Sunday, October 4, 1998 NEWSDAY:
Autism Talk Focuses on Lives Fulfilled
By Steven Kreytak. STAFF WRITER
Erik Schissel is considered brilliant by most of the people he
meets. He holds an undergraduate math degree from Princeton and a
master's in the same subject from Cornell. But at 29, the Roslyn native
estimates his annual income is only about $5,000 a year because he only
holds part-time jobs as a bookkeeper and a computer instructor.
Schissel wants to work as a computer programmer - a position
somebody with his credentials should easily attain - but his career
development has been slowed by Asperger's Syndrome, an emotional
disorder similar to high-functioning autism, which impairs his ability
to interact socially.
The disorder affects his ability to hold a job by limiting his
comprehension of simple social norms. "I don't really look you in the
eye, for instance . . . I took a while to learn that there are things
that you don't say," Schissel said, explaining that "things that you
shouldn't have to be told" like recognizing the subordinate / supervisor
relationship or even not knowing the time or place to tell everyone when
he has a blister on his foot, have tripped him up in the past.
Yesterday, Schissel, who now lives in Ithaca, and about 100 others,
some of them with similar disorders, and many of their family members
met at Roslyn High School to share some common experiences with each
other and gain some promise through an autistic guest speaker who has
Advocates for Individuals with High Functioning Autism, Asperger's
Syndrome and other Pervasive Developmental Disorders sponsored the
lecture by Islip native Jerry Newport, who lived a life trying to fit in
with high-functioning autism. The 49-year-old - who informed a
visitor at about noon yesterday that he was 1,581,724,800 seconds old
- came to Roslyn to tell others with his disorder that being yourself
is just fine.
"I want to give them a reason to look forward to life. I want them
to stop apologizing for who they are," said Newport, who lives in Los
Angeles and works as a financial assistant with UCLA Medical Center.
"They are going to live in a world that's never going to understand what
they are all about, but that's okay."
The group members said they relished the opportunity to meet the man
whose story - which they've learned about over the Internet and on
television shows like "60 Minutes" - has inspired them to keep
plugging in a life that often appears against them.
Newport is a math wizard who graduated at the top of his class while
constantly battling the "quirkiness" that set him apart from his peers.
He has slowly learned to socialize without being obsessive, to talk
sports or numbers without drawing on his endless collection of knowledge
for hours. He is now living a "fulfilling" life, touring the country
and speaking to others like him.
"I want them to be happy with who they are and get out and live
life. It took me until I was 46 to get married, but at least I did it.
It might take them longer to reach their their goals, but that's okay,"
Newport said. "Play the hand you were dealt and there's a big enough pot
in the game of life that you're going to win your share of hands."
Copyright 1998, Newsday Inc.
Autism Talk Focuses on Lives Fulfilled., pp A34.