Q&A Interview Life with Asperger Syndrome
Asperger Syndrome, or Asperger's, is a form of autism that affects the way people see the world and interact with others. It's a developmental disability which cannot be 'cured', and although it can cause many difficulties and obstacles, people with Asperger's also tend to be of higher than average intelligence.
Those with Asperger's often display highly-focused interests and passions, which can turn out to be fundamental to their well-being.
Elliot Stronza, who lives with Asperger's Syndrome, discovered that filmmaking was a great way to share his experiences with this condition. Here, he gives us some insight into his life and speaks about his short film 'Comfort Zone'. Commissioned as a result of a partnership between the Arts Council England and Channel 4, which works with and develops 16-24 year old filmmakers through a national initiative known as First Acts, 'Comfort Zone' explores what it's like to live with Asperger's. Find out more about First Acts here.
Elliot, what inspired you to make your short film 'Comfort Zone'?
Well, I originally came up with the idea at a presentation that some of the Random acts members were giving at my university in Norwich. I recall them saying that they were looking for ideas that were unconventional in the stories they told, and in the ways that they told them. I remember the first image that came to me while thinking of ideas, which would eventually lead to me coming up with Comfort Zone, was just an empty white space which housed a strange floating gassy cloud with a singular red eye (which would become known as ‘The Entity’). Something about this image really struck a chord with me and I tried thinking of ways I could work it into a story, but then I had the idea that maybe I could use the film as an interesting way of presenting some of the struggles I’ve gone through growing up with Asperger’s, as there's almost nothing else I’m more familiar with and more passionate about. My work and fascination with animation was also a big inspiration for the film. My love for creating the illusion of motion through the medium, lead to me wanting to express the narrative of the film almost entirely through movement and body language, as I wanted to see how much I could convey to the viewer without using dialogue.
In what ways did creating this film help you to express yourself?
I think the film mostly gave me an opportunity to show people how the world can sometimes be interpreted through my eyes, in a way that would have been more difficult to do with other methods, thanks to the minimalistic style of the film and the contrast between the calm and intense scenes.
What’s the biggest struggle for you on a day-to-day basis?
One of the reasons I believe I’m so fascinated with body language and how it conveys emotion is the fact that, because of my condition, there have been times when I’ve found it rather difficult to read someone’s body language and even their voice - it has been difficult at times to tell what people are thinking or feeling. I have moments when I get anxious around people I’ve never met, as I’m constantly worried about what I’m saying and how I'm physically expressing myself. I often worry about whether I’ve done something wrong. I get concerned that I'm becoming overly fidgety and mostly, I worry about what conversations I can strike up with new people. The fact that I over think these things on occasion, leads to me becoming too afraid to actually talk to someone about it, although I have in time learnt to cope with this better, thanks to my friends and help I received as a child early on.
What are the positive aspects of having Asperger’s?
I think the fact that my brain interprets information in a different way to other people I know, gives me an interesting view of the world around me and that can be a very useful thing to have, because it can potentially show an unconventional way of interpreting a situation or a new way of fixing a problem. In my work as a creative, I think this certainly gives me an advantage in certain areas, as the strange ways I can interpret the world can help when trying to come up with interesting stories to tell, and it really helps me to constantly stay creative and full of ideas. Something I always see associated with Asperger’s is a tendency to be very repetitive and get really obsessed with certain activities. While I can certainly see this as potentially being negative in particular parts of life, I also think this can be an incredibly useful thing, as when I get attached to something, I know that I’m constantly going to love doing it and I’m going to give it my all, no matter what.
What’s the biggest misconception about Asperger’s?
Personally, I think the biggest misconception is that people think just because someone has Asperger’s or a similar condition, they have no desire to interact with other people and don’t like forming connections with people. The fact is, while all these people do have the same condition, they are all still different people, and if there's one thing I’ve seen, it’s that these things affect different people in different ways.
I’ve seen people who, unlike the way I can sometimes close myself off in social situations, are always interacting with others and constantly telling people about the things they love, to the point where they have no self-filter. I can imagine some less-informed people would perceive this as being rather rude, but there is no bad intention - they are only trying to express themselves the best way they can. I think a big reason for this misconception is the fact that, at first glance, it may not be entirely obvious that someone has Asperger’s. If someone tries to interact with them, they may initially get the impression that they are just anti-social or rather impolite, when really the person with the condition may just not know what to say, may be overwhelmed by the situation, or may just not realise that something they say has come off as rude.
Do you have any advice for anyone else with Asperger’s Syndrome?
You may feel like no one understands you, and you may also be afraid of opening yourself up to other people because you think trying to talk to them is terrifying, and you’re afraid of being embarrassed. If there’s anything that I could say to someone who’s going through a similar experience to what I was going through when I was growing up, or anyone who is still coming to terms with this condition, it’s this:
Firstly, remember that everyone you meet has their own outlook on the world, they are all going through their own struggles and they are all as complicated as you are. If you learn things about others, you may be surprised about how relatable your troubles are. Opening yourself up to others can be scary, but that’s also how the best friendships start. You might find that someone has the same hobbies as you - hobbies you might be embarrassed by - and suddenly those hobbies aren’t so embarrassing anymore, because you’re enjoying them with others. Never be ashamed of who you are. Yes, there may be times when you find yourself feeling awkward, but trust me, it’s something that everyone will go through at some point in their life. It can feel like life’s just a constant chain of uncomfortable events, but that’s how we grow as people. If you keep going, you’ll eventually find people like you, you’ll eventually find something you want to dedicate your life too, and then you can look back at those moments of embarrassment and have a great story to tell. Don’t be afraid to be yourself. If you want some time to yourself, don’t be scared to do so. We all need time to recharge - even some of the people I know who don’t have any conditions will tell you that they need a break once in a while for some quality alone time.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline?
I recently graduated from university, so at the moment I’m going through the rather terrifying process of job hunting, but I’m excited for the future and whatever it holds. I’m also in the process of brainstorming some ideas for short films I can do in my spare time to help keep me creative.
Elliot on what 'normal' means to him
"When I was young and still suffering from some rather bad self-esteem, I saw 'normal' as everything I wish I was. I wanted to be able to easily talk to everyone, have confidence, be in great shape, be talented, and always appear as a friendly person. As I grew up, however, I realised that someone with all of those qualities was probably just as weird and uncommon as I was! Do I consider myself 'normal' when I now think about the meaning of this word? No, I don’t think I am, but I think that’s a good thing - in my eyes, that's a lot more interesting and to be honest, more fun!"