"You don't look like you have Asperger syndrome."
I hear this sentence a lot. It's a death knell for understanding: the part where a friend, one night stand, or even romantic partner learns I have Asperger syndrome and makes the decision that they know more about the condition than the people who diagnosed me.
It's often meant as a message of solidarity: "Hey, you can pass for whatever counts as normal around here, good job." Yet it shows a complete lack of knowledge about the entire disorder.
As awareness of Asperger's has grown, it's also become defined entirely by the stereotype of someone who is socially awkward, a topic that many twentysomethings feel like an authority on. When someone says I don't look like I have Asperger's, this is what I hear: "All people with Asperger's are socially impaired, reclusive, obsessive and really fucking good at maths, right?"
I'm not going to breakdown exactly what Asperger's is, because VICE already did a great job of this, I'm just going to talk about where people are getting it wrong. One small change since the article was written in 2012, though: Asperger's syndrome technically no longer exists, it was folded into "Autistic Spectrum Disorder" in May 2013. The general catch-all term takes in everything anywhere near related to autism, but it's convenient shorthand to refer to it by its original name.
I suck at maths. I also love socialising, although it's incredibly draining. I will spend most of the day after a social event obsessing over the 10,000 things I definitely did wrong and everyone hates me for, but while I'm there, I can have a pretty decent time as long as I don't think I'm doing anything to make people think I'm weird. Most people with Asperger's are affected in different ways, but generally we're all high-functioning.
There's one advantage that most of us have. To have Asperger's is to be a fantastic actor. Those with the syndrome will have different personalities they adopt for different situations. After enough practice, none of us ever "looks like they have Asperger's". In the same way that someone with depression might try to appear more upbeat when they're out and around, Asperger's sufferers might adopt a personality that helps them make friends and fit in.
Sadly, while this might help us make friends, it rarely scratches the itch for companionship, which can lead to more serious risks. It might be that I'm just a dickhead, but I've always found the worse part of Asperger's syndrome not to be the social ineptitude, but the crushing sense of "otherness" that means even in a room full of people professing they love your company, you feel alone. It's not often discussed, but depression and Asperger's often go hand in hand and it's this that prompted my first suicide attempt. I'm not alone, either. Depending on what study you look at, between 7 to 15 percent of people who have been admitted to hospital for attempted suicide also have a diagnosis for autism. This is much higher than the 1 percent rate of autism diagnosis across the country would suggest.
It's incredibly distressing to watch your friends, family and colleagues all distance themselves from you over social rules you've broken or slights that everyone but you has noticed – slowly starting to feel less and less welcome in places but not being able to ask what's wrong, because people just won't tell you. Because you can't read social cues, you'll often get a gut feeling there's a problem you're not equipped to detect.
This panic can mean those with Asperger's are plagued with self-doubt. If Asperger's has taught me anything, it's that my gut feelings can often be wrong, so challenging people for behaving coldly towards you could actually just drive people away, when they weren't acting coldly in the first place. The worst part about this is that while I might have the social skills of a toddler, I'm often totally aware that they're getting it wrong, but aren't able to adequately resolve the situation or express myself. I'm frequently stumped why friends don't seem to want to hang out or talk anymore. This varies due to the severity for different people, but it's something that many friends with Asperger's have discussed feeling.
In fact, one friend said the only way she was able to handle the unseen and unspoken pressures of society when you can't instinctively deal with it was "to just stop giving a shit what anyone thought about her". This is something that is much easier said than done.
But while people with Asperger's are slowly struggling to understand these unwritten rules of social conduct, characters in popular culture like Sheldon Cooper from unfunny sitcom Big Bang Theory or Ryan Gosling's supercool yet ultraviolent driver from Drive are propagating the stereotypes. Living with Asperger's is much more than just the stereotype, yet, for now at least, it seems that's all the representation we're going to get.
It'd be nice if, rather than playing it for laughs, pop culture depictions of Asperger's could focus on the other side of things: the increased risk of mental health problems, the crippling self-worth issues and even the thorny subject of the increased suicide risks. The most important thing to consider, both for pop culture and for the purposes of befriending one of us strange and mythical Asperger's sufferers, is that we're all different people, and we're all doing the best we can to just get on with things.
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