Like millions of New Yorkers, I commute on the Long Island Railroad. In many ways, my trip is an easy one. My home is within walking distance of the Douglaston Station of the Port Washington line, which makes getting into Manhattan a breeze, mainly because this train has one of the most reliable schedules in the LIRR system. Furthermore, I arrive at nearly all of my Manhattan destinations by way of Penn Station, which makes going home an easy task. However, my commute is complicated by one seemingly insignificant problem in my genetic makeup — I have Asperger’s syndrome.
For those who may have missed the recent spate of movies and books addressing it, Asperger’s is one of the autism spectrum disorders or ASDs. Like all ASDs, the symptoms of Asperger’s vary from person to person, and may include problems with sensory overload; poor social awareness involving personal habits and interactions with others; difficulty concentrating; the inability to discern speech patterns and non-verbal communication; and the inability to deal with changes in routines. Though I’ve probably had this disorder my whole life, I didn’t become aware of it until I was 16.
So how does having Asperger’s affect my commute by train? For me, the symptoms manifest themselves most when there is a change in my routine — such as when the train deviates from its printed schedule.
It used to be excruciating for me whenever I was late because of track work, or when the train had to stop mid-journey because two trains were occupying a single track. For most people, it may seem relatively insignificant whether a train arrives exactly where it should, exactly when it should; but when you have Asperger’s, delays are intolerable and can lead to anxiety and outbursts. And because there is usually no one person responsible for the delays, my frustration can end up being directed toward anyone. I still remember a few years back, when my train stopped between the Auburndale and Bayside stations for nearly an hour. To cope with my aggravation, I ended up walking up and down the length of the car, snarling at anyone who approached me.
The problem of maintaining my routine becomes even more of an ordeal when I choose to dine on the train, usually at the end of the day. Even though Asperger’s is not the same as obsessive compulsive disorder, I know that I have demonstrated symptoms of it in my eating rituals: I don’t start eating until we pull out of Penn Station; I can’t have the meal more than half finished before presenting my ticket to the conductor; and the meal cannot be finished until I’ve gotten past Woodside. Oh, and the dining process must be carried out across an entire row of seats. This last part is so important that I have been known to pace the length of the train, searching for a vacant row that will support crucial detail.
Maybe all of these things sound like minor inconveniences. But these nuisances have quickly escalated to major issues when I have occasionally forced my position on innocent passengers, to my own detriment. One night, a couple of years back, I was on my way home, having picked up my dinner at McDonald’s. I had gotten on to the train, just a couple of minutes before it pulled out of Penn Station, and consequently was having trouble locating an empty row. I felt myself getting more and more fed up as I passed through one car after another. Finally, I took out my anger by yelling at a group of passengers near the corner of the train car, before sitting down. I don’t remember what exactly I said, but evidently I was intimidating enough that one of the passengers spoke to a conductor. That conductor walked over to my seat and told me that he was going to have to call the police. This scared me into timidity, and I begged and pleaded with the conductor to the point where he reluctantly acquiesced and let me go.
This taught me an important lesson: Never get angry with people on the train. I do sometimes still get frustrated with security guards, conductors and the occasional fast food vendor at Penn Station. I started to make significant progress in overcoming this issue when, two and a half years ago, I began seeing a therapist entirely for the purposes of anger management. For years, I had been resistant to any change in my position that I was right and that my nemesis, the LIRR, was wrong. On some level, I knew how unreasonable this was, but I maintained it for a long period regardless. Like many people with Asperger’s, when I reached my 20s, I began to achieve a greater understanding of how the world works, rather than only considering my own point of view. I believe that the progression of the syndrome, combined with the therapy, has enabled me to get to the point that I no longer have outbursts on the Long Island Railroad
.Of course, that doesn’t mean I’m “cured” and I still follow the same routine on the train as much as possible. But I don’t think of it is as a dangerous place anymore. And to me, that feels like a victory.
(David Morris received his bachelor’s of arts/science in 2002 from Adelphi University. He is pursuing his goal of working in journalism or publishing with the help of YAI/NIPD’s Employment Initiatives Department.)