Sandwiches, Creaky Doors & Community: My Life With Asperger’s (TedX Talk)

This is a talk entitled “Sandwiches, Creaky Doors & Community: My Life With Asperger’s.”

I gave at TedXUniversityofArizona (now TEDXRillitoRiver) in May of 2013. Enjoy!

Have you ever had that dream where you are back in school, except that you realize you are naked, and all of your classmates are pointing and laughing at you? Do you remember the shame, the helpless frustration of that dream?

Well, that dream was my life. Not that I went to school naked. But the shame and frustration — that was my reality. Every day, I felt like school was a warzone, and everybody else was on the other army. I felt like everybody was against me, but I didn’t know why, or how to fix it.

Welcome to my life, at age 7.

This is me. I was awkward. I didn’t have a terrible life growing up — my family loved me, I usually had at least one friend, and when it came to Super Mario Brothers…I was a pretty big deal.

But I didn’t fit in at school, or anywhere really. And I didn’t know why.

I would try my hardest to make friends and I just….wouldn’t. People would become upset with me for reasons that I couldn’t see. When I would try to be friendly, people would be mean to me.

There are three memories I have from that time.

First, walking home from school with my mom, saying “How do you TALK to people? I don’t even know how to TALK to people! How do conversations work?”

Second, sitting down at a lunch table and seeing every other kid at the table stand up and move away. Me being me, I decided to exploit my newfound power, and so I kept following the kids from table to table, forcing them around the lunch room for several minutes before giving up and eating alone.

Third, coming home from school running into my Dad’s arms, sobbing “I’m bad, I’m bad, I’m bad”

That was elementary school for me. It was a hard time.  Middle school was a little better, but I still had a lot of challenges. I mean, here’s a picture from middle school — I’m the kid in the tie dye. As you can see, I still had some trouble fitting in.

So it wasn’t until high school when things started to turn around.

See, my parents are great parents. They’re in the audience, and I strongly encourage you to give them a high five before you leave — they deserve it. And while no parent wants to believe that their kid is “different,” by this point my parents had realized that maybe I was marching to a different drummer, or maybe an entirely different orchestra.

So right before I started high school, my parents took me to a psychologist, and I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome.

In case you haven’t heard of Asperger’s, we’ll do a quick lesson. It’s a neurological condition on the autistic spectrum that makes it so that I couldn’t learn social skills naturally.

You can think of it this way. If you are a baby born in Japan, you’re going to naturally learn Japanese, just by hearing others speak it around you. But if you take an adult who has never spoken Japanese and drop them in the middle of Tokyo, they’re going to have a much harder time.

If you’re someone without Asperger’s, you just pick social skills up naturally — you’re like the baby born in Japan. If you’re someone with Asperger’s, social skills are like this foreign language that everyone else knows but you don’t — you’re the adult dropped in Tokyo without so much as a travel dictionary.

But remember, I didn’t know any of that growing up. I knew I was struggling socially, but I didn’t know why, or how to fix it. So for me, learning I had Asperger’s was this huge epiphany. When I was diagnosed, the psychologist gave me this big list of social skills that people with Asperger’s struggle with, and I was like

Ok. I can work with this.

So I started studying social skills. I read books on body language, conversation, etiquette — you name it. I watched movies with my parents and paused the movie to ask about social cues that I missed. Any opportunity I had to learn something new about social skills, I took it.

And as I studied, social interaction started to make sense, and I created my own ways for understanding and explaining the social world around me.

For instance, I read lots of books on body language, and they explained all of the little signals your body can send. One example: we point our feet at the thing we’re most interested in, so if you’re talking to someone and their feet start pointing towards the restroom, you should probably let them gracefully excuse themselves.

The problem is, every signal means something slightly different — rubbing your nose means uncertainty, while rubbing the back of your neck means anxiety. So by the time I’d looked at someone and mentally cataloged all of their body language signals, I had completely lost track of the actual conversation.

So what I did was condense the body language signals into two groups — comfort and discomfort.This way, I don’t need to remember if rubbing your nose means anxiety or uncertainty — I just need to remember that it means you aren’t comfortable.

This made me much more effective in conversations, because when I noticed my conversation partner was uncomfortable, I could try to figure out what was wrong and fix it. Before, I would be oblivious that something was wrong. Now, I could keep track of my partner’s feelings in real-time, and use that to guide the conversation.

But of course, I still had to actually figure out what to say in conversation. Conversation was tough to learn because while there are lots of books with conversation tips, they don’t actually tell you HOW to make conversation. It’s like, you’re trying to learn baseball, but every book you find just says “Keep your eye on the ball”, that’s not going to help you learn the rules or how to play. In the same way, I found conversation advice, but not how to make conversation.

So after a lot of trial and error, I made my own system for conversation. I decided that conversation is like making a sandwich with a friend. You add an ingredient, and then pass it to them. They add an ingredient, and pass it back to you. In the same way, in conversation you need to contribute something to the discussion (adding the ingredient), and then encourage your partner to add something (passing the sandwich).

So now I knew what to do in conversation — either add an ingredient or pass the sandwich. I could follow a pattern where I would first add something to the conversation — like a relevant story or thought — and then pass it back to my partner by asking them a question or otherwise inviting them to speak. That way, we both get to contribute, and the conversation keeps flowing naturally back and forth. Bingo: I could talk to people.

But then I still had to learn how to respond when my partner asked ME a question. This was tricky because growing up, I used to ramble a ton. Someone would ask me a question about what I did that day, and I would BLAH — give them the 30-minute long explanation with every moment laid out in excruciating detail. Suffice to say, this was rarely the response they were looking for.

So I developed a technique I called the creaky door. If you have a really creaky door, you don’t want to open it all at once, because the noise will annoy people. So you open it a crack, and then you open it a little more, and then you open it a little more, and so on until the door is totally open. And I used that image to remind myself to not share everything all at once.

If someone asked me a question, I would share part of the answer, and leave an opportunity for them to ask for more.

For instance, if they ask me about my weekend, I might say “Oh, it was great. I went to the pool.” If they’re curious, they will then ask about the pool, and I’ll creak the door open further to tell them more. If they’re not curious, then we’ll change the subject, and there’s no harm done.

I could talk for hours about the social skills I’ve learned, but the best part of my story is still ahead, so let’s leave it there. Suffice to say, I started understanding the principles of social interaction, and I started to develop my own techniques for applying those principles.

And I got better. A lot better.

I wasn’t perfect, by any means — and I’m still not. But I started being good enough. I started having interactions where I understood all of the nonverbal signals. I started putting myself out there, and I made some great friends. Heaven help me, I even started giving dating advice — I mean, I’d read some dating books, so I was basically an expert, right?

I think I realized just how much things had changed when my friend Mark gave me a call and said “Hey, we should do a group hangout this Saturday.” I agreed, and then there was a long pause and he said “So…you’ll set it up, right?” I had somehow moved from social outcast to party planner.

And I want to stop to highlight just how incredible this was. To learn that I could be social — that something that I had struggled with all my life was not a permanent disability but a challenge that I could overcome — was an incredible realization all in itself.

But to experience the power of relationships — to feel the joy of being close to someone else, to know the incredible honor of supporting a friend through a hard time, to thrill with the delight of staying up late with friends, — well, it opened up a whole new part of life for me.

I mean, you can think of me learning social skills despite my Asperger’s as being like a kid with terrible eyesight who gets glasses for the first time. But to experience the deep joy of friendship after a lifetime on the outskirts — that was like giving the kid glasses and then taking him to the Louvre.

Now Spiderman’s Uncle Ben says with great power, comes great responsibility. And I had realized that I had the power to open the door to this incredible life of relationships and inclusion. And so didn’t I have the responsibility to open that door not just for myself, but for others?

So what I did was simple. I started looking for the kids that I used to be like. The kids that were sitting alone, the kids that were picked last, the kids that were just…different. And I started hanging out with those kids — not out of pity, but because I knew what it was like to be in their shoes.

And you know what happened? Those kids became some of my best friends, and I discovered just how incredible they are. And I honestly think that their experience on the outskirts is part of what made them so incredible.

I mean, everyone is hurting, everyone has some kind of pain that they carry. Nobody in here has a perfect life. But when you have the pressure to fit in and be normal, you also have the pressure to bury your pain — because for some screwed up reason, our culture does not think that pain is normal. But when you are forced to the outskirts, you don’t have a reason to pretend you are ok. You’re not going to fit in whether or not you put on a happy face, so why not come to grips with your hurt?

Or to put it another way, Thoreau went into the wilderness, away from society because he wanted to live deliberately. But when society forces you into the wilderness, it also forces you to live deliberately. Instead of making choices based on fitting in or being accepted, you can make choices based on who you want to be.

I mean, I don’t want to idealize rejection. Rejection really hurts, and although it can force you to come to grips with your pain, it can also force you to carry that pain alone. It is much better to be among people that love you but, if you are forced into the wilderness, it can teach you how to love better when you return to community, and that’s what I found.

I started reaching out to people on the outskirts because I knew how much it hurt to be excluded, and I wanted to take that hurt away. But I found that the folks who I encouraged during their hard times were the folks who were most able to support me when my world was crashing down.

I’ll tell you a story. My freshman year of college, one of my friends was going through an incredibly tough time and I had exhausted myself trying to support her.

And then I got a phone call from home, letting me know some really bad news. I held it together just long enough to get off the phone, and then I completely lost it. While I was weeping, I felt an arm around me — and looked up to see my friend that I had been supporting. She held me and comforted me, and was exactly the person I needed in that moment.

But here’s the cool thing. Not only did I receive support when I needed it, but my friends also helped me learn that it was ok to need support.

You see, when I first learned to be social, I was always terrified of doing something that would cause me to be rejected again. I focused on putting my best foot forward, but that ended up being kind of lonely. After all, if you are only putting one foot forward, most of yourself is still held back.

But then my friends started showing me how much they liked me just for me, and how much I was accepted when I didn’t have anything to offer. I didn’t need to be a party planner or a shoulder to cry on. It was ok to just be me, even if being me meant being awkward sometimes.

Like, here is Sam, who I dated in college. As you see, she definitely helped me feel comfortable with myself, awkwardness and all.

Or here are some of my dearest friends, in a Disneyland teacup. Our freshman year, we all decided that we would meet every Sunday night and take an hour just to be real with each other. Anything was allowed — sometimes we brought a topic to discuss, sometimes we brought a game to play together, sometimes we just hung out. The only rule is that we would bring our real self to that hour. And so I brought Real Dan — awkwardness and all — and was met with acceptance and love and genuine friendship.

I could keep telling stories, but the point is this. After I learned that I could be Super Dan The Social Man, and reach out and bring others into community, I learned that I could be accepted without being Super Dan The Social Man. It was enough to just be me.

And I want to take a second just to remind you guys of something.

It is enough to just be you. Don’t give up on yourselves, and don’t give up on finding people who will accept you for who you are.

Because ultimately, we are found in community. We are found in the people who don’t give up on us, and the people who help us to not give up on ourselves. The proverb says that it takes a village to raise a child, but really, we need a village every day of our lives.

And guys, my story is not a story of me. It’s the story of a village.

It is the story of every friend that I reached out to who reached back to me, of every kind word that was said to me that I passed on to someone else. It’s a story of the unconditional love that my family gave me during the deepest part of my social struggles, the unconditional love that I gave and received from my friends, and it’s a story of the truth that no matter what someone is struggling with, they deserve a place where they feel loved.

I was the kid sitting alone at the lunch table — heck, I was the kid that made people leave the lunch table. Nobody thought that I was worth being friends with.

Today — well, I run a social skills website that has been visited over a quarter million times, I was the subject of a news story, and I’m kind of giving a Tedx talk about my life. I think it’s safe to say that there was value in me that the other kids didn’t see. But there were people in my life that did see that value, and helped me to see it too. I couldn’t have done it alone.

And guys, what I want you to get from my talk is really simple. Nobody should be alone. So if you are alone, you should reach out to others. And if others are alone, you should be friends with them.

That’s easy, right? That’s something anybody can do.

So I’m going to ask you to do it.

When I was 7 years old, I sat alone at lunch because everyone else would stand up and move away from me. I was desperate for someone to befriend me, and let me know that I was wasn’t alone.

If you had met me during that time, would you have sat down next to me? Would you have been my friend?

Then if you meet someone today, who is just as much in need of a friend, be that person for them.

When you see that person on the outskirts, the one that others reject, be the person that accepts them. Remind yourself that even if they are awkward or different, they might be a wonderful friend.

And then be their friend. Sit down next to them. Ask their name. Listen to their story, and become a part of it. You might find that they become an incredible part of yours.