The man I am: A photo story of Asperger’s Syndrome

Thomas Olrich, 35, was diagnosed with Asperger’s four years ago. He says he always knew he was different. “I knew something was up. I was always upset, always scared. Something was not clicking.”

This the fourth installment of five from Street Roots and photographer Leah Nash on Asperger’s Syndrome. See the first three installments here. Look for the final piece in the up and coming Street Roots on Dec. 23.

The project was made possible in partnership with Street Roots and the Regional Arts & Culture Council in an effort to chronicle the diversity of this complex diagnosis of autism, illustrating the challenges and beauty of an unconventional life.

Thomas poses outside his apartment in the Pearl District with (right to left) his older sister Candice Kramer, her husband Jason Kramer, and their mother Cindy Taylor.

In his own words: Thomas Olrich

Living with Asperger’s is challenging. I have problems talking to people sometimes. Like when I’m trying to express myself it comes out wrong. I don’t understand what people say to me. Like I don’t pick up on verbal cues sometimes. I can’t pick up  on people’s gestures. Like when I talk to people that are not paying attention to me. I talk to them anyways. When people are working hard, I don’t understand that they can’t give me full attention. Having Asperger’s effects my social habits. My mood changes when I talk in social gatherings and I talk less. Having Asperger’s, I feel very alone sometimes and always feel vulnerable. I also feel ripped off. Asperger’s throws me curve balls. It makes everyday normal tasks like speaking,learning, and understanding harder.

Asperger’s upsets me, but I go a different route. I learn in steps and need structure to succeed. My family circle helps me find structure. My sister and brother-in-law helped me to become the successful man I am today. Having a job at Goodwill gives me structure, too. I also have really good medical care. My sweet pad in the Pearl is good for me, too! I’m bettering myself every day.

Thomas lives alone in low-income housing in the Pearl District in Northwest Portland. He pays $562 a month in rent.

Thomas says he has daily, “fits,” which is when his anxiety flares up and, as he puts it, “My Asperger’s runs away with me a bit.” The fits make him feel anxious, needy and vulnerable and can be caused by anything stress-related, from a school paper, to an over-crowded ride on the MAX or even messing up at karaoke. But Thomas is learning to control his anxiety and knows that the feeling is fleeting, “Those things suck, I try to check them at an hour because I don’t want to mess up my whole day.”

Thomas has been on and off pills since he was 18, but says he has faithfully been taking medication for four years with good results.

Thomas’ routine includes weekly family dinners with his sister Candice, and her husband Jason. His sister, he says, is a huge part of his support system.

Thomas’ routine includes weekly family dinners with his sister Candice, and her husband Jason.

“My sister is the backbone of the family. Our mom and dad would always fight and so she became a parent (to me) at age 16. I think that’s why she is so successful and strong. She says she learns things from me all day long, every day. I just don’t get what she learns.” — Thomas Olrich

Thomas has worked at the Goodwill for about a year, his first real job ever, where he makes about $360 a month working 15 hours a week. “I feel privileged that I am part of society rather than sitting on my ass not doing anything. It’s great having a job and my own money,” says Thomas, who loves the responsibility, structure and the fact he learns something new every day.

Thomas got his high school diploma is 1995 and now takes Adult Basic Education classes at Portland Community College to improve his reading comprehension. For his future he is focused on having more adult responsibilities, having a credit card, and maybe a better apartment and a computer.

Thomas says that although he has never had a girlfriend, he is trying to find the right person. “My condition is kind of holding me back. I think it is something that scares off people I like, relationship-wise. I don’t know how to do it.” Here Thomas contemplates asking a girl to dance at a Mt. Scott Community Dance, a monthly event for people with disabilities.

Thomas with his counselor at the dance.

One of Thomas’ special interests is semi-precious stones which he has been collecting for the past two years, “That’s my baby, I’ve sunk a lot of money into it. At first I was really manic about it because I had to get only one particular rock. It’s nice because every rock has a story behind it.” Thomas estimates that he has spent between $500 and $1000 on his passion.

“I’m a real human being with a learning disability. I’m human, I make mistakes, but I’ve come so far. Five years ago I was living in squalor and didn’t give a crap about no one. I actually was obsessive and manic. I was a no man, I was greedy and only wanted ‘me-time’. Now, I’m learning about life. I went from a zero to a hero. I had to grow up, but maturity was a bitch for me. Now I’m a big time success story. I used to be scared of failure. But what’s the worst of it? All you can do is try again.”

Catching the snowflake: A photo story of Asperger’s (Part one). 

The comfort of acceptance: A photo story of Asperger’s (Part two)

Pretending to be normal: A photo story of Asperger’s (Part three)

About this series:

Autism is the fastest growing disability in the U.S. with an economic impact of more than $90 billion. The Center for Disease Control reports that now one in 110 children are being classified with autism spectrum disorders, compared to one in 10,000 in the 1970s, and according to the Autism Society of Oregon, our state has one of the highest rates of autistic diagnosis in the country.

First documented in 1944, many with Asperger´s Syndrome can be quite gifted, but are often socially awkward and unable to make friends. Frequently misunderstood, those affected live in a world of missed social cues and difficult exchanges. Called “little professors” by their namesake, Hans Asperger, who noted their talent of acquiring expertise in specific topics. Those with the syndrome usually want to fit in and have interactions; they simply don’t know how.

The objective of this series is to explore the diversity and complexity that exists across this spectrum, for it is often said that people with autism are like snowflakes — no two alike. This work is especially relevant given controversial revisions proposing to do away with the Asperger’s diagnosis altogether in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the diagnostic encyclopedia of American psychiatry.

As history changes, a record must be kept, these stories must be told. Through the support of Street Roots and the Regional Arts & Culture Council, the goal of this series is to encourage viewers to question their perceptions of both Asperger´s and autism and challenge themselves to gain a deeper understanding of the people behind the label.

Please join us as we give a voice to those that often have none.

Leah Nash is a documentary photographer based in Portland. More of her work can be found at www.LeahNash.com.

The project was made possible in partnership with the Regional Arts & Culture Council in an effort to chronicle the diversity of this complex diagnosis of autism, illustrating the challenges and beauty of an unconventional life.

7 responses to “The man I am: A photo story of Asperger’s Syndrome

  1. Pingback: Pretending to be normal: A photo story of Asperger’s Syndrome | For those who can’t afford free speech

  2. Pingback: Catching the Snowflake: A photo story of Asperger’s Syndrome (Part one) | For those who can’t afford free speech

  3. Pingback: The Comfort of Acceptance: A photo story of Asperger’s Syndrome (Part Two) | For those who can’t afford free speech

  4. Pingback: New Found Aspirgations: A photo story of Asperger’s Syndrome | For those who can’t afford free speech

  5. Pingback: Special Report: Photo stories of Asperger’s Syndrome | For those who can’t afford free speech

  6. Marilyn Vidergar

    Thank you for this photo series re The Man I am. My son, age 45, was just diagnosed with Asperger’s and we appreciate all the info. we can get. I don’t know much about websites, facebook, etc. but please keep sending e-mails. Thank you. Marilyn Vidergar

  7. Thomas lived with Candice and me when we were all much younger. I’m so glad to see that they are all doing well.

    Alex

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