If you lined up 10 Autistic kids in a room, no two would be alike. Every Autistic child is different. Two or three in every 10,000 children have a high-functioning form of Autism, called Asperger's Syndrome. They usually have major difficulties in social situations and have unusual interests and behaviors. A
"I always had this sense that I was different from the other kids. I had thoughts and feelings, I suspected, that none of my peers thought the way I did," says 23-year-old Nicole Baumgartner. Nicole has lived her entire life on the outside looking in. From as early as she can remember, something just wasn't right. "I could sense there was something different about me. I didn't know what it was, I didn't have a name for it. Most of the time, I felt like a freak or I imagined, maybe, I was from another planet or something."
Nicole's first memory of feeling alienated and different from the other kids was on the playground at preschool. "Looking down from this climbing structure at everyone else who was in my class, sitting there watching them with this oversized baby doll in my arms, just watching. I'd physically separate myself to perhaps mimic the mental separation I felt." The loneliness and feelings of isolation continued into elementary school, but it would still be years before her disorder was diagnosed. "I did like to play a lot by myself with a small group of friends. I'd sit on a tree stump and daydream in elementary school during recess." By high school, it had become easier for Nicole to hide in the shadows. Her survival strategy, make other kids her textbook. I kind of became a nature show host, almost, I'd observe others and just stay out of it and see what they did. They were animals to be observed, in a way, to learn, okay, what does a so-called normal person do in this situation. I kind of styled myself an outcast, an outsider, I was really into heavy metal and I'd hang out with other like-minded people. I channeled myself, almost completely, into academics, because I knew that's where I could do well, it's where I felt safe."
After years of slipping through the cracks, doctors finally diagnosed Nicole with Asperger's Syndrome, her sophomore year of high school. "I did some research on my own on the Internet, and books, and the more I read, the more I was like, 'oh yeah, I did that when I was younger, I did that, I still do that.' I experience a lot of mixed senses. I can feel music, as if it was like a physical touch. A lot of people with Asperger's, I've read, tend to be very frank and say exactly what they're thinking, whether it's socially acceptable or not. People will say something to me and if I like the sound of a particular phrase or something, I'll repeat it out loud after them and they'll say, 'I just said that' and I'll be like, 'yeah, but I want to hear it from my mouth.'"
Nicole is now using her disability to help others in the same or similar shoes. After graduating from Viterbo, in December, she landed a job working with other Autistic kids as a classroom assistant at Chileda. She calls herself a voice for the voiceless. "I'll notice one of the students doing a particular behavior and I'll be like, 'yeah, I would do that, too', if I didn't feel like I had to constrain myself to so-called normality. When I finally, kind of, came out of the closet, so to speak, with my disorder, a lot of people said, 'well, I didn't know that, I wouldn't have guessed it' and I said 'that's because I'm very good at pretending to be normal.' There's a lot more of us, so-to-speak, than you may think, you might even work or live next to someone who perhaps has Asperger's. Be sensitive and understand that people with disabilities are people too."
Unlike other forms of Autism, Asperger's is usually not diagnosed until adulthood, because of a lack of standardized criteria to diagnose it. It was a social worker at Nicole's high school who first suspected Nicole had it.