An “Invisible Barrier”: Is College Any Different? | Organization for Autism Research

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James Taniguchi is a 2016 OAR Scholarship recipient. This is the first post in his series for OAR’s blog.

Many of ­my interpersonal relationships have ended abruptly or in disappointment. Sometimes these experiences make me think there is an “invisible barrier” that constantly surrounds me. Prior to attending college, I had expected to overcome my difficulties with communicating my feelings and emotions to connect with people who I wanted to become friends with. But as I started attending college, I quickly realized my social-communication barrier did not dissolve completely. This culminated in the form of misunderstandings and led to a lack of personal connections. Initially, there were people who were intrigued by my critical thinking, emotional tolerance, or ability to concentrate for hours, and many of my peers were very respectful of the perspectives I had. However, I realized that I was concealing my personal identity to keep up with the surrounding social interactions, perhaps overreaching to create a superficial set of emotional expressions and personalities that were not indicative of my set of beliefs. Usually, I had to over-exaggerate my beliefs and emotional expressions to hide my non-interest or lack of knowledge in topics that were covered in many social conversations. This kind of one-sided interaction eventually ended-up in a dead end, where I felt lonely or left out from disregarding my self-identity to be submissive to social norms. I started to question the definition and meaning of a “friend.” I also questioned whether one’s ability to communicate one’s feelings, beliefs, and aspirations determined the limits to how much a person is accepted as a sociable individual. This became a new wave of existential questioning, as it seemed that I was contemplating an issue that I personally don’t have control over.  

From past episodes of deep questioning revolving around the meaning of social conformity, I have learned to become more self-aware, a capacity to differentiate between people’s external social expectations and my internal set of unique lenses I was born with and matured through. I think that close friendships originate from each individual having high self-awareness, as relationships are formed around mutual respect, trust, and to a certain degree, conformity. For me, self-respect includes accepting the fact that I fall under the autistic spectrum and acknowledging the socio-communication difficulties that come with the neurodevelopmental disorder. Although it took me a while, I realized during college that friendships and trust could not form around manipulating and concealing one’s true values or feelings. Hiding my values and feelings resulted in a downward spiral of self-deception and distrust of others. To this day, I still don’t understand what makes a true friendship. 

So, what about some individuals with autism or other difficulties with social communication and interactions? Are these people predestined to live a life of constantly accommodating themselves to social norms and expectations? Accommodation seems optimistic, yet this might go back to the issue with autistics concealing their personal values in order to be considered functional individuals. This is especially true in post-secondary education and competitive workplaces that demand high interpersonal skills, as autistic individuals may struggle with building long-lasting relationships that will open doors to future opportunities. Autism is still stigmatized as a form of mental illness that makes people unable to function. I experienced backlash after revealing my true identity, and was criticized for being a “special-snowflake” and told that my autism is “barely noticeable.” From my experiences spending time with individuals who had ASD, ADHD, or speech difficulties, I realized that they were suffering from a similar “invisible barrier” that isolated them from the world around them. The neuro-developmental barrier is an obstacle that rarely gets noticed. Becoming self-aware may require accepting these differences as “invisible” drawbacks to being accepted as a functioning individual. Some people may label you as “defective,” but that doesn’t mean it’s true.

In my next post, I am going to talk about potential ways to overcome these barriers during the transition from secondary school to college. I would like to share some of my experiences with social strategies that helped me compensate my social difficulties, without feeling lonely or altering your personal identity to “fit” in the society. As neurological differences mean we process information differently, removing this barrier may seem impossible, since we have little control over how our brains are wired. Instead of re-wiring our brains, I think that autistic individuals can form friendships with neurotypicals using the right social techniques that create a bridge extending over the barrier.

About the Author

James_Taniguchi_headshotJames Taniguchi is a recipient of the 2016 Schwallie Family Scholarship and currently a college sophomore who is pursuing a degree in neuroscience. His verbal language delay became apparent in preschool, and he was diagnosed with PDD-NOS at the age of 6. As an American-born Japanese person living in the Bay Area, he has been traveling to Japan every year since 2001. His hobbies include working in labs, reading research papers, listening to instrumental music, and occasional walks to the beach near his college campus.

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