When he was in preschool, freshman Ethan Hirschberg memorized every part of a fire truck including their hundreds of gauges and, his favorite, the deluge gun– which squirts hundreds of gallons of water at a time. He attributed his heightened ability to memorize to his autism.
Autism is a condition defined by the Mayo Clinic as a “developmental disorder that impairs the ability to communicate and interact.” But through his new blog, Hirschberg has done exactly what his condition tells him he cannot do: interact, communicate and tell stories.
I met Hirschberg in the learning commons during homeroom, and each minute we chatted marked a minute closer to a lockdown drill. The announcement interrupted our conversation, and the lights were turned out. We sat there and talked in the dark. Exuding optimism, he excitedly answered each of my questions, engaging me and enabling me to witness his logical and linear way of thinking.
Hirschberg told me about his condition and its idiosyncrasies. And through his experiences with autism, Hirschberg said “I realized that there are also a lot of positives [to having autism], and I can use [the] positives to help out the world and still work on the negative side.”
The positives Hirschberg has focused on, like his ability to focus on his interest in business and mentally perform advanced calculations, have ultimately empowered him in writing a blog titled “The Journey Through Autism.”
His idea of writing a blog emerged from his interest in business. The blog was initially intended to correspond with one of his previous business endeavors, including selling toys overseas through an online platform. Eventually, though, he decided to write about his experiences with autism– something he has first-hand expertise in– for fun.
This marks a milestone in Hirschberg’s willingness to be so open about and proud of having autism. He said before writing the blog, he saw autism as a source of inevitable embarrassment. Hirschberg therefore remained private about the struggles he endured, which included coping with a myriad of stereotypes associated with the condition.
He said before publishing his blog, students at school would pass crude remarks in casual conversations because they were not aware of his condition. In his blog, Hirschberg described a specific occurrence that he sat through in suppressed anger: “Not knowing that I had Autism, [someone] said that stimming [a coping mechanism involving repetition of movement] was ‘a weird thing that retards do.’” Hirschberg said in the interview that when hearing such ignorant and insensitive comments, he has “the ability to keep cool. But in my mind, it’s a whole different story,” he said.
Hirschberg explained that with maturation, he overcame the common misconception that autism is solely a “mountain that…blocks you in the way.” He now sees it as something to take pride in and an opportunity to help others, which he said “keeps [him] going.”
Hirschberg strives to reach out to individuals in different walks of life and educate them about autism— on a personal level. He hopes to support “kids…on the spectrum” and aid parents, teachers, and doctors in their understanding of the condition, enabling them to “learn strategies to help [students with autism].”
On his blog, he makes requests of his growing readership. To his readers with autism, he reassured: “You are not alone. Don’t feel that you are the only one that feels these emotions because that is not true. Other kids struggle like you do!” And, he encourages “‘typical’ kids” who do not suffer from autism to “welcome a special needs kid to eat lunch, have a conversation, or sit with you. Look for those kids who are walking around or sitting by themselves.”
Finally, he urges teachers to “try to arrange friendships and conversations. The last time that a teacher helped me interact with someone was when I met my friend in sixth grade. Just keep in mind that this act can possibly create a friendship that will last a lifetime,” he wrote.
Hirschberg’s blog has boosted his confidence; since he published his first entry in April, he has been inundated with positive feedback from his thousands of readers globally.
Hirschberg described an instance where a mother of a toddler with autism was desperate to explain her son’s condition to his grandmother, who “did not approve [of] or understand” her grandson’s difficulties. Through sharing Hirschberg’s blog, the toddler’s grandmother “understood instantly, just like that.”
The mom told Hirschberg: “I’m grateful for you forever.” Hearing that “was the best feeling in the world,” he said.
Hirschberg mentioned that the array of emotions his blog elicited among readers, ranging from laughter to tears, has been “crazy.” And when I admitted to be one of such readers who teared up, he instantly responded– without hesitation– saying “me too, and I wrote [it].”
Hirschberg plans on continuing writing the blog for as long as he can: “I can keep going; I can keep helping people, and that’s my goal.”