He's not an oddball, he's just different
ERIC CHEN is 19 years old. He has never been invited to a party or been out on a date, and he rarely goes to bed later than 9pm.
While his peers are interested in music, sports and fashion, he finds these topics "boring".
The bespectacled and lanky youth says: "The things they talk about and the way they behave are incomprehensible to me. I'd rather talk about the meaning of life."
Chen, who is shy and awkward in the way he moves, is not your typical teenager. But more than that, the way he thinks and speaks is not what one would expect of someone with autism.
He suffers from Asperger's syndrome, which is part of a group of diagnoses called "autistic spectrum disorders".
"Autism spectrum" refers to a range of developmental disabilities that includes autism as well as other disorders with similiar characteristics.
Affecting mostly males, it is characterised by poor social interactions, obsessions, odd speech patterns and other peculiar mannerisms that make one appear eccentric.
Dr Lam Chee Meng, 42, director of the Autism Resource Centre, says that there are around 28,000 Singaporeans with Asperger's. The majority are also mentally handicapped.
He says that Chen is among the rare ones who are intellectually gifted, excelling in fields like computer programming, mathematics and science.
But the most striking thing about the teenager, who is now doing his National Service, is how aware he is about his condition. A visit to his web page at http://iautistic.com* reveals an articulate and well-read mind.
He says he started the website two years ago to raise awareness about his condition and to share his thoughts on life.
But life was not always so well thought out and understood.
He became aware of his condition only two years ago after stumbling on an article about it on the Internet. He filled all the characteristics it mentioned: He had problems socialising, was bullied in school and feels isolated.
"I feel relieved," he says of discovering the article.
"It made clear to me why the world behaved in one way, and I in another. But I also felt angry. People had been telling me I was wrong and I had to change my ways to fit in, when really, I wasn't wrong. I was just being myself."
He says that his primary school classmates - he does not want to reveal which schools he went to - used to laugh at him, throw books at him and sometimes even kick him, for being "the oddball".
In Primary 2, while his peers were busy catching spiders, he preferred collecting chemical formulae and physics theories.
"I was a walking encyclopaedia, reciting facts to anybody who cared to listen," he recalls with a grin.
His mother, a housewife, realised early that he was not like other children. She brought him to a general practitioner, who told her there was nothing wrong with him.
Little was known about autism at the time, but she knew he was not normal. So, she took it upon herself to make sure that he would fit in, especially academically.
She hired a tutor to read him English books when he was in kindergarten as she could only speak Chinese. She tutored him at home when he was in primary school, and often brought him to the library.
Dr Lam says: "These early intervention steps really helped build a strong foundation for Chen's development. His mother taught him to become an independent learner."
In Secondary Two, the boy read a book about psychology and experienced what he calls "an awakening".
"It gave me a better understanding of myself. I realised that everyone has creativity and talent, even me. Instead of just memorising facts, I realised that I had to learn how to exploit my knowledge and strengths as a way to develop my potential."
He has since experienced a few other "awakenings", which he likens to a mid-life crisis.
"There's a lot of questioning, where I throw away old theories and embrace new ones."
His new ideas come from reading books on psychology, philosophy and science.
Chen, who has a logistics diploma from a local polytechnic, hopes to further his studies in the field of artificial intelligence when he finishes NS in two years' time.
His goal in life is to set up by 2050 a society that is built on the pursuit of self-actualisation.
"It will be a society of scientists who do all kinds of research without worrying about survival or politics. And it will be in space," he says.
He has even calculated that it will cost about $10 billion, which he describes as "an economical amount".
"I'm under no illusion that this is an easy job. From now till then, it's practicing time. I need to learn how to apply my ideas and how to interact socially so I can get help from people later," he says in a matter-of-fact tone.
He reveals that he has just one close friend from his secondary school days.
"teachers have told me I'm a genius so I shouldn't have problems making friends. But it's not easy. For normal people, making friends comes naturally, like how doing maths comes naturally for people with Asperger's. But making friends for people with Asperger's is like normal people and maths. It's a damn headache."
For a while, he chatted regularly on the Internet with a group of people from all over the world with Asperger's.
"I stopped because I felt I was helping them more than they were helping me. A lot of them were very depressed and wanted to commit suicide, so I ended up taking on a counseling role."
He acknowledges readily that he is a role model for people with the condition.
"People will always want to know how I learnt, how I do it. My advice to those who don't have Asperger's is: We are not hopeless. There is more to us than meets the eye."
And for those who share his condition?
"Be yourself. Don't attempt to conform against your will. But at the same time, accept other people for who they are. It's about mutual respect."
As he says: "I've never been ashamed of myself. This is the way I am. God put me here to experience life from another perspective, and I accept why people are a different way from me."
"We all have different destinies."
* Minor Update
I have taken the liberty to update some information, marked as * in the article.
My having to serve military service (a.k.a Singapore National Service or NS), and thus having very limited time, remains the main reason why I stopped.
When I wrote about depressed and suicidal people, I write about a very visible (large) minority. Now, they don't specifically put me off in talking to them, but this does contribute to my reduced visits because I want to find like-minded people, not those who need counseling.
I did not consider myself very good at maths (unless I can understand the core concepts), but I did use this as an analogy to describe how abstract stuff can seem easy for those Asperger's while social stuff can seem so difficult. I believe that I did not clarify this well enough.
I have a few good friends, and only one 'best' friend, in secondary school. Teachers can qualify in my friends classification. Usually, best refers to a singular term so it would sound very unusual to have 2 best friends. However, I would make an exception if I do find that happening.
I do like staying up late (to do research or writing), but because my working in NS requires me to wake up very early every morning, I have to sleep early to avoid feeling very tired throughout the day. Thus nowadays, I attempt to sleep before 9 p.m. (mostly without success as I have a lot of work to catch up).
Asperger's consists of part of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and by definition refers to the high functioning end with at least normal IQ. 28000 individuals with ASD, not just Asperger's, constitutes a rough estimate. No one has conducted a census to provide reliable results yet.
Updated 30 Nov 02
|New Autism Articles||–|
DIY Autism Therapy|
One Giant Leap from Autism
Some parents also need therapy
Story Writing & Creativity for Autistics
Using Facebook for Aspies