By Rochelle Maruch Miller
A conversation with the author of “Atypical: Life with Asperger’s in 20⅓ Chapters”
“Before you proceed, be forewarned; this is not your typical book about autism. You, the reader, will get a taste of the good, the bad, and the downright weird.” Thus begins a memoir only Jesse Saperstein could write. Diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism, at the age of 14, Jesse has struggled with many of the hallmark challenges of the condition—from social awkwardness and self-doubt to extreme difficulty in dealing with change and managing his emotions.
In addition to being a bestselling author, Jesse is an autism advocate and motivational speaker, and is considered one of the most respected leaders in the anti-bullying movement. A graduate of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Jesse holds a B.A. in English and is a gifted writer and speaker who captivates his audiences with his powerful message. In his book as well as in his presentations, he recalls the pain of being exposed to some of the cruel realities of living as an adult on the autism spectrum and of being treated as a social pariah by members of the community who did not understand.
Jesse’s story, Atypical: Life with Asperger’s in 20⅓ Chapters, was published by Penguin Group (USA) in April 2010 and immediately became a popular memoir due to its practical advice and outrageous humor. He chronicles his misadventures and extremes to improve his social skills. The author strives to put a human face on Asperger’s to make his readers laugh, empathize, and better understand what it means to see the world through the prism of autism. Readers have a chance to look through the window of Asperger’s, as Jesse shares his unique perspective on such topics as overcoming bullying and chronic rejection, finding purpose and strength, coping with compulsions, and making peace with ritualistic obsessions (including an enduring love of the postal system). The book quickly rose to the top of Amazon.com and placed Jesse as a dynamic media personality, motivational speaker, and, most important, an advocate for people with disabilities.
After receiving a grant from the Anderson Center for Autism (ACA) in Staatsburg, New York, Jesse completed his first skydiving jump in front of his community in an effort to eradicate bullying. “Free-Falling to End Bullying in 2012” is currently a popular video on YouTube.
Jesse visits schools on a regular basis and has been successful with obliterating bullying or at least dramatically reducing it with every presentation. He is currently working on initiatives to pioneer a middle/high school class in New York State that will focus on educating young people about misunderstood disabilities as well as the psychological and legal consequences of bullying.
Jesse’s story is an optimistic message for those who share his challenges and possess special talents that often go unrecognized. Above all, it is a lesson for all of us who struggle with something. “When you cannot let go and want something badly enough, our weaknesses will inevitably become strengths.”
In this interview with the 5TJT, Jesse shares his unique perspective on a variety of topics.
RMM: What inspired you to write your memoir?
JS: My decision to write the book was an opportunity to escape the cruel realities of living as an adult on the autism spectrum and being treated as a social pariah by individuals who didn’t understand. Writing the book has afforded me the opportunity to advocate for my peers who are not always granted a voice. My Jewish faith has definitely provided a great deal of inspiration throughout my book—and my life.
RMM: Jesse, you are regarded as one of the most respected leaders in the anti-bullying movement. To what do you attribute the insidious spread of cyberbullying?
JS: The majority of bullying is perpetrated by cowards who are convinced their victims do not have the physical or mental faculties to fight back. Cyberbullying is arguably the most cowardly form of childhood bullying because the tormentor is operating from the safety of his or her own home . . . cowering behind an anonymous screen name . . . saying things he or she would never have the courage to say to the victim’s face . . . imposing themselves into someone else’s haven. It disgusts me how we live in a society that takes a lackadaisical view of such malicious behavior.
RMM: You began being bullied relentlessly from the age of nine. How did you deal with the pain?
JS: Like an incompetent anthropologist, I would lethargically pick up the social graces relevant to each new environment during transitional periods. By the time I finally “got it,” the damage was usually irreversible because too many doomed first, second, and fifteenth impressions have already transpired. Children also have a natural talent for immediately identifying those peers who cannot fit into the system. The most tenacious bullying surfaced from 9 to 14, when it was not surprising to return to my gym locker and discover my books had been merrily thrown around the room like confetti. It was during this time when a handful of my teachers seemed to condone the constant bullying as a natural repercussion of being different.
RMM: You write about a teacher whom your mother had approached with the intent of alerting him to your history of being bullied. His callous response, which appalled me, was, “If any student is having social problems, it has been my experience that particular student is usually doing something to cause it himself.” Wisely, your mother had you transferred to another class after he began sending home notes “laced with snide remarks about the stupid questions” you had asked in class. How did this impact you?
JS: It is dangerous to always condemn an Asperger’s child for creating his or her own social nightmare. This form of tough love was responsible for an unhealthy, codependent relationship in which my self-esteem was at the mercy of my oppressors. Only sometimes did making the effort alleviate some of the teasing. For instance, in gym class I took competitive sports very seriously and harnessed my microscopic cache of athletic ability. I also drew inspiration from the fictional ten-page long novella, Jewish Sports Heroes of the 20th Century. My peers’ genuine compliments coincided with each hollow smack inside my baseball glove . . . every goal.
Making the effort can stimulate some social acceptance, although bullying will never be totally eradicated. Perhaps my unhappiness would have been less severe if teachers had explained the other reasons for chronic social failures. When people fail to understand why someone is different they will often deny him or her the “radical” courtesy of a chance.
Few teachers prepared me for the rejections that would come crashing down like the moon-manipulated tides. Or the barren durations of hopelessness when I should have practiced staring into the mirror to germinate a sense of self that was not always going to come from my peers.
But victims are wise to consider the mindset of a bully in order to preserve their own self-esteem. Plenty of bullies are victims of bullying themselves or have been scarred by worse abuse, such as domestic violence and molestation. They are vulnerable young beings grasping for celery-thin strands of confidence or anything at all. Instead of building self-esteem through their accomplishments, it is easier to scour the schoolyard for easy targets.
RMM: What is your advice to others with Asperger’s syndrome?
JS: My advice to others with AS is optimistic, but realistic. People do judge a book by its cover, and first impressions will be brutal. Well-meaning individuals will provide you with advice and “constructive criticism” that will not always be constructive or fair. My favorites are “Stop trying so hard,” and “Just be yourself.” Therefore, it is often necessary to impose yourself upon the lives of those who come to knee-jerk conclusions about you. Show them who you are and do not be modest about your accomplishments.
RMM: You’ve put a human face on Asperger’s and given your readers a better understanding of autism. What message would you like to convey?
JS: That we also need individuals who are magnanimous enough to give us a chance to step back and take another look. As society continues to witness the gifts we have to offer, a dramatic expansion of our opportunities and neurotypical allies will follow. Perhaps this is the missing piece of the puzzle we have all been searching for.