My life with Asperger's Daniel Wendler at TEDxUniversityofArizona
4:58PM Aug 26, 2021
Have you ever had that dream? Where you're back in school? And you're naked? Do you remember the shame the helpless frustration of that dream? When I was growing up, that dream was my life. Not Not that I went to school naked. But but the shame, the frustration, the sense that everybody was against me, that was real
I was seven years old. And I felt like my school was a battleground, where everybody else was on the opposite army. I didn't know why, or how to fix it. That was my life. And this is me. I was kind of awkward. As you may be able to tell. I didn't, I did have a terrible way. My family loved me, I had a couple friends. And when it came to Super Mario Brothers, I was a pretty big deal. 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, I would be friendly and people would be mean to me. I didn't know how to make it work. I had three memories from that time, was that I was walking home from school with my mom and saying, How do you talk to people I don't even know how to talk to people. Another is that I sat down at a lunch table. And every other kid at that table stood up and walked away. me being me, I decided to exploit my newfound power. So I followed them from forcing them to move around the lunch room before I gave up and eat alone. My third memory is coming home from school sabie running into my dad's arms and saying I'm bad, I'm bad, I'm bad. So growing up was tough, elementary school, especially those schools a little bit easier. But I still have a lot of trouble fitting in.
I'm one of the tie.
So it wasn't until high school, when things really started to turn around for me. You see, my parents are great parents, they're in the audience. And so if you're seeing give them a high five, but all parents want to think that their kids are normal. But by this point, my parents had realized that I was marching to a different drummer, or maybe an entirely different orchestra. And so they took me to a psychologist right before I started high school, and I was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, if you haven't heard of it, Asperger syndrome is a neurological condition on the autistic spectrum. And basically, what it does is it made its I was unable to learn social skills naturally, you can think of it this way, if you take a baby, and that baby is born in Japan, that baby's going to learn Japanese just growing up naturally listening to the world around it. Whereas if you take an adult who's never spoken Japanese, and you drop them in the middle of Tokyo, that adults gonna have a much harder time. In the same way. For somebody without Asperger's. People in social people learn social skills naturally, just by observing the world around them. Whereas for somebody with Asperger's, it's like being the adult in a foreign country where you don't speak the language is much, much harder to learn. So when I was diagnosed with this huge epiphany, because remember, I didn't know why I was struggling. But now I understood Oh, it's cuz I don't have social skills. I remember, my psychologist gave me a list of the social skills that people with Asperger's struggle with. So I was like,
Oh, all right,
let's get to work. And so I started studying social skills. I started reading books on body language, conversation, etiquette, you name it, I started watching movies with my parents, where I would pause the movie like 10 times to be like, hey, what just happened in that conversation, hey, I don't understand why this character did that, hey, explain these social cues to me. And I started to get better. And it started to make sense. I started being able to figure out the systems that govern the way that people interact. And I started being able to create metaphors and ideas to help me know how to respond. Like, let's talk about body language, by language fun, you guys should go to the bookstore, pick up a book on by language, it'll tell you all the different things that your body can do. My favorite is that fi signal intent. So somebody is talking to you and the feet are pointing right at you means that they're very focused in on talking with you. Whereas if they're talking to you, and their feet are pointing towards the door that they want to go. And so you should, you should probably let them end the conversation. But body language is also difficult, because there's so many different signals that mean so many different things. Like if you rub your nose, it means that you're uncertain. Whereas if you wrote the back of your neck, it means that you're anxious, similar similar actions, similar meanings, but a little bit different. And so I'd be looking at somebody trying to figure out what all of their body language is saying. And by the time I'd figured it out, the conversation moved on. I completely forgotten what I was supposed to be talking about. This is kind of what it's like to try to figure out okay, I mean, look at this list. What is what are these people feeling? It's really hard to see in just a moment. So what I did Cuz I decided, Okay, let me condense this. And so I took all the body language signals, and I grouped them is just comfort and discomfort. So I decided, all right, I don't need to remember if rubbing your nose means uncertainty or anxiety or indigestion or whatever, I just didn't know that it means that you're not totally comfortable, and maybe something's wrong. And then I can take that. And I can try to figure out what's wrong, so I can fix it. So if I'm talking to you, and I noticed that you start giving off body language signals of discomfort, I can say, All right, let me let me look at the conversation looking environment. Let me see if there's something that I can fix here. Remember, before people will get upset with me, and I wouldn't, I wouldn't know why I would just be talking to somebody and I think this conversation is going great. And then they would blow up, because I missed all the signals. Now I can start to see what was happening, and start to like, adapt. But I still have to learn how to have conversation. And conversation is tough, because there's a lot of conversation books out there. But they all sort of just talk about conversation, tips and tricks, which is not very helpful. It's kind of like if you wanted to learn how to play baseball, and all the books that you read, just told you will keep your eye on the ball. That's not the rules of the game, you're not gonna know how to play. And so I did a lot of study, a lot of practice a lot of thinking through, and I figured out the secret to conversation. When you're ready for it, it's ready, ready to write it down or tweeted, or whatever. conversation
is a sandwich.
