Before the school year even started, I was convinced it was going to be uncomfortable. I didn’t know a lot about this guy I’d be living with, but I knew he was…different.
When my freshman year ended, I unexpectedly found myself looking for a new roommate. With the deadline fast approaching, I soon realized I might be stuck with a stranger.
So, I attended a roommate meet and greet on campus. When I walked into the room, there were only a few girls there, looking for someone to round out their apartment. A Residence Life Director was in the corner on his phone.
I sat there feeling alone, but soon I wasn’t.
Zach was unassuming and innocent-looking. At the meet and greet, it was clear he felt just as alone as I did, so I sympathized with him immediately. He sat down next to me, and quickly I whipped up a conversation. It was pretty much one way; he was sick at the time, did a lot of coughing, and didn’t say much. The one question he asked me was, “Do you like heavy metal music?” I felt it was an odd litmus test for a prospective roommate, but I politely answered, “No, not really.”
Understanding that we were in the same situation, Zach and I paired up, and left the meet and greet as new roommates.
Upon my return to campus in the fall, I felt more uncomfortable than I did entering my freshman year; and I assumed Zach felt the same.
It wasn’t until this point, after our initial meeting, that I learned Zach had autism. I remember when he told me, it just came up casually in conversation. I was surprised at how he talked about the subject with such ease.
Zach describes it as a mild form of Asperger’s Syndrome. More specifically, he’s diagnosed with Persuasive Developmental Disorder not otherwise specified, or PDD-nos.
For a little while I felt a bit uncomfortable. Will something I say upset him? If I turn out the light, will it bother him? What if I turn on the TV, will the sound upset him?
But it was Zach who settled my general uneasiness.
“It’s nothing I can change,” Zach said. “So, if you cannot change it, then, well... embrace it.”
Like Zach said, he embraces who he is. By the time he revealed to me that he was asexual, we had developed an open and honest relationship. His sexuality made him different from anyone I had ever known, but in a good way.
Zach helped me gain a better understanding of the daily struggles faced by someone with an autism disorder as well as the challenges for members of the LGBTQIA community. Again, he embraces it as part of his unique identity.
“If I were to change any part of myself, would the new me be worthy of the title, Zachary Newman?,” said Zach.
He’s right; if he were to try and conform to societal norms, he’d be a different person altogether.
While on the surface there seemed to be a lot of differences between Zach and I, we overcame them. In fact, as the year went on, we learned from one another. In college, some of the most important lessons you learn aren’t the ones found in a textbook, but the ones you discover through the connections you make with people.
It wasn’t always easy. Living with someone on the autism spectrum can be trying at times. But in reality, it wasn’t any different from having to adjust to living with any other roommate.
Kenneth Stratton is a junior journalism major and political science minor at Western New England University from Southwick, Massachusetts.
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