This post is by Eric Kirschner, an adult with autism who was recently hired as a media intern at Autism Speaks. This post is part of an initiative on our site called “In Our Own Words: Living on the Spectrum,” which highlights the experiences of individuals with autism from their perspectives. Have a story you want to share? Email us at InOurOwnWords@autismspeaks.org!
My name is Eric Kirschner, and I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at the age of 13. At that point, I realized that some things in my life may be a little different than I had expected. Doctors told my parents that it may be best to lower their expectations a bit about what I realistically would be able to achieve with this condition. They said it would be difficult for me to go away to a four-year university and live on my own. This news devastated me at first because it meant that my childhood dream of living and succeeding in New York City would not become a reality. But soon after this crushing feeling had passed, I told myself that I would not let other people’s opinions keep me from achieving my dreams and I would not accept “No” or “You can’t do it.” No matter what.
Reflecting back on my Asperger’s diagnosis, not only was I given motivation, but I finally found out what was different about me. Growing up, the only real friends I had were my neighborhood friends. All I ever wanted in elementary and middle school was to have more friends and even a girlfriend. I just wanted to fit in and be liked, but instead I was a lonely outsider known as the “shy kid.” A significant moment occurred after these rough years when my parents decided to enroll me in a small private school called “American Heritage.” I can truly say this changed my life forever because all the teachers and students were so welcoming. For the first time in my life, I was actually encouraged by my peers and felt comfortable. I joined the basketball team and continued to get involved and make new friends, including my first girlfriend! I had finally broken out of my shell, and have never looked back. Becoming comfortable around others in a more welcoming environment, along with getting answers through my diagnosis as to why I felt a little different, provided me with invaluable confidence and knowledge at that pivotal point in my life. I had a better idea of what my challenges were and knew I had the power to beat them. Today, I can proudly say that I have numerous friends and feel comfortable socializing with everyone.
Ten years have now passed since I was told I have Asperger’s syndrome. I’ve worked extra hard to overcome the obstacles and change the behaviors typically associated with Asperger’s. Over the course of this last decade, one of my goals was to not only prove those doctors who doubted me wrong by living on my own and graduating from a four-year university, but to do it with flying colors. This determination helped me become a graduate of the Pace University Class of 2013. I earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication Studies with a minor in Marketing. Although I do feel a great sense of accomplishment from earning this Bachelor’s degree, I would have been disappointed if I had not pushed myself to seek additional opportunities both on campus and in the city. During my college experience, I was an Orientation Leader to new students as well as a Peer Leader to underclassmen. I also volunteered at the Learning Disabilities Association of New York City, in addition to interning at the New York Stock Exchange and the Metropolitan Transit Authority.
I am so honored to say I am the recipient of the nationwide 2014 Shriver-Kennedy Award for Academic Achievement, which is given to only one person each year in the United States. Not only did I speak at the award ceremony about my story and how I overcame the challenges of Asperger’s syndrome to have a successful college experience, but I have made presentations at schools throughout New York City. My mission in these presentations is to inspire belief in younger children with Asperger’s and their parents that it is more than possible to have a normal, even incredible experience in college and in life.
At 23 years old, I am living my dream in the bright lights of New York City. I’m proud to say I have Asperger’s syndrome, as it has helped shape the man I am today. I am currently interning in the media department at Autism Speaks. I hope to make life-changing impacts on thousands of kids and adults on the spectrum and become a motivational speaker someday. I have genuine confidence in myself and I know that others out there like me can achieve anything they set their minds to. I truly believe that people on the spectrum are some of the brightest individuals in our society and can offer so much in the workforce and in life. My advice to anyone on the spectrum is to “never give up and reach for the stars.”