Specifically, conversation is like making a sandwich with a friend, where you add an ingredient, and then you pass the sandwich to them, they add an ingredient, they pass the sandwich back to you. I know that you guys probably don't tag team, your sandwich creation. But it's a metaphor. So work with me. Because this is the way that conversation is supposed to work. You add something to the conversation, your thoughts, your ideas, a story. And then you invite the other person to speak by asking them a question or something like that. You're adding the ingredient, and then you're passing the sandwich, then they do the same, they pass it back to you. So now I knew what I was supposed to be doing in conversation. I knew how to keep the conversation flowing, and how to know when I'm supposed to add something. But I still needed to figure out how do I be a good conversation partner? How do I make sure that I'm picking topics that people are interested in? And this was a difficult for me? Because I used to ramble so
up, like somebody would ask me, Well, what did you do today? And I would tell them, all of this was rarely the actual answer that they were looking for. So I had to figure out, Okay, how do I turn it back? How do I avoid rambling? How do I really tell them what they're interested in hearing. And so what I decided, was I developed this technique that I called the creaky door. And it works like this. Let's say you're getting home late, and the door, your front door is old and creaky, you're not going to want to open that door all at once, because it's going to annoy everybody in the house. So you open it a little bit of time, you open a little bit more, and you keep going. Until eventually you got the door all the way open, and you can enter. In the same way. If somebody asked me a question, I would share part of the answer, and then give them an opportunity to ask for more. So if, for instance, somebody asked me what to do this weekend, I could say, Oh, well, I went to the pool. And then I would stop. If they were curious, they could ask me, I would tell them more. And if they weren't, then they wouldn't ask. And we would change the topic and no harm done. So figured out all these different systems for how to interact with people, I had to sort of put it into my own language. I can keep going, I can keep telling you all the different things that I figured out. But as we discussed, I have a tendency to ramble. So I'm gonna cut myself off right there. But the point is this. I started getting better at social skills, I started not being perfect. But being good enough, I started having conversations where I understood the nonverbal signals that were coming my mind, I start being able to make friends and be a part of my friend group. And, guys, I want you to get how incredible this was, for me, like social interaction was something that I struggled with my entire life. But now I learned that it was not a permanent disability. That was something that I could overcome. Like, that was huge. But even more than that, was learning, just the joy of friendship, like for somebody that was on the outskirts his entire life, to be a part of a friend group, to be somebody that people wanted to hang out with. Like, that was so incredible. I think that I realize just how much things have turned around. But I got a phone call from my friend, Mark. And he said, Daniel, let's get the group together to speak and I said, Okay, sounds like a good idea. And then there was sort of like this long pause. And he said, so you're going to organize it right? I had somehow moved from social outcast, to party planner. To be somebody with Asperger's that learn social skills. I mean, you could think about that, like a kid that has terrible eyesight, getting glasses for the first time, but to experience the joy of friends After a lifetime of being on the outskirts, that's like giving the kid glasses and then take into the loop. And so spider man's Uncle Ben says that with great power comes great responsibility. It's a TEDx University event. So we're going to have some highbrow with great power comes great responsibility. And so I had the power to open the door to this new world of friendship, and acceptance, to not have the responsibility to do that.
So what I did was simple, I started looking for the kids that used to be like me, as you're looking for the kids that were weird that
we're different that just didn't quite fit in. I made friends with them. What I found is that those kids were the most incredible friends I had. And I think that was their time on the outskirts that made them so incredible. Like, our culture has this weird thing, where thinks that pain isn't normal, where it thinks that the default state of humanity is just to be happy all the time. And so when you have this pressure to fit in, you also have this pressure to bury your pain and put on a happy face. But when you know that you're not going to fit in, no matter what you do, when you know that you're an outcast, even you if you acknowledge that life is hard, sometimes it gives you the freedom to acknowledge your pain, and then to acknowledge the pain in others. And so it builds compassion. Or you can think of it another way, throw width into the wilderness away from society, because he wanted to live deliberately. When society forces you in the wilderness, it also forces you to live deliberately, you can make choices not based on what's in stock, not based on what's in style, or what your friends think, but just based on who you want to be, and what you want to do. So as I reached out to these people, I found that they were incredible friends, I found that the people that I reached out to
me, they were the people that I needed,
because they were the most stable support me. I'll tell you a story. My freshman year of college, there was a girl who was going through a really hard time one of my friends. And so I really poured myself into trying to support her. And then one day, I get a phone call from home. And it's bad news. Really bad news. I kind of hold it together long enough to get off the phone and I just
Like we're talking tears, we're talking. It was massive. And I'm crying. And I feel overwhelmed. And I look up, and it's my friend that I've been supporting. She helped me and she comforted me and she was exactly the person that I needed in that moment. And guys, it wasn't just that my friends helped me learn. It wasn't just that my friends helped support me, but my friends helped me learn that was okay to support. Because when I first started being social, when I first started pasting acceptance, what that felt like, I became so afraid of rejection, I became terrified that I was going to do something wrong, there was gonna make some kind of CO pa and people are gonna be like, Daniel's an imposter. He's secretly awkward all along, sticks at him. Like, obviously, this is not the most realistic fear. But our greatest fears rarely are they. And so I had so much pressure to always put my best foot forward. But that's really lonely, right, because when you're only putting one foot forward, the rest of yourself is still held back. And so over time, my friends started to show me that they liked me just for me that I didn't have to be the party planner or the shoulder to cry all the time. Like it was okay to just read the annual even if Daniel was awkward, like this the same way they did in college. As you can see, she was very good about creating a space where I felt the freedom to just be me, even if that was really awkward. Or here's some of my dearest friends in a Disneyland teacup because
where else do go with friends.
And so this group, we became so close because our freshman year, we decided that once a week, we would get together and just make time for being real with each other. That time look different every week, sometimes we would discuss a topic, sometimes we would play a game, sometimes we just hang out and enjoy each other. But the only rules that we had to bring our real selves to that hour. And so I brought reel them week after week. And I was met with acceptance week after week, even when real Dan is pretty awesome. And so over time, my friends helped me realize that it was cool that I could be super dad and a social man. It was cool that I learned these social skills and stuff. But I didn't have to be super down with social man all the time. Like it was enough to just be me. And I hope that you guys get that it's enough to just be you like I hope that you get that there are people out there that will like you just the way that you are and that you Stop looking for those people. Because I think ultimately, it's those people that define us. As the people that don't give up on us, it's the people that see The goodness, even when we're pretty hard on ourselves. Like the Proverbs says, that it takes a village to raise a child. But really, we need a village around us every day of our lives. My story is a story of a village. It's not the story of me. It's the story of support that I received early on from my family, when I was struggling. It's the story of the friends that encouraged me. So I could encourage somebody else is the story of the kind words that I got that I could pass on. Ultimately, it's the story of the idea that everybody deserves a place where they belong. Like, when I was seven years old, I ate in the cafeteria alone, because nobody else wanted to sit with me. I tried to sit with them, they would be I think it's safe to say that nobody else in that cafeteria saw you. But I think it's also safe to say that the people in my life that did see value, were the reason why I was able to get to where I was today. Like, I mean, I don't want to brag, but I run a website about social skills that's been visited over 40 million times. The news is on a story on me. I'm kind of giving a TEDx talk about my life right now. I think it's safe to say that there was healthier than me for sure. But I realized that because of people in my life, that let me know. And I realized that I couldn't have done it alone. And guys, the point of my talk was really simple. And it's this. Nobody deserves to be alone. And nobody can really make it alone. So if you are alone, reach out to people. Let people know, if you see somebody else that's alone. When I was seven years old, sitting alone in that cafeteria, I was desperate for somebody to come up to me, I was desperate for somebody to sit down at my table, and let me know that I was worth being friends with. If you had been in that cafeteria with me, if you had seen the kid eating lunch by himself every day, would you have been the one to sit down next? And if your answer is yes, then could you be the one that would sit down next to somebody today? That's in just as much a need of a friend, as I was? Like, could you be the one that would see somebody that everybody else was rejected? and say, I can accept that person? Would you be the one that sees somebody that might be awkward or weird or different? and be able to say, you know what, they might make a really cool thing. And then could you be friends with them? Could you sit down next to them and ask them Hey, could you listen to their story and become a part of it? Honestly, that if you do, you just might find that they become an incredible part of yours.