This post marks the beginning of a series I am writing called “Dispatches from an Aspie.” This series will contain some humor, but humor will not be the focus. Instead, I will highlight my various exploits as a person with Asperger Syndrome (Level One Autism Spectrum Disorder without verbal impairment). My intent is to educate folks on the difficulties that I and other ASD people face, so that greater understanding and compassion may be fostered. Please be kind.

Today was going to be a good day. I was hanging out with my best friend. We were going to watch Mamma Mia. Boba tea was involved. It was the green tea kind, with popping lychee-flavored boba, aka “the good shit.” The stars were aligning for at least an 8/10 day. The catch? I had to have my photo taken.

While I’ve been known to take the occasional Instagram selfie, I tend to avoid photos where someone else is holding the camera. There are two reasons for this:

  1. I can’t gauge how I look before the photo is taken. This lack of control gives me immense anxiety.
  2. I have enormous difficulty with the supposedly simple act of smiling. According to my therapist, this is common in those with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).

The photo was to be a simple head shot. All I had to do was stand there and smile. For many of you, this a common act. You may even enjoy having your photo taken. Some of you pose for a shot with everything from murals to marijuana. You flash your pearly whites and you look good as hell doing it, too. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course. In fact, I envy those of you who feel comfortable in front of the camera, because for an aspie like me, that comfort is replaced with fear.

After enjoying the taste sensation that is boba tea, I decided that I would get the photography over with. My friend positioned me in a well-lit area of his apartment, opened up the camera app on his phone (regular cameras are only to be used for bird enthusiasts and pornographers), and pointed the phone at my face. It was time for me to smile.

For me, smiling with teeth has been out of the question since I graduated from high school. I used to be okay at it, but after spending so many years frozen in a permanent frown, I simply forgot how to do it. Sometimes I practice a toothy grin in front of the mirror, but the image looking back at me is awkward and upsetting. For this photo, I would simply try to turn the corners of my mouth upward. Simply put, this was a goddamn challenge.

I tried to smile. I really did. It was almost physically painful, and my lips started to twitch almost immediately. It was as if the biological makeup of my face was contesting the adage of “it takes more muscles to frown.” I managed to hold what I hoped would be a satisfactory smile for the duration of the short photography session and my friend sent me a copy of the best photo he took.

My smile was a grimace. I was making a face that said “everything is definitely fine, discounting the large flesh wound that is just outside of the camera’s range.” As I often am, I was incredibly upset by the way I looked. I tried to let it go, but became increasingly distraught as time went on. Eventually, I had to leave my friend’s house because of the intense shame I felt. There would be no Mamma Mia for me- a self-inflicted punishment for being abnormal.

After reflecting on this experience, I came to the conclusion that I deserved more compassion from myself. Difficulty with non-verbal social cues, such as smiling, is incredibly common in the autistic population- even for high-functioning folks like myself. Asking me to smile on cue is like asking a person going through physical rehabilitation to run a marathon.

With practice and self-compassion, I believe that I will eventually be able to perform a smile that I find satisfactory. In the meantime, I hope that you can understand that ASD presents immense challenges to those with the condition, including those with Asperger Syndrome and other forms of high-functioning autism.

TL;DR: Compassion and understanding is the key to making the world a better place for neurodiverse people and neurotypical people. For God’s sake, be kind to each other.