I am very sorry for the anxiety that you have to endure every day.

    I would like to hear more about the times when you are "happy as can be and have a wonderful time lost in thought."

    I know that Robbie really enjoys his 'happy, lost in thought' time but he can never explain where he was, what he was thinking or why it made him happy. Or maybe it's just none of my business! lol

  6. If it's me in that situation, I will not freeze at all. Rather, I will ask her a question on what does she mean by that. Then you can respond by either carefully correcting her if she is wrong, acknowledging what she says, or ask a question by trying to summarize what you just heard and see if you are right. Sure... a lot of that has to do with my instinct as an OT. But, if you are unsure what a person meant, ask questions is usually a pretty safe bet so that you can understand what the other person says better!

    As for the scenario you described, I had that happened to me several times when I disclosed my diagnosis to my OT classmates. Although "I am sorry" didn't help much, BUT I took a step back and tried to understand their intent (and this is VERY important for individuals with autism to do this!). That was when I knew that they tried to do what they could to help... and that they were also shocked, too! Then, I continue to vent how overwhelmed I felt and the battle I was fighting in the midst of school. To this day, I was NEVER angry with my classmates who said this kind of thing to me.

  7. I'm pretty sure if someone said they were sorry to my girl...she would say "I'm not!" Because she is forever telling everyone (loudly too) she is AWESOME